Look at any major comedic film or TV show from the last few decades, and you’ll find an alumnus of The Second City—the infamous improv enterprise based out of the Windy City. John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey all cut their teeth at what has become, over the past 55 years, a powerhouse institution for comedy. To celebrate this anniversary, Second City has taken to the road, playing their greatest hits across the country, including at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF SECOND CITY
- SUPPORT THE TROUPES: Second City’s '55th Anniversary Tour' features some of the comedy institution’s greatest hits, including sketches written by Tina Fey and Scott Adsit, performed by seasoned members like Alan Linic (second from right).
Founded in 1959, The Second City began small, with only a handful of people dedicated to experimental and cabaret-style theater games. Their material evolved, became notably satirical, and soon garnered an acclaimed reputation that landed the troupe on Broadway. In the 1970s, Second City expanded significantly, opening a theater in Toronto and dovetailing into television with SCTV (Second City Television). When Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975, nearly half the cast hailed from The Second City. Now, the premier training center in Chicago is one of three (other locations include the aforementioned one in Toronto and one in Los Angeles) and put together, the organization boasts thousands of students.
This venerable legacy is part of what attracted national tour member Alan Linic to the troupe in the first place.
“The first shows I saw at Second City were the ones that completely opened the door in my mind as to what we could do on stage,” he told New Times over the phone. “How comedy and satire can be blended to really say something, something I didn’t really consider before. As a young college boy, that was something I never thought about. I enjoyed making people laugh, but the thing of getting an idea across or daring to make the audience slightly uncomfortable was something that I found really fascinating.”
Over the years, Second City has developed not only the sharp comedic voice that Linic speaks of, but they have originated a series of styles and methods all their own. They dabble in about every form of live performance just short of dogs jumping through hula-hoops. A Second City show could vary from a Broadway-level musical about Rush Limbaugh to an improv sketch about sophisticated centaurs. It’s madcap chaos on stage, but the behind-the-scenes process is surprisingly detailed and fine-tuned.
“It’s basically a three step process,” Linic explained. “The first one is either improvise or bring in a pitch for an idea that you have. Put that idea up in front of an audience, and that kind of bleeds into the second and third steps: keep re-doing it and tightening where you can. Sharpen it. Most of the process is the revision and re-testing it. Once you optimize, you try to replicate that.”
For this show, The 55th Anniversary Tour, a group of six seasoned troupe members will be pulling sketches and numbers from Second City’s packed archives. They keep and log every sketch performed. In that vault exists early work from veterans like Fey, who wrote some of the pieces Linic and Co. will be performing during the tour. These include the number “Yes, and,” a bit written by Fey and fellow 30 Rock star Scott Adsit that takes the classic improv exercise and spins it into a series of increasingly dismal scenarios. Another sketch, which originally starred Fey, Adsit, and Rachel Dratch, finds a couple of nuns rifling through a collection of saucy tunes.
“It’s fun,” Linic said. “The reason I like doing it is a lot of the subject matter is very dark and sort of unusual for a comedy show. There’s a challenge of selling that and powering through it that is really rewarding to do. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, you have a sketch like “Managers” with us putting on tape mustaches. We’re covering both ends of the spectrum. When you talk about death for three minutes straight and then throw that to a scene where you walk like a bird, they’re both fun.”
This is the edge that Second City has over many of the other improv institutions throughout the country. Talking about it sometimes feels like an exercise in name-dropping, but at the end of the day, all those famous comedians started there for a reason. Second City has retained its distinct, diverse, and sometimes disturbing voice for all these years with no show of slowing down anytime soon.
“There’s something kind of magical about taking subject matter that is scary or dark or uncomfortable and making it relatable and kind of fun,” Linic noted. “It’s a fascinating process, sitting in the audience and watching someone do that felt like magic to me. … I live for that, and it’s something that Second City has really captured.”
Give me a name! A location! The name of your favorite Civil War battle! Send suggestions to Jessica Peña at firstname.lastname@example.org.