|Date of premiere 1959|
|Genre Sketch comedy
Location Chicago, Illinois, United States
Founded 16 December 1959, Chicago, Illinois, United States
Headquarters Chicago, Illinois, United States
Founders Bernard Sahlins, Paul Sills, Howard Alk
The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise, best known as the first ever on-going improvisational theater troupe based in Chicago. It also has programs that run out of Toronto and Los Angeles. The Second City Theatre opened on December 16, 1959 and has since become one of the most influential and prolific comedy theatres in the world.
- Andrew Alexander
- The Second City on film
- The Second City Touring Company
- Fiftieth anniversary
- The Second City Training Center and Harold Ramis Film School
- The Parents School
- Audio Recordings
- Other influences
The Second City has produced television programs in both the United States and Canada including SCTV, Second City Presents, and Next Comedy Legend. Since its debut, the Second City has consistently been a starting point for comedians, award winning actors, directors, and others in show business such as Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Cecily Strong and John Candy among many others.
The Second City chose its self-mocking name from the title of an article about Chicago by A. J. Liebling that appeared in The New Yorker in 1952. In 1959, the first Second City revue show premiered at 1842 North Wells Street, and the company moved a few blocks south, to 1616 North Wells, in 1967. Bernard Sahlins, Howard Alk and Paul Sills, son of teacher Viola Spolin, founded the theater as a place where scenes and story were created improvisationally, using techniques that grew out of the innovative techniques Spolin developed and taught, later known as Theater Games, with Sills as its director. The cabaret theater, comedy style of the Second City tended towards satire and commentary of current social norms and political figures and events.
In 1961, the theater sent a cast to Broadway with the musical revue, From the Second City, directed by Sills and earning a Tony nomination for ensemble member Severn Darden. Eventually, the theater expanded to include three touring companies and a second resident company, and now fosters a company devoted to outreach and diversity. The style of comedy has changed with time, but the format has remained constant. Second City revues feature a mix of semi-improvised and scripted scenes with new material developed during unscripted improv sessions after the second act, where scenes are created based on audience suggestions.
A number of well-known performers began careers as part of the historic troupe and later moved to television and film. In 1973, Second City opened a theater in Toronto. By the mid-1970s, both venues became a source of cast members for Saturday Night Live and SCTV, which borrowed many of the writing and performing techniques pioneered by Second City and other improv groups. In 1983, the adjoining e.t.c. theater became the second resident stage in Old Town, Chicago location, handling overflow crowds and increasing the number of resident company members. Co-founder Bernard Sahlins owned the theater company until 1985, before selling it to Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart.
Along with its theaters, training centers, and television shows, Second City also produces improv and sketch shows for Norwegian Cruise Line. In the 2000s, Second City began producing "theatrical" shows, bringing their brand of social and political satire to regional theaters around the country in revues that featured sketches written for and about each location, including Phoenix, Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, and Louisville.
Second City Television, or SCTV, was a Canadian television sketch comedy show offshoot from the Toronto troupe of the Second City and ran from 1976 to 1984.
The basic premise of SCTV was modeled on a television station in the fictional city of Melonville. Rather than broadcast the usual TV rerun fare, the business, run by the greedy Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty) sitting in a wheelchair only to gain sympathy and leverage in business and staff negotiations, operates a bizarre and humorously incompetent range of cheap local programming. The range included a soap opera called "The Days of the Week"; game shows such as "Shoot at the Stars", in which celebrities literally are shot at in similar fashion to targets in a shooting gallery; and movie spoofs such as "Play it Again, Bob" in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) attempts to entice Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to star in his next film. In-house media melodrama also was satirized by John Candy's vain, bloated variety star character Johnny La Rue, Thomas's acerbic critic Bill Needle and Andrea Martin's flamboyant, leopard-skin clad station manager Mrs. Edith Prickley, Catherine O'Hara's washed-up, alcoholic, narcissist former leading-lady Lola Heatherton, and Flaherty's overly effusive talk show host, Sammy Maudlin. Martin Short originated his dorky Ed Grimley character here, which he later brought to Saturday Night Live.
Andrew Alexander took the reins of Second City Toronto in 1974 and formed a partnership with Len Stuart in 1976, starting The Second City Entertainment Company. Its first television production was SCTV. Alexander co-developed and executive produced over 185 half-hour shows for the award-winning comedy series, and produced over 150 hours of award-winning television comedy. Alexander has had co-production deals with MGM Television, Imagine Films, Disney Studios and United Artists, and has developed television programming for CBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, and A&E. He has produced movies and television with such notable talents as John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Hunt, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, James Belushi, George Wendt, Edward Asner, Andrea Martin, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
In 1985, Alexander and Stuart became owners of Chicago's Second City. He has produced or executive produced over 200 Second City revues in Canada and the United States. Most recently, Alexander has expanded The Second City TV & Film Division with offices in Los Angeles and Toronto and was executive producer on the recently released feature film Intern Academy.
He serves on the Columbia College Board of Trustees, is Chair of the Gilda's Club Honorary Board (Toronto), and is also an Honorary Member of the Chicago Gilda's Club Board.
Alexander has received numerous awards including The Canadian Comedy Awards’ Chairman’s Award, Gilda’s Magic Award from Gilda’s Club, The League of Chicago Theater’s 2009 Artistic Leadership Award and named 2009 Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Tribune.
As of 2014, the Second City has been awarded thirty-seven Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards, which have recognized them for Best Revue five times, the first being Paradigm Lost (1997). The revue’s director, Mick Napier, is one of several directors recognized by the Jeffs, a list that includes founder Bernard Sahlins (for 1983’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear) and improv guru Del Close (1981’s Miro, Miro on the Wall). Sixteen alumni have received Jeff Awards for their performances in Second City revues, including David Pasquesi (The Gods Must Be Lazy, 1989), Scott Adsit (Paradigm Lost, 1997), Jackie Hoffman (Disgruntled Employee Picnic, 1993), Shelley Long (Wellsapoppin, 1977), and Nia Vardalos (Whitewater for Chocolate, 1994), with Rachel Dratch and Keegan-Michael Key each being honored twice.
In 2009, as the company was celebrating its 50th year, the Second City was awarded an honorary Jeff for the milestone, as well as three awards for the e.t.c.' s 33rd revue Studs Terkel's Not Working, recognizing director Matt Hovde and actress Amanda Blake Davis and naming it Best Revue. In 2011, the e.t.c.'s 35th revue Sky's the Limit (Weather Permitting) won the Jeff for Best New Work (Musical or Revue), as well Best Revue and Best Actor, for ensemble member Tim Baltz. The following year, the e.t.c.'s 36th revue We're All In This (Room) Together won for Best Revue and Best Director of a Revue (Ryan Bernier), while ensemble member Edgar Blackman took home the Jeff for Best Actor/Actress in a Revue for his work in Who Do We Think We Are? on the Second City mainstage. In 2013, the Jeff Awards awarded Best Production: Revue to a Second City show not housed at the venue on Wells Street, The Second City Guide to Opera, a collaboration with the Lyric Opera of Chicago that had been initiated by soprano and Lyric creative consultant Renée Fleming, with Best Director: Revue going to Billy Bungeroth.
Toronto's Second City mainstage troupe has won ten Canadian Comedy Awards: Best Improv Troupe (2001), Best Sketch Troupe (2001, 2006 and 2009), and Best Comedic Play winners Family Circus Maximus (2002), Psychedelicatessen (2003), Facebook of Revelations, Barack to the Future (2009), 0% Down, 100% Screwed (2010) and Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes (2011).
The Second City on film
The Second City Touring Company
Created in 1967 as a way to increase the talent pool, the initial Touring Company, featuring Ramis, Doyle-Murray and Flaherty, was tested on the road for two years before taking the stage as The Next Generation after the mainstage ensemble was sent to perform in New York. The Touring Company continued to perform greatest hit shows on the road, and in 1982, with the assistance of producer Joyce Sloane (and without Sahlins's knowledge) they staged an original revue in what would become the theater's second stage, the Second City e.t.c.
In December 2009, the theater celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a weekend of panels and performance which featured many prominent alumni, including an SCTV reunion show starring Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, and Dave Thomas. Other notable alumni returning to participate included Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Jeff Garlin, Jack McBrayer, James Belushi, Dan Castellaneta, Amy Sedaris, Ian Gomez, Richard Kind, Robert Klein, Fred Willard, David Rasche, Betty Thomas, and George Wendt, as well as original cast member Mina Kolb, Compass Player Shelley Berman, and founders Bernard Sahlins and Sheldon Patinkin.
The Second City Training Center and Harold Ramis Film School
The Second City Training Center was founded in the mid-1980s to facilitate the growing demand for workshops and instruction from the world famous Second City theatre. Training Centers are located in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles. The Training Centers have grown substantially since the Second City Conservatory was established in the mid-1980s under the tutelage of longtime Chicago improv instructors and mentors Martin de Maat and Sheldon Patinkin. The Chicago Training Center has over 5,000 students in several disciplines, including improvisation and comedy writing. Former Training Center students include Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Bonnie Hunt, Stephen Colbert, Halle Berry, Sean Hayes, Amy Sedaris, Jon Favreau, Hinton Battle, Jack McBrayer, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald. Classes are taught by working professionals, many of whom are current and former Second City performers. In 2007, the Comedy Studies program was created, as a collaboration with Chicago's Columbia College, which provides students with an immersion in "all aspects of the study of comedy and improvisation" In 2016, the Training Center expanded to include the Harold Ramis Film School, dedicated to comedy in filmmaking. The Second City Training Centers currently operate under the leadership of Kerry Sheehan, President, The Second City Training Centers and Education Programs.
The Parents School
In the early years of the Second City and Game Theater, several parents and Lincoln Park community members—including Carol and Paul Sills and Mona and Dennis Cunningham—started a progressive school for their children, based on Viola Spolin's Theater Games techniques and philosophy with her son Paul Sills' refinements. Theater Games were gaining recognition and are now incorporated in Drama Therapy, Play Therapy and are used as an educational tool. Early Second City and Game Theater members, as well as some Old Town and Lincoln Park community members, were closely involved, including the Sillses and Cunninghams, Viola Spolin, Joyce and Byrne Piven, John Schultz, Mel Spiegel, and Beverly Gold. The highly progressive curriculum included daily theater games, and some students went on to careers in entertainment. Briefly at the original Old Town theater site at the intersection of Clark, Wells, and Lincoln Avenue, the school moved to several locations in Lincoln Park before it closed in the mid-1970s.
In 1971, The Players Workshop was Chicago's only official school of Improvisation for over a decade. Although it was never officially a part of The Second City cabaret theater, The Players Workshop was often referred to as Players Workshop Of The Second City, due to the school's close affiliation with the famous sketch comedy stage.