The Second City

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The Second City
GenreSketch comedy/Improvisation
Date of premiere1959
LocationChicago, Illinois, U.S.
Official website
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The Second City
GenreSketch comedy/Improvisation
Date of premiere1959
LocationChicago, Illinois, U.S.
Official website

The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise that originated in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood.

The Second City Theatre opened on December 16, 1959[1] 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. 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, choosing its self-mocking name from the title of an article about Chicago by A. J. Liebling that appeared in The New Yorker in 1952.[1] It evolved from the Compass Players,[2] a 1950s cabaret revue show started by undergraduates at the University of Chicago.[3] In 1959, the first Second City revue show premiered at 1842 North Wells Street, and the company moved a few blocks south, to 1616 North Wells, in 1967.[1] 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 Spolin developed and taught, later known as Theater Games, with Sills as its director.[4] 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 and earning a Tony nomination for ensemble member Severn Darden.[5] 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. In 1983, the adjoining e.t.c. theater became the second resident stage in Old Town, Chicago location, handling overflow crowds and increasing the number of resident company members. Co-founder Bernard Sahlins owned the theater company until 1985, before selling it to Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart.[1]

Along with its theaters, training centers, and television shows, Second City also produces improv and sketch shows for Norwegian Cruise Line. In the 2000s, Second City began producing "theatrical" shows, bringing their brand of social and political satire to regional theaters around the country in revues that featured sketches written for and about each location, including Phoenix,[6] Boston,[7] Baltimore,[8] Dallas,[9] and Louisville.[10]


Second City Television, or SCTV, was a Canadian television sketch comedy show offshoot from the Toronto troupe of the Second City and ran from 1976 to 1984.

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. Also never to be forgotten are Catherine O'Hara's all-washed-up, formerly hot, alcoholic, ultimate narcissist leading lady Lola Heatherton, and Joe Flaherty's incredibly crass talk show host, Sammy Maudlin. Martin Short originated his incredibly dorky and dweeby Ed Grimley character here—the one he later brought to Saturday Night Live. The show's creators focused particularly on character work, and the show was renowned for it.[citation needed]

Andrew Alexander[edit]

Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart

Andrew Alexander took the reins of Second City Toronto in 1974 and formed a partnership with Len Stuart in 1976, starting The Second City Entertainment Company. Its first television production was SCTV. Alexander co-developed and executive produced over 185 half-hour shows for the award-winning comedy series, and produced over 150 hours of award-winning television comedy. Alexander has had co-production deals with MGM Television, Imagine Films, Disney Studios and United Artists, and has developed television programming for CBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, and A&E. He has produced movies and television with such notable talents as John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Hunt, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, James Belushi, George Wendt, Edward Asner, Andrea Martin, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.

In 1985, Alexander and Stuart became owners of Chicago's Second City. He has produced or executive produced over 200 Second City revues in Canada and the United States. Most recently, Alexander has expanded The Second City TV & Film Division with offices in Los Angeles and Toronto and was executive producer on the recently released feature film Intern Academy.

He serves on the Columbia College Board of Trustees, is Chair of the Gilda's Club Honorary Board (Toronto), and is also an Honorary Member of the Chicago Gilda's Club Board.

Alexander has received numerous awards including The Canadian Comedy Awards’ Chairman’s Award, Gilda’s Magic Award from Gilda’s Club, The League of Chicago Theater’s 2009 Artistic Leadership Award and named 2009 Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Tribune.


The Second City has been awarded several Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards, including for the 1997 ensemble in the "New Work" category for Paradigm Lost. The show featured Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, Kevin Dorff, Rachel Dratch, Jenna Jolovitz, Jim Zulevic and was directed by Mick Napier. Stephnie Weir received the "Actress in a Revue" Jeff Award for Second City 4.0 in 2000.[11] In 2009, as the company was celebrating its 50th year, the Second City was awarded an honorary Jeff for the milestone, as well as three awards for the e.t.c.' s 33rd revue Studs Terkel's Not Working, recognizing director Matt Hovde and actress Amanda Blake Davis and naming it Best Revue.[12] In 2011, the e.t.c.'s 35th revue Sky's the Limit (Weather Permitting) won the Jeff for Best New Work (Musical or Revue), as well Best Revue and Best Actor, for ensemble member Tim Baltz.[13] The following year, the e.t.c.'s 36th revue We're All In This (Room) Together won for Best Revue and Best Director of a Revue (Ryan Bernier), while ensemble member Edgar Blackman took home the Jeff for Best Actor/Actress in a Revue for his work in Who Do We Think We Are? on the Second City mainstage.[14] In 2013, the Jeff Awards awarded Best Production: Revue to The Second City Guide to Opera, a collaboration with the Lyric Opera of Chicago that had been initiated by soprano and Lyric creative consultant Renée Fleming, with Best Director: Revue going to Billy Bungeroth.[15]

Toronto's Second City mainstage troupe has won ten Canadian Comedy Awards: "Best Improv Troupe" (2001), "Best Sketch Troupe" (2001), "Best Sketch Troupe" (2006) "Best Sketch Troupe" (2009) and "Best Comedic Play" winners Family Circus Maximus (2002), Psychedelicatessen (2003), Facebook of Revelations, Barack to the Future (2009), 0% Down, 100% Screwed (2010) and Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes (2011).

The Second City on Film[edit]

Resident Stage Alumni[edit]



Chicago E.T.C.[edit]

The Second City Touring Company[edit]

Created in 1967 as a way to increase the talent pool, the initial Touring Company, featuring Ramis, Doyle-Murray and Flaherty, was tested on the road for two years before taking the stage as The Next Generation after the mainstage ensemble was sent to perform in New York. The Touring Company continued to perform greatest hit shows on the road, and in 1982, with the assistance of producer Joyce Sloane (and without Sahlins's knowledge) they staged an original revue in what would become the theater's second stage, the Second City e.t.c.[19]

Fiftieth anniversary[edit]

In December 2009, the theater celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a weekend of panels and performance which featured many prominent alumni, including an SCTV reunion show starring Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, and Dave Thomas.[20] Other notable alumni returning to participate included Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Jeff Garlin, Jack McBrayer, James Belushi, Dan Castellaneta, Amy Sedaris, Ian Gomez, Richard Kind, Robert Klein, Fred Willard, David Rasche, Betty Thomas, and George Wendt,[21] as well as original cast member Mina Kolb, Compass Player Shelley Berman, and founder Bernard Sahlins.[22]

Notable alumni of the Second City[edit]

The Second City Training Center[edit]

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, Hinton Battle, Jack McBrayer, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald. Classes are taught by working professionals, many of whom are current and former Second City performers. In 2007, the Comedy Studies program was created, as a collaboration with Chicago's Columbia College, which provides students with an immersion in "all aspects of the study of comedy and improvisation" [23]

The Second City Parents School[edit]

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, including the Sillses and Cunninghams, Viola Spolin, John Schultz, Mel Spiegel, and Beverly Gold. The progressive curriculum included daily theater games, and many students went on to careers in entertainment. Briefly at the original Old Town theater site at the intersection of Clark, Wells, and Lincoln Avenue, the school had several locations in Lincoln Park until it closed in the mid-1970s.[24] In 1971 Josephine Forsberg, The Players Workshop was Chicago's only official school of Improvisation for over a decade. Although it was never officially a part of The Second City cabaret theater, The Players Workshop was often referred to as Players Workshop Of The Second City, due to the school's close affiliation with the famous sketch comedy stage.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Christiansen, Richard (2004). "Second City Theatre". In Grossman, James R., Keating, Ann Durkin, and Reiff, Janice L. The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago Historical Society). p. 744. ISBN 0-226-31015-9. Retrieved 2008-03-07. 
  2. ^ Adler, Tony (2004). "Improvisational Theater". In Grossman, James R., Keating, Ann Durkin, and Reiff, Janice L. The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago Historical Society). pp. 408–9. ISBN 0-226-31015-9. Retrieved 2008-03-07. 
  3. ^ Adler, Tony (2004). "Theater". In Grossman, James R., Keating, Ann Durkin, and Reiff, Janice L. The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago Historical Society). pp. 815–7. ISBN 0-226-31015-9. Retrieved 2008-03-07. 
  4. ^ Robertson, Campbell (2008-06-04). "Paul Sills, a Guru of Improv Theater, Dies at 80". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Robrt L. Pela. "The Second City Does Arizona, Or Close But No Saguaro Proves There's Plenty of AZ to Poke Fun at Outside of SB 1070". Phoenix New Times. 
  7. ^ Anderman, Joan (2010-04-19). "From Chicago, joke's on Hub". The Boston Globe. 
  8. ^ Smith, Tim. "Charm City gets Second City treatment". Baltimore Sun. 
  9. ^ "The Second City Does Dallas: outsiders making astute observations". Star-Telegram. 2012-09-14. 
  10. ^ Keane, Erin (January 2, 2011). "Second City seeks coup with Ville!'". The Courier-Jornal. 
  11. ^ "Jeff Awards". The Joseph Jefferson Awards. 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-02-14. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  12. ^ "Second City takes home Jeff Awards and announces complete 50th anniversary lineup". Time Out Chicago. 2009. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  13. ^ "Chinglish, Chicago Shakes, Candide, Porgy and Bess, Mike Nussbaum Among Jeff Award Winners". 2011. Retrieved 2011-11-08. 
  14. ^ "'Iceman Cometh,' 'Follies' big Jeff Award winners". The Chicago Tribune. 2012. 
  15. ^ "'Lyric Opera of Chicago & The Second City Take Home Two Jeff Awards for THE SECOND CITY GUIDE TO THE OPERA". Broadway World. 2013. 
  16. ^ Doll, Susan. "Turner Class Movies Film Article: Goldstein". 
  17. ^ Murray, Noel. "Goldstein/DVD". A.V. Club. 
  18. ^ "Inside the Improv Process at Second City". The Chicago Sun Times. 
  19. ^ Thomas, Mike (2009). The Second City Unscripted. Villard Books. pp. 34,41,146–150. ISBN 978-0-345-51422-6. 
  20. ^ "Second City 50th Anniversary, SCTV Reunion: Live review". Time Out NY. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  21. ^ "What's in a Ticket". Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  22. ^ "The Second City Announces Complete 50th Anniversary Schedule". The Onion AV Club. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  23. ^ Winchell, Stephen. "Inside the Second City's Comedy Studies Program". Splitsider. 
  24. ^

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