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"The entire recent tradition of American theatrical satire can be summed up in three words: The Second City."
--New York Times
Many of comedy's biggest stars cut their teeth at The Second City. Learn all of the backstage details--the laughs, loves, struggles, successes, fights and failures that have made Second City such a fertile ground for comedy over the years. And hear Second City's most outrageous and ...
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"The entire recent tradition of American theatrical satire can be summed up in three words: The Second City."
--New York Times
Many of comedy's biggest stars cut their teeth at The Second City. Learn all of the backstage details--the laughs, loves, struggles, successes, fights and failures that have made Second City such a fertile ground for comedy over the years. And hear Second City's most outrageous and hilarious live performances on two audio CDs narrated by Robert Klein.
--John Belushi try to bluff his way through an oral exam to avoid the draft
--Mike Myers as a Canadian border guard who "closes" Canada
--Bonnie Hunt singing "Up, Up And Away" as an annoying "on-hold" entertainer
--John Candy playing Dan Aykroyd's rebellious, hockey-hating son
And read about:
--Bill Murray demonstrating the proper way to deal with a heckler
--Alan Arkin's pre-Second City days as a troubadour with The Tarriers
--Where Gilda Radner first came up with "Emily Litella"
--How Second City alum Martin Short "discovered" Mike Myers
Since 1959, The Second City has been producing cutting-edge satire and wickedly funny improvisation, while keeping countless individuals of questionable character off the streets for a couple of hours each night. It has also trained thousands of young performers in the art of improv-based theater.
The Second City recounts the early years of the comedy troupe's biggest stars, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Gilda Radner, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Chris Farley, Martin Short andJohn Candy, as well as some of today's hottest directors, like Harold Ramis (Analyze This), Mike Nichols (The Birdcage), Betty Thomas (Private Parts) and Bonnie Hunt (Return to Me).
Author Sheldon Patinkin, one of Second City’s founding fathers, tells the story of Second City like no else can--with rare photos, profiles and backstage stories you were never supposed to hear. The Second City is both funnier and more poignant than you could have imagined. The book includes two full-length audio CDs containing hilarious classic scenes like:
--"Football Comes to the University of Chicago" (with Alan Arkin and Severn Darden)
--"Brest Litovsk" (with John Belushi and Joe Flaherty)
--"Motivational Speaker" (with Chris Farley, Tim Meadows and Bob Odenkirk)
Plus new, never-before-heard material that will leave your sides aching.
Before the Beginning
Predecessors to Second City...
In the early 1950s, the Korean War was raging to its eventual stalemate, people were becoming wary of an atomic attack by the Soviet Union, and Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was frightening America with his claims of communists all around us. Conformity and men in gray flannel suits were becoming the norm, post-World War II affluence and the birthing of babies were still on the rise, and the suburbs were becoming an attractive alternative to city living.
A black-and-white TV with an aerial on the roof or rabbit ears on top of the set was now a fairly commonplace sight in American living rooms, and people weir discovering the joys of staying home to watch Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and Ed Sullivan live, as well as Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Amos 'n' Andy, I Love Lucy, and Dragnet on film or kinescope. Holly wood was fighting the concurrent loss of business with widescreen and 3-D movies. Rodgers and Hammerstein were the reigning kings of Broadway. Pop songs tended to be about Tennessee waltzes and doggies in the window.
Comedy, mostly seen in nightclubs and on TV variety shows, was jokes, often about wives or mothers-in-law. What passed for political humor was best represented by Bob Hope's gags about President Truman's piano playing and his daughter Margaret's singing career or, later, Eisenhower's golf game and his wife Mamie's hats.
But the early 1950s were also when Arthur Miller was writing the anti—red-baiting drama TheCrucible, the Beats were starting their protest against conformism by heading for the road, and Ernie Kovacs was playing with our minds on TV. White kids were finding black rhythm-and-blues on a few radio stations broadcast from remote spots on the dial (to their parents' dismay), and political satirist Mort Sahl's career, based on that day's newspaper, was taking off in nightclubs and on long-playing records.
In Chicago, there were fashionable nightclubs slightly north of downtown and popular jazz clubs on the South Side. Long a source of some national network radio programming, the city was now also sending out several locally produced shows on the newly formed TV networks, including Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; [Dave] Garroway at Large; and Studs' [Terkel] Place, all broadcast live. There was even a nationally televised soap opera called Hawkins Falls. But almost the only professional theater was Broadway road companies playing in downtown houses. Locally produced theater usually could be found only in summer tents and community, school, and church spaces and patronized, for the most part, by friends and family. There was, however, something brewing at that South-Side bastion of scholarly intellectualism, the University of Chicago.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, among the people attending classes or hanging around at the University of Chicago were quite a few who were soon to become participants in Second City and/or its predecessor, The Compass. They included Paul Sills, David Shepherd, Bernie Sahlins, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Severn Darden, Andrew Duncan, Roger Bowen, Eugene Troobnick, Bill Alton, Zohra Lampert, Tony Holland, and me. There were also quite a few others who've made theater and film their careers, including Ed Asner, Fritz Weaver, and Joyce and Byrne Piven. The irony is that the University of Chicago had no theater department—or theater classes—and it still doesn't.
But there was University Theatre, a sort of after-school dramatic society for smart kids. It had a paid artistic director and a budget from the University. Everything else came from the students putting in the time around schoolwork or, as often happened, instead of schoolwork, leading to panic, craziness, and threatened suicides before final exams. The plays produced at UT were difficult, tending toward the obscure and the esoteric: Buchner, Wycherley, unfamiliar Shakespeare, the Capek brothers. And we had no instruction to help us over the rough spots, which were many. Some shows were considerably better than others.
In January 1952, Paul Sills directed and acted in UT's production of Cocteau's The Typewriter. The cast also included Mike Nichols and Joyce Piven. I learned how to run lights for it.
The Typewriter was a rebellion against the dominant fourth-wall method of acting. The concept of the fourth wall is part of the theory of acting developed by the enormously influential late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russian actor-director Constantine Stanislavsky and brought to America in the 1930s by Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, and other members of the Group Theatre. In fourth-wall acting, you're pretending that the front of the stage is the fourth wall of the room you're pretending to be in. In other words, the actor tries to leave out any sense of performing for an audience. (Apparently Marlon Brando, a fourth-wall actor, couldn't even be heard in the back half of the theater when he played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway) By the early 1950s, fourth-wall acting was the norm for any actor who wanted to be taken seriously. Thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein, it was even starting to be expected in musicals. Comedy, however, doesn't bounce well off walls. You have to play the audience and their laughter—or silence—and therefore can't pretend to yourself that they're not there. It's one of the many reasons for the famous quote, attributed to several people, though most frequently to Groucho Marx: "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." It's also one reason why so many Strasberg-trained Method actors can't do comedy, or at least not very well.
The Typewriter became a box-office hit, and talk began about starting our own theater. Of course, none of us had any money, but when has that ever stopped the talk? (One big difference between then and now: there was no existing precedent in 1952 for starting your own theater company in Chicago.)
With the talk getting stronger, a bunch of us got together for five hours every Saturday afternoon during much of the 1952-53 school year, and Paul Sills taught us the improvisational games and exercises he learned from his mother, Viola Spolin. There are many of them. Exercises are usually used as warm-ups or to end a class and require no advance planning. Here's one: the group is divided into two teams who then have a tug-of-war, only the rope is mimed.
Each game has a single rule of play and, with few exceptions, is performed on an empty stage, with no costumes, and everything mimed except chairs. A game begins with the class counting off into two, three, or four people per team for that particular game. Then each team privately plans the three basic questions needed for any improvised scene: who? (who you are), what? (a mutual physical activity), and where? (the setting of the scene). After planning that much, and usually only that much, you're given the rule for the game you're about to play. It might be to do the scene in gibberish or as a silent movie. It might be to make as many entrances and exits as you can, but only while everyone else on stage is looking at you and without your saying anything about the fact that you're trying to make an exit or entrance. Or the teacher will side-coach you to heighten or explore any passing moment of your scene. Or your team will divide in half, with one half on stage acting the scene and the other half watching them behave and dubbing their dialogue while the actors on stage try to mouth the dubbed words as they're being said.
Some games and exercises help work on character (the who), some on the where, some on the what, some on focusing on the other, and there are many other kinds as well, all helpful to the actor in creating an individual character within an ensemble.
Paul, of course, had started learning the games from Viola when he was a child in Los Angeles (as had Elaine May, Paul Sand, and Alan Arkin). By 1953, he knew he was teaching us the games on those Saturday afternoons in order to build an acting ensemble for his dreamed-of new theater, and that's what happened to us. That's what always happens when a group plays Viola's improv games together for a while; they learn to trust each other, to more or less cope with each other's foibles, and to work off what's happening between them and the others instead of just off themselves. After all, in an improv, as opposed to a play, you don't know what you're going to say or do next, and whatever it is has to come off what you see and hear from the others, combined with what you want from them.
The last show of the 1952-53 University Theatre season was Paul's extraordinary production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle in its Chicago premiere and second production anywhere. (Given Brecht's communism, it opened, fittingly, on May Day.) The cast of twenty, between us, played about sixty characters without ever leaving the stage—a perfect chance to use the ensemble techniques we'd been learning in the workshops.
With the arrival of David Shepherd, who had as strong a vision as Paul's and a little money, talk also began on the possibility of opening a political cabaret for working-class audiences, which was David's dream.
Since no one was really ready for a political cabaret yet, Paul Sills, David Shepherd, and Eugene Troobnick opened Playwrights Theatre Club on June 23, 1953, with a restaged and somewhat recast production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Playwrights Theatre Club
Playwrights was located at the corner of North and LaSalle (a block from the current Second City) on the outskirts of the area known as Old Town, far from the University of Chicago and slightly off the beaten track. Our space was a tile-floored reconverted Chinese restaurant upstairs from a drugstore and an all-night diner. (The building was later torn down and replaced by a Burger King.) We incorporated as a club because that was the only way you could be not-for-profit in those days—our lawyer had to invent a lot of that stuff as we went along. We sold memberships instead of tickets. The seats were wood-frame director's chairs with detachable red, blue, or yellow canvas seats and backs; each color was a different "membership" price.
There was a record heat wave on opening night and no air-conditioning, but the critics loved us anyway, and we were an instant hit in our 125-seat house with individual memberships priced at one to two dollars. (The diner downstairs sold an excellent barbecued-beef sandwich with fries, lettuce, tomato, and coffee for seventy-five cents, if that helps you understand the economy. Somebody always seemed to be playing Eartha Kitt's "I Want to Be Evil" on the juke box down there.) We were the first local theater in years, the beginning of a movement that wouldn't see its major growth until the late 1970s.
In two years, we did close to thirty productions, including The Glass Menagerie, The Dybbuk, Murder in the Cathedral, Peer Gynt, The Sea Gull, Oedipus Rex, Juno and the Paycock, the Chicago premiere of The Threepenny Opera, some Shakespeare, a few originals—including one by Paul Sills and another by David Shepherd—an occasional evening of Poets' Theater, and a children's theater for which Elaine May wrote a very funny adaptation of "Rumpelstiltskin." The shows ran an average of three weeks each, some less, some more, depending on business. We did six performances a week, no matinees. We'd close on a Sunday and open the next show on Tuesday. We were young and didn't know you couldn't do all that. We were learning our craft by doing it six nights a week.
A lot of talented people were drawn to Playwrights in those days and by the opportunity it offered young actors to learn their craft and to work on a regular basis. Ed Asner (later of off-Broadway, Broadway, such TV shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, The Bronx Zoo, and Thunder Alley) was one of them. He was in charge of cleaning up the theater before the show every night. He'd recently gotten out of the army and ran us like he was the master sergeant and we the buck privates. If Ed was angry with someone, that person got latrine duty that night.
We rehearsed daytimes and after the shows, and made sets, costumes, and everything else whenever we could. We lived communally off the take, earning five, ten, or fifteen dollars a week, each according to need. (Since Barbara Harris and I still lived more or less at home—we were both seventeen when Playwrights started—we were among those who got five bucks a week, as did those few with day jobs. I sometimes brought food from home for everyone, since my wonderful parents worried about whether anyone was getting enough to eat.) Many of the men in the company lived in little alcoves around the back and one side of the theater, separated from the main auditorium by curtains, not doors, leaving privacy at a premium.
As we were approaching our first anniversary, we decided to move to a bigger space and join Actors Equity, the actors' and stage managers' union, which provided a minimum guaranteed salary of fifty-five dollars a week, allowing the guys who'd been living in the theater to move into their own small apartments and still have enough money to eat. By then Bernie Sahlins—at the time a businessman with Pentron tape recorders and a travel agency and therefore someone with some money—had replaced Eugene Troobnick as one of the producers. Eugene didn't want to be a boss anymore, or at least that's what we were told.
The second Playwrights space—a two hundred-seat theater—was a reconverted photographer's studio at the corner of Division and Dearborn, upstairs from an expensive restaurant (which hated us) and across the street from the art-film house. We opened the new space with a four-play summer Shakespeare festival, which was mostly standing-room only, and we even brought in two "New York actors" to augment the ensemble. Membership prices went up a little. Business was usually excellent, but there were more seats to fill and more expenses. Actors started leaving for New York because there wasn't enough work in Chicago, and most of it didn't pay much better than Playwrights. (If you were going to make it, New York was the place to go. It had Broadway, it had the newly developing off-Broadway movement, it had many of the best teachers and most of the country's live dramatic TV shows.) Also, after eighteen months of productions, we were getting tired, especially Paul Sills, who'd directed most of the shows.
In early spring of 1955, the fire department descended. To this day, some people believe it's because we were suspected of being fellow-travelers and possibly even communists in that Joseph McCarthy era. Among other things, we'd started at the University of Chicago, which had been labeled "pinko" by anti-communist government investigators of the time. Quite a few of us came under suspicion because we were poor but Jewish. Also, we'd produced works by Brecht, who'd recently lied to the House Un-American Activities Committee, fleeing the country the next day to take up residence in communist East Berlin; and we'd just done an original play called Rich But Happy. Whatever started the investigation, we were certainly in violation of the outmoded fire codes and had been all along, and they closed us down. We did a few shows in rented spaces, but the spirit was gone, as were many of the original ensemble.
During the nearly two years of Playwrights, we'd worked on Viola Spolin's improv games with her son Paul Sills whenever we could. Viola herself, who was living in L.A., came in toward the end, when excitement was building about opening David Shepherd's political cabaret theater. She arrived just in time to do improv workshops and help form the ensemble that became the first company of the new place, which David decided to call The Compass because he wanted it to point in whichever direction society was already going.
It was to be informal and close to where people lived so they could come without dressing up, where there'd be food and drink, and where they'd see shows dealing with the life they led, rather than the illusions, dreams, and lies being put out by Hollywood, New York, and Washington. David wanted to open it in a working-class neighborhood in Gary, Indiana, a steel-mill town an hour's drive from Chicago, or in the neighborhood of Chicago's stockyards; fortunately (though not from David's point of view) neither of those worked out.
Fred Wranovics, a popular bartender at the Woodlawn Tap (known as Jimmy's) on 55th Street in the University of Chicago neighborhood, had just bought the Hi-Hat Lounge, also on 55th Street, and had also bought the empty store next door. After knocking a hole in the wall between the two buildings, the Compass ensemble, with a lot of hard work—especially by Andrew Duncan—converted the empty store into a playing space. The storefront windows were left unblocked so passersby could see the show—an excellent way of getting them inside. Fred rechristened the place The Compass Tavern, and the show opened on July 5, 1955. (It was supposed to open on the Fourth, but the air conditioner broke down.)
Paul Sills directed all the shows the first summer, and David Shepherd was the producer and one of the performers. Among the many performers that summer along with David and Andrew Duncan were Roger Bowen, Barbara Harris, and Elaine May.
The Compass began with a format that included a short opening piece or two to get the audience laughing, followed by "The Living Newspaper"—twenty minutes of improvs on and narrated reenactments of articles in that day's paper. Then came a fifty-minute or so, nine- to twelve-scene, politically or socially conscious play created from a written scenario—a scene-by-scene breakdown, usually without any of the dialogue—which was then improvised out by the cast in rehearsals and even in performance. The scenarios dealt with such subjects as teenage parental and peer pressure, high-powered salesmen, tax evasion, and the University neighborhood itself. (It was because he couldn't find new plays and playwrights to suit his purposes that David Shepherd settled on the idea of improvised scenarios instead.)
At the conclusion of the act, the actors would take suggestions from the audience in such categories as political events, authors, pet peeves, and so on and, after a short break, do a set of improvisations based on the suggestions. All this, done with some chairs and hats as the only props, was performed five nights a week, two shows on Friday, three on Saturday, with a new "Living Newspaper" every day and a new scenario every week or two.
David Shepherd and business manager Charley Jacobs moved the show on October 1, 1955, to The Compass at the Dock on Lake Park Avenue near 53rd Street, a larger space on the fringe of the University of Chicago area. There were some changes in the personnel: Paul Sills had gone to England on a Fulbright, taking his then-wife Barbara Harris with him; Roger Bowen was about to be drafted; David Shepherd was now the director; and Elaine May was running the improv workshops and performing along with Andrew Duncan and a company enhanced by the arrival of, among others, Mike Nichols and Severn Darden.
|1||Before the Beginning: Predecessors to Second City||1|
|2||Second City Opens: A New Concept in Theater||24|
|3||The Hot New Thing: A National Phenomenon||40|
|4||The 1960s: Changing the Approach||56|
|5||The 1970s: New Blood and New Directons||82|
|6||SCTV: Second City on the Air||116|
|7||The 1980s: Triumph and Tragedy||136|
|8||The 1990s and Beyond: Changing the Form||158|
Posted December 17, 2000
I received this book as a gift from my brother. Since I've never been to Second City, I wasn't so sure. I liked the pieces about the actors who came through Second City at one time or another. The CD's that come with the book are the cool thing here. It's worth having if only for the John Belushi routine on the first disk, and the material gets funnier as it gets more current -- like it or not, comedy has changed over the years, and today's 'funny' is not your momma's funny. Get over it. The audio material made me laugh often, and you know, I needed that.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 20, 2000
This book is a gem. I've had the great pleasure to work with The Second City for years, and produce the first behind the scenes TV special on the theater. This book accurately and entertainingly captures so many essentials of The Second City: the comedic geniuses, the risk takers, the tempers and egos, the inspiration and the energy. It's also created in such a way that allows the reader to browse, or read straight through in detail. I was delighted from start to finish and would recommend this book to anyone interested in comedy, theater, film, television, acting or the city of Chicago. It's wonderful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 15, 2000
It was really great to read such an excellent indepth look at the early years of The Second City. It's really a shame the most of the book is filled with quotes and material from the current producers. I must confess, I feel jilted after plunking down $40 for what I thought would be a great read. After reading quote after quote from the producers Mr. Alexander and Leonard, and being subjected to two pages devoted to another producer Len Stuart, I can only wonder what the actors, and current cast have to say. I'm sure the actors who have had to work for Mr. Alexander and Leonard would tell a very different story. Unfortunatley, their views are nowhere to be found. It is no wonder that the original producer Joyce Sloan has opened her own theater after being forced out by Mr. Alexander. But of course that story is nowhere to be found in the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 10, 2000
The first half of this book is such an excellent look at the early years of Second City, it is really such a shame that the rest of the book is filled with self-serving, half-truths from the current producers. I didn't plunk down $40 dollars just to read quote after quote from the producers Andrew Alexander and Kelly Leonard. According to Mr. Leonard, the only reason 1995 was such a high-water mark, was because of Adam McKay. The rest of the cast from that memorable season would tell a very different story. Unfortunatley their views are nowhere to be found. You do get two audio CD's that include the remarkable, classic Second City scenes, 'Gourd', 'Glass Mamet', and 'Dirty Doctor'. These classics are as well written as anything MAD-TV has ever done. After having to endure a two-page centerfold spread on another producer, Len Stuart, it is no wonder that the original producer Joyce Sloan has opened her own theater after being forced out by Mr. Alexander. But of course that story is no where to be found in the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 6, 2000
This is the perfect gift for those numerous Holiday party extravaganzas you'll attend. Forego the bottle of wine - everyone loves comedy! Especially when it includes CD's of classic sketches that are sure to tickle anyone's fancies. This colorful coffee table book has made a great addition to my personal collection. When people drop by they always pick it up and leaf through it. Perfect for everyone on your list.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 6, 2000
As an avid fan of improv comedy, I truly enjoyed this book. Not only is it an easy read, but it gave an indepth history of this pillar of the comedy community. The CD component of the book is also a neat touch!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 6, 2000
It's like eating Chicago-style pizza: high in content and substance, low on frivolous garnish. Patinkin does a credible job answering the question, 'Where did all those funny people come from?' by interweaving history and profiles. It's a really good read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 3, 2000
I think Sheldon Patinkin has done an excellent job of illustrating what The Second City once was, and what it has become, a corporate entity. I saw a terrific show there when I was in Chicago a few years ago and at the end of it, an actor did a fabulous rant about all the infiltration of corporate America. Blasting corporate icons like Blockbuster Video and Starbucks, and how they are stripping America of its individuality. He even got people to cut up their Blockbuster Cards! After reading the second half of this book, it is clear that Second City has become what it was trying to subvert. They seem to be looking to open a new theater wherever they can. And that seems very sad to me. What was once the Harvard of comedy, is now just another string of community colleges. Why try to aspire to greatness, when you can just wait for them to open up a Second City in your town. The book is about comedy, but it's really an American tragedy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 11, 2000
That says it...the pictures and moments captured are incredible and take you back. Buy this for Christmas gifts...birthdays...whatever...it's a great gift for boomers and busters and even Xers.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.