The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise which originated in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. The Second City Theatre opened in late 1959 and has since expanded its presence to several other cities, including Toronto and Los Angeles.
The Second City has produced television programs in both the United States and Canada including ‘SCTV,’ ‘Second City Presents’, and ‘Next Comedy Legend,’ as well as being heavily involved in the creation of the satirical 1969 science fiction film ‘The Monitors.’ Since its debut, the Second City has consistently been a starting point for comedians, award winning actors, directors, and others in show business.
The Second City was the first on-going improvisational theater troupe in the United States. It evolved from the Compass Players, a 1950s cabaret revue show started by undergraduates at the University of Chicago. The troupe chose the self-mocking name from the title of an article about Chicago by A. J. Liebling that appeared in ‘The New Yorker’ in 1952. 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 Viola 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. Eventually, the theater expanded to include three touring companies and a second resident company, and now fosters a company devoted to outreach & 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. Another Second City innovation is the inclusion of live, improvised music during the performance.
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. 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 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’ acerbic critic Bill Needle, and Andrea Martin’s flamboyant, leopard-skin clad station manager Mrs. Edith Prickley.
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 1,800 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, and, Dave Foley. Classes are taught by working professionals, many of whom are current and former Second City performers.
In the early days of the Second City, several parents and Lincoln Park community members—including Paul and Carol Sills and Dennis and Mona 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 staff, and Old Town and Lincoln Park community members, were deeply involved in the school. The progressive curriculum included daily theater games, and many students went on to careers in entertainment.