The Second City theater company of Chicago has set the standard for improvisational comedy since the early 1960s, and no single institution has made a greater impact on the development of American comedy since. The comedy troupe has produced a stellar array of improvisational and stand-up comedians, actors, writers, and directors who have had a profound influence on comedy worldwide.
The troupe's roots go back to the progressive campus of the University of Chicago in 1951, where a group of performers and writers began presenting plays. After two years, the group migrated from the university's Southside campus to a Northside converted chop suey house, pooled their resources, and launched the Playwrights Theatre Club, which produced 25 plays over the next two years. When the fire department ordered extensive remodeling, the Club broke apart, forming two new groups: the Compass Players, an improvisational troupe that played nightclubs around Chicago, and the Studebaker Theater Company, which presented repertory theater in a 1200-seat house in the Loop area. Members oscillated back and forth between these two new companies until, a year later, both of them also broke up.
Three former members of the group (or groups)—Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Shelley Berman—each rapidly achieved individual national recognition. Berman became a successful stand-up comedian and recording star, while Nichols and May played nightclubs across the country, were a hit on Broadway, and produced several smash comedy albums. They parted ways in 1961, with May going on to work variously as an actress, writer, and director, and Nichols forging a major directing career on Broadway and in Hollywood. The comedy background of each was evident in films such as Nichols's The Graduate (1967) and May's A New Leaf (1971). Meanwhile, the other members of the original group kept in touch, dreaming of reuniting. Their dream came true in 1959 when they obtained use of a defunct Chinese laundry building on the edge of Old Town, which they converted into a coffeehouse. Taking their name from a derisive article about Chicago written by A. J. Liebling for the New Yorker, The Second City opened in December 1959 to dazzling reviews, and continued to perform throughout the rest of the century, delighting audiences and training successive generations of comics. Among Second City alumni are several who reached national recognition as cast members of Saturday Night Live, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, James Belushi, Tim Kazurinsky, Mary Gross, and Robin Duke. Stand-up comics who started at Second City include Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Joan Rivers, and the comedy teams of Stiller and Meara, and Burns and Schriber. Film actors who got their start improvising at this coffeehouse include Alan Arkin (The In-Laws), Jane Alexander (The Great White Hope), Barbara Harris (Family Plot), Ron Liebman (Slaughterhouse-Five), and Severn Darden (The President's Analyst). Television actors include Ed Asner and Valerie Harper (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then Lou Grant and Rhoda, respectively), Shelley Long and George Wendt (Cheers), Linda Lavin (Alice), Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson), Fred Willard (Fernwood 2-Night), Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), and David Rasche (Sledge Hammer). Directors include Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Moscow on the Hudson), Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts), indie favorite Henry Jaglom (Eating, Babyfever), and actor/director/writer Alan Alda (Sweet Liberty).
Apart from its reputation as the most fertile breeding ground for American comics, Second City is best known for the most consistently hilarious sketch comedy show in television history, SCTV. In 1976, when the members of the Toronto company of Second City were searching for something to satirize on a proposed television show, they hit upon the perfect topic: television itself. Regulars John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, and Dave Thomas week after week acted as various members of the staff of SCTV, the call letters for the fictional Second City television station, serving Melonville. The station was owned by wheelchair-bound Guy Caballero (Flaherty), with Moe Green (Ramis) as the station manager—until he was kidnapped by the Leutonian Liberation Front and Edith Prickley (Martin) took over. Other staffers included Monster Chiller Horror Theater host Count Floyd (Flaherty), exercise show host Johnny Larue (Candy), Bob and Doug McKenzie (Thomas and Moranis) with their Great White North, pitchmen Tex and Edna Boil (Thomas and Martin), the polka playing Schmenge Brothers (Candy and Levy) and Ed Grimley (Short)—not to mention cleaning woman Perini Scleroso (Martin) and porn salesman Harry, the Guy with the Snake on His Face (Candy). The show ran for seven years and produced 185 episodes, starting on Canada's Global television and in syndication in the United States, then moving to NBC, and finally to Cinemax. All the show's stars have moved on to success in other projects. John Candy became a film star (Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains & Automobiles), as did Martin Short (Innerspace, Three Amigos) and Rick Moranis (Little Shop of Horrors, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). Catherine O'Hara appeared in films (Beetlejuice, Home Alone), and Andrea Martin did both films (Club Paradise) and television (Kate & Allie). Harold Ramis directed Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, and Groundhog Day. Dave Thomas directed and costarred in the McKenzie Brothers movie Strange Brew and was a regular on Grace Under Fire. And Eugene Levy created the children's show Maniac Mansion, starring Joe Flaherty.
The original Second City troupe continues in Chicago, supporting national touring companies and training new generations of improvisational actors. "In a changing society," writes Second City chronicler Donna McCrohan, "The Second City is a constant, no less committed to quality theater than in 1959."
Coleman, Janet. The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990.
McCrohan, Donna. The Second City: A Backstage History of Come-dy's Hottest Troupe. New York, Putnam Publishing Group, 1987.
Sweet, Jeffrey. Something Wonderful Right Away. New York, Limelight, 1987.
Thomas, Dave. SCTV: Behind the Scenes. Toronto, McClelland &Stewart, 1996.