The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater

The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater

by Mike Thomas

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In 1959, a group of like-minded Chicagoans joined forces to open a hip new venue dedicated to coffee, cigarettes, conversation, and comedy. The result, a nightly cabaret featuring a troupe of inventive young actors skewering everything from politics to popular culture in witty, rapid-fire, improvised scenes, not only made delighted audiences laugh–it made…  See more details below


In 1959, a group of like-minded Chicagoans joined forces to open a hip new venue dedicated to coffee, cigarettes, conversation, and comedy. The result, a nightly cabaret featuring a troupe of inventive young actors skewering everything from politics to popular culture in witty, rapid-fire, improvised scenes, not only made delighted audiences laugh–it made history.

Copping its iconic name from a New York journalist’s disparaging remark, Chicago’s Second City theater brashly defied the role of runner-up and single-handedly made the Windy City North America’s cradle of comedic brilliance from which generations of household names would spring. Now, in The Second City Unscripted, a Who’s Who of the celebrated comedy camp’s alumni–including Alan Arkin, David Steinberg, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Amy Sedaris, and Stephen Colbert–tell it like it was in the house that hilarity built.

Here are candid tales of John Belushi’s raw ambition and chemical experimentation, Bill Murray’s heckler-pummeling and lady-killing, superstar Mel Gibson’s roof-raising appearance in Braveheart regalia, and legendary director Del Close’s shuttling between the comedic asylum he ruled over and the real one he rehabbed in.

In this unvarnished, unexpurgated, and unprecedented account, what happened onstage, backstage, and offstage at Second City isn’t staying there anymore. From the smash hits and near misses to the love affairs and the bitter feuds, from the showbiz politics and pitfalls to the inspired tomfoolery and heartbreaking tragedy, The Second City Unscripted is part memoir of a cherished era, part time capsule from a comedic renaissance, and part valentine to the exquisite art of being funny. It captures like never before the history of the men and women who caught lightning–and laughter–in a bottle.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Lynn Harris
[Thomas's] role is less analyst than archivist—or, really, M.C.: warming up the crowd, creating continuity, making the acts shine. And his top-notch lineup of comedians…upholds a bedrock law of improv: never try to be funny. Much of the humor here emerges naturally, as it should. Thomas carves his interviews into snippets, grouping them by topic; when things gel, it's like listening to these people swap stories on grungy backstage couches. There's plenty of diverting gossip…and biographical color…as well as charming yarns…as oral history, homage and update—of Sheldon Patinkin's similar work from 2000—The Second City Unscripted is a worthy second act.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
For 50 years, Chicago's Second City Theater has been the training ground for legendary comedians. From John Belushi to Stephen Colbert, many of America and Canada's finest comic talents have honed their skills on Second City's stage, and this collection of interviews brings together comedians and behind-the-scenes players to bare the secrets of the comedy laboratory where improv was birthed by lesser-known genius Del Close. From the egos, parties and conflicts to the camaraderie and familial ties, the world of Second City is brought together deftly through the testimony of its inhabitants, filling in readers curious about show business and comedy history as well as individual comedians (also including Joan Collins, Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, Eugene Levy, Bonnie Hunt, Tina Fey, Amy Sedaris, and others). Though occasionally meandering, Thomas corrals his subjects' testimony in a historical framework paralleling the larger baby boomer narrative, progressing from fringe revolutionaries to institutional stalwarts. Testimony is funny, sentimental and hopeful, making this a winning collection for any fan of comedy's last half-century.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A Chicago Sun-Times staff writer weeds through hours of interviews to fashion an in-depth oral history of comedy's greatest talent factory, The Second City. When Bernard Sahlins, Paul Sills and Howard Alk founded a coffeehouse in 1959, they had no intention of starting a comedy dynasty. Sahlins and Sills had produced a few plays around Chicago, but didn't think of putting together a show at their new club until it was nearly ready to open. They gathered up a few friends-many leftover from the defunct improv group the Compass Players-and started hosting comedy and political satire. A half-century later Second City is still a comedy institution, what many alums believe was "the purest and most fulfilling creative experience of their lives." Thomas tries to capture the group's vast history-its hundreds of performers and dozens of success stories, its multiple outposts and massive influence on SCTV and Saturday Night Live-and it proves to be a daunting task. The author focuses on Second City's early history and its most recognizable-and notorious-graduates, recounting tales of John Belushi's massive appeal and Chris Farley's excesses. Thomas capably builds a coherent narrative from all the backstage moments and business dealings, but the interviews often fail to provide adequate depth about what has made Second City so successful. There are also notable absences-particularly Mike Myers and Bill Murray-that create narrative gaps the author struggles to navigate around. Not for casual fans, but a light treat for improv aficionados and comedy junkies. Author tour to Chicago and New York
From the Publisher

“His top-notch lineup of comedian . . . upholds a bedrock law of improv: never try to be funny. Much of the humor here emerges naturally, as it should. Thomas carves his interviews into snippets, grouping them by topic; when things gel, it’s like listening to these people swap stories on grungy backstage couches.” —Lynn Harris, New York Times

“A winning collection for any fan of comedy’s last half-century.”—Publishers Weekly

“Mike Thomas . . . does a wonderful job with an impossible task: capturing that lightning-in-a-bottle quality of Second City, from its humble origins to its current status as a comedy institution.”—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

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Coffee and Comedy, Hanging with Hef, and the Birth of a Sensation 1959–61

Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Paul Sills

America was in the midst of a comedy revolution when Bernard Sahlins, Howard Alk, and Paul Sills conspired in 1959 to open a bohemian coffeehouse for recreational smoking, erudite discourse, and satirical theater. Considering the times, it seemed destined for success—or miserable failure.

Alk and Sills had formed a professional bond working together at Chicago's famed folk den the Gate of Horn, where Sills house-managed and Alk ran lights. At that point, the business-oriented Sahlins was a budding producer and a devoted theater enthusiast. In addition to sharing a vision for what would become the Second City, another thing all three had in common was a diploma from the elite University of Chicago. A successful thirty-something entrepreneur, Sahlins had graduated in 1943 and went on to run a lucrative tape recorder manufacturing business. Alk entered the school in 1944 at the age of fourteen. Subsequent to his short-lived involvement with Second City, which ended in the early sixties, he became a respected film editor and cinematographer. In 1950, former military man Sills became a director with University Theater—which staged literary productions on a campus that had no formal theater program—and joined the student drama group Tonight at 8:30, where he worked with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and several others who'd follow Sills to future endeavors.

Having already met during Sills's University of Chicago directing days, Sahlins and Sills initially hooked up professionally in the early fifties to produce dramas (Brecht, Chekhov) at and to sit on the three-member board of the highbrow but ragtag Playwrights Theater Club, which Sills co-founded with comrade Eugene Troobnick and a Socialist populist Harvard man named David Shepherd. For training purposes, Sills steeped the Playwrights cast in spontaneity-enhancing theater games developed by his mother, Viola Spolin. A Los Angeles–based improvisation teacher, Spolin also taught drama at Chicago's Hull House in the 1930s. Its Recreational Training School, founded by social worker Neva Boyd, was part of the U.S. government's Works Progress Administration. The Playwrights Theater Club featured a stable of young actors that included Ed Asner and Barbara Harris and operated at two locations on Chicago's Near North Side before the group folded in 1955.

That same year, Sills and Shepherd co-founded the Compass Players, which began performing extended scenario-based improv shows (essentially a modern version of the age-old Italian form called commedia dell'arte), shorter "blackout" scenes, and spur-of-the-moment material based on audience suggestions in the Compass Tavern near the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. The inventive ensemble was wildly popular among in-the-know intelligentsia types, and eventually migrated several miles northwest to the Argo Off-Beat Room. After leaving the fold, several Compass members—Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May in particular—vaulted onto the national stage. Berman became a chart-topping stand-up (who mostly sat down), and Nichols and May formed the hottest social satire duo in recent memory, with bestselling albums and a triumphant run on Broadway.

But while the Compass drew capacity crowds night after night (the offering of then-rare Michelob beer may have played a role as well), it eventually hit financial bottom and folded in January 1957. Another incarnation opened in St. Louis shortly thereafter, but that branch dissolved before long, too. As of early 1958, after a roughly three-year run, the Compass Players was kaput. But the concepts upon which it was founded—a symbiotic actor-audience relationship and ensemble-based satire created through improvisation—were not. With that sturdy foundation already laid, Alk, Sahlins, and Sills began to build in the summer of 1959.

Little did they know that the result of their labors would become an instant hit. Sahlins, who'd produced plays in 1956 at the handsome and ?historic Studebaker Theatre on South Michigan Avenue, initially invested six thousand dollars, and the new organization's defiant handle was reportedly conjured by Alk in ironic response to a snotty 1952 New Yorker magazine feature-turned-book by A. J. Liebling (Chicago: The Second City). Original members—many of them Compass and/or Playwrights holdovers—included Roger Bowen (later Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake in Robert Altman's film M*A*S*H), Severn Darden, Andrew Duncan, Barbara Harris, Mina Kolb, and Eugene Troobnick. Allaudin (then William) Mathieu tickled the ivories as musical director. The opening night opener, sung by the magnetic Harris and part of a revue called Excelsior! And Other Outcries, was an especially apt tune called "Everybody's in the Know."

And they were. That shared sense of insider savvy coupled with an appreciation of and a hunger for smart satire—always in two acts—kept people coming back. So did cheap tickets ($2.50), flowing booze, beefy burgers, a soon-opened outdoor beer garden next door for summer sipping, and a red-velvet-curtained venue in which to absorb tar-tinged toxins. On many evenings in the months that followed, 120 educated and cultured patrons (University of Chicago types were prevalent, naturally) grinned and chortled and laughed themselves silly at scenes that referenced Kierkegaard, Eisenhower, and Greek mythology. Onstage, actors played at the top of their intelligence (an edict ever since), skewering people, politics, people in politics, and, as one early cast member put it, "almost all the foibles of everyday living from suburbia to fallout shelters." The post-intermission portion was improvised using audience suggestions. New scenes were born thusly, and eventually new shows. The formula—diluted though it became when writing nudged out improvising as the primary method of invention—would serve Second City well in decades to come.

And then, only three months after it began, in March 1960, none other than Time magazine praised the fledgling theater as a place where "the declining skill of satire is kept alive with brilliance and flourish"—lofty plaudits indeed for a tiny Midwestern outfit that boasted no national stars, a scant budget, and something of an inferiority complex. The fact that it remained afloat a few months out was—at least to the founders and early cast members—a small miracle. "For many months after that first performance we remained certain that our luck would run out and that no audience would appear the next night," Sahlins wrote in his 2001 memoir Days and Nights at the Second City. "Even if it was a brutally cold Tuesday in February, one empty seat convinced us it was the beginning of the end."

While tough times ahead would continue to cause concern, the beginning was more auspicious than anyone had imagined. From night one, even as the budget carpet was still being installed, there were crowds in the lobby and lines out the door to witness the birth of a sensation.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Mike Thomas, a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has interviewed numerous renowned comics and comedic actors–several of them Second City alums–including Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Carl Reiner, Bill Cosby, Tom and Dick Smothers, Chevy Chase, Sarah Silverman, Richard Lewis, Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jon Stewart. Thomas’s national magazine work has appeared in Esquire, Smithsonian, and Playboy, and on Salon. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their two daughters.

From the Hardcover edition.

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