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


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Since its modest beginning in 1959, The Second City in Chicago has become a world-renowned bastion of hilarity. A training ground for many of today’s top comedic talents—including Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, and Amy Sedaris— it was an early blueprint for improv-based sketch revues in North America and abroad. Its immeasurable influence also extends to television, film, and the Broadway stage. Mike Thomas interviewed scores of key figures who have contributed to Second City’s vast legacy —its stars as well as those who worked and continue to work behind the scenes—to create this entertaining and informative oral history. The story is equal parts legendary highlights, gossip, and insight into how the theater’s brand of comedy was and is created. Unprecedented in scope and rife with colorful tales well told, The Second City Unscripted is an essential account of this iconic show business institution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810128446
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/30/2012
Pages: 302
Sales rank: 799,489
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mike Thomas is a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. He has also written for Esquire, Smithsonian, and

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Prologue xi

Chapter 1 1959-61 Coffee and Comedy, Hanging with Hef, and the Birth of a Sensation Alan Arkin Barbara Harris Paul Sills 3

Chapter 2 1961-67 Big Apple Bound, Naked Sonatas, and the Reign of King David Robert Klein Joan Rivers David Steinberg Fred Willard 19

Chapter 3 1967-74 How to Speak Hippie, Return of the Guru, and a Bowl Full of Fuck John Belushi Del Close Bill Murray Harold Ramis Betty Thomas 35

Chapter 4 1973-10 Livin' Large with Johnny Toronto, the Fury of Murray, and Taking Off in the Great White North Dan Aykroyd John Candy Eugene Levy Catherine O'Hara Gilda Radner Martin Short Dave Thomas 65

Chapter 5 1975-84 SCTV: Count Floyd, Johnny LaRue, and a Couple of Hosers, Eh John Candy Joe Flaherty Eugene Levy Rick Moranis Dave Thomas 91

Chapter 6 1975-80 Saturday Night Live, the Brothers Belushi, and a Mom Away from Mom Jim Belushi Tim Kazurinsky Shelley Long George Wendt 114

Chapter 7 1975-85 Mummy Opium, Death of a Hero, and the End of an Era Dan Castellaneta Mary Gross Richard Kind 135

Chapter 8 1978-91 Triumphs in Toronto, Shake-ups in Chicago, and a Van Down by the River Chris Farley Bonnie Hunt Mike Myers 154

Chapter 9 1988-95 Out with the Old, In with the New, and a Sweet Talker in Sweatpants Steve Carell Stephen Colbert Paul Dinello Amy Sedaris 187

Chapter 10 1995-2007 Renaissance on Wells Street, Chaos in Canada, and the Falls of Giants Scott Adsit Rachel Dratch Tina Fey Jack McBrayer 212

Chapter 11 2007-Present Offing Obama, Liberal Leanings, and a Still-Beating Heart 242

Epilogue 247

Acknowledgments 250

Selected Short Biographies of Second Citizens 253

Bibliography 259

Index 265

Customer Reviews