60 Years of Chicago's Second City Theater
Chicago's Second City theater marks six decades of cultivating America's top comedic talent.
Ghostbusters. The Office. Seinfeld. Wayne’s World. 30 Rock. Saturday Night Live. Key & Peele. If you’ve watched any of these films or TV shows, chances are an alumnus of The Second City theater in Chicago has made you laugh. Yet when Paul Sills, Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins first opened the theater 60 years ago, on December 16, 1959, they couldn’t have imagined that their venue would one day become a comedy pipeline feeding Hollywood.
Instead, Second City became a proving ground that has groomed the likes of Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Keegan-Michael Key and many more for SNL, sitcoms and beyond. Here, a look at the story of the theater through the commentary of distinguished alumni as they reminisce on what it was like to study, work and struggle together, and venture forth onto the national stage of laughs.
Early Second City student Alan Alda, who soon found fame on television’s M*A*S*H. / Getty Images
The Second City grew out of acting troupes around The University of Chicago in the late ’50s, such as Paul Sills’ Playwrights Theater Club, which included Ed Asner. When The Second City first opened at 1842 North Wells Street in 1959, Alan Arkin became part of the original company along with Barbara Harris and Mina Kolb. A few years later, long before his 11-season stint on M*A*S*H, Alan Alda arrived.
Alan Arkin: When Paul Sills invited me, I kind of pooh-poohed the idea because I thought I was going to have a career in New York and I thought that would be a detour. So I went back to New York for another nine months and then [thought], I’ll bite the bullet and go to Chicago and never be heard from again, but at least I’ll be plying my trade and having a place to lay my head.
Ed Asner: Paul [Sills] just wanted to get a theater company at any cost. He wanted to direct, he wanted plays, he wanted a people’s theater. And he had a very good well to draw from with the intellectuals at The University of Chicago. A number of them were dissatisfied with the regular theater at the university.
Arkin: We were all complete misfits. There wasn’t anybody who had majored in anything in college. There was kind of an arrogance about what we were doing. It was a lot more intellectual than it is now. We did scenes based on literature.
Alan Alda: I was invited by Paul, not to be part of the show, but to come in the daytime and learn improvising. It was Paul with his mother’s [Viola Spolin] book Improvisation for the Theater in his hands, taking us through the exercises. A difficult game to play is: You can’t speak to the other player unless you find a new way to make physical contact with them. It was like dancing. Once I learned to improvise, I realized that your performance is found in the other person.
Arkin: I went to Chicago thinking it was going to be the end of my career, but it was the beginning of everything.
Eugene Levy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Rosemary Radcliffe and John Candy in Toronto, 1984. / Photofest
The 1970s and ’80s
In 1973, Second City expanded to Toronto and attracted some of the most iconic names in comedy, including Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Gilda Radner. Catherine O’Hara, who went on to become a regular in Christopher Guest mockumentaries such as Best in Show, got her start as a waitress there at 19 and soon became Radner’s understudy. In 1977, Martin Short debuted his über-nerd, Ed Grimley, on The Second City Toronto stage, which he would later take to SNL.
Catherine O’Hara: My brother dated Gilda Radner. She was ridiculously lovable and creative. I remember staying overnight at her house in downtown Toronto—it was the first time I had pumpernickel bread with cream cheese and cucumber. I would never have known about Second City without Gilda. My sister and I followed her there.
Martin Short: Catherine inspired me endlessly. Ed Grimley came from the first time I replaced John Candy on the stage in a piece with her called “Sexist.” It was two people vying for a job.
O’Hara: [about “Sexist”] I’m way overqualified and he works at a gas station. We arm wrestle and he wins. It was one of those scenes where somebody gets abused for the sake of laughs and then does a speech like, “You people!” and leaves.
Short: Gilda and I used to be boyfriend and girlfriend and I remember that Paul Shaffer was the first person in our group who left and went to New York. Gilda and I were both on the phone at her house, and she was saying, “Paul, what are New York actors like?” And Paul said, “You guys are just as talented.” And we thought, Aww, that’s so sweet. But we didn’t really believe him.
Martin Short as Ed Grimley, a character he created at Second City, with Ringo Starr on Saturday Night Live, 1984. / Getty Images
On October 11, 1975, Dick Ebersol and Lorne Michaels premiered the sketch comedy show later known as Saturday Night Live on NBC. The inaugural cast included Second City players Radner, Aykroyd, John Belushi and, later, Bill Murray, thus beginning a long-standing tradition of mining the Second City scene for talent.
A year later, Canadian television responded with SCTV, a sketch variety program co-created by The Second City CEO and executive producer Andrew Alexander, which ran until 1984 (Martin Scorsese is filming a documentary about it for Netflix, due next year). SCTV raised the profile of writer-director Harold Ramis, Short and O’Hara, who while there invented ribald nightclub performer Dusty Towne and Lola “I wanna bear your children!” Heatherton, both of whom were often paired with Candy’s louche playboy Johnny LaRue.
Andrew Alexander: Once Saturday Night Live became the juggernaut, agents and managers really started descending on Second City looking for the next It person. It became much more showbiz-savvy. I had a really good cast [in Toronto]—John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara. I thought, Oh, my God, NBC is going to come in and grab my people! SCTV was a chance to hold on to them.
O’Hara: Saturday Night Live reawakened people’s love for sketch television. It put a fire under Andrew, like, Why are we stalling on this? The first time I did Dusty Towne, I used my dad’s jokes that he brought home from the office at Canadian Pacific Railway: “I once knew Virginia. We called her Virgin for short—but not for long.” If I couldn’t get somebody to do some idea with me, John Candy would always go, “I’ll do it with ya!”
He was the king of [improv comedy mantra] “yes, and” to the point where he would improvise with anybody, anywhere. Strangers would come up and start doing bits and John would keep it going.
Short: When Dick Ebersol approached me [for SNL] in 1984, I was hesitant. I had just moved to California and had a new baby. He said, “We’re going after Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer.” I thought, Fat chance, and said, “Well, if you get them, let me know.” And he phoned back and said, “They’ve agreed—there’s a press conference tomorrow.” I was the surprise person announced.
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross on Mr. Show With Bob and David, 1998. / Photo courtesy: Comedy Central / Gabe Palacio / Photofest
Throughout the ’80s, Second City continued to churn out stars like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mike Myers and Jane Lynch, and alums began to step out and launch their own theater companies in Chicago. Instructor Del Close opened ImprovOlympic to focus on long-form improv, and Mick Napier formed Annoyance Theatre. In 1989, Melanie Hutsell dropped out of college and began studying at Second City before joining the cast of SNL in 1991, where she became known for her Jan Brady impression and the “Delta Delta Delta” sorority sketch. Bob Odenkirk, co-creator of Mr. Show With Bob and David and star of Better Call Saul, was already writing for SNL when he briefly joined the main stage in 1990. He wrote and performed alongside Chris Farley and Tim Meadows, and he workshopped Farley’s motivational speaker, Matt Foley, and scripted his infamous “van down by the river” catchphrase. Meanwhile, Veep’s Matt Walsh had grown up in Chicago attending shows before joining the Second City touring company in 1994.
Melanie Hutshell: [As a student there] I was very much supported in taking the simplest of characters—an old lady at a garage sale—and heightening the hell out of it. The teachers might say, “Do it so big that I tell you, ‘Please, God, tone it down.’” Your hope is that you will be asked to audition for the tour company or main stage, and that didn’t happen for me. I was devastated. But the good news is the first teacher I had at Second City was Mick Napier. And he said, “I’m thinking of starting this new theater [Annoyance]. Would you like to be a part of that?” That’s where I tapped into Jan Brady and the sorority character.
Matt Walsh: I started at the Annoyance, so I knew Melanie well. Second City had become the establishment. Beyond hoping that Lorne Michaels and his team would come through, main stage itself was the big time.
But I don’t think what Second City showed audiences was true long-form improv—that’s why Del started his own theater. And Mick started [Annoyance] to do raunchy musicals. People wanted to try to push boundaries that wouldn’t translate to buses of suburbanites. They wanted to build an audience as opposed to catering to one.
Bob Odenkirk: My daughter asked me, “What was the most fun you ever had in comedy?” and I told her it was doing that [Matt Foley] sketch every night, and that was due to Chris [Farley] and the purity of his comic presence. I wrote that sketch alone in my apartment. Chris had done a version of the character—a coach who was exhorting kids to stop doing drugs—the night before, and it was hilarious. All I did was add the story and the catchphrase.
Hutshell: Everybody wanted to see Chris [Farley] perform because it was funny and scary. When I worked with him [on SNL] and we would have downtime on set, he was always wanting laughs. There was no downtime. The whole partying aspect of Second City and SNL—that’s what you do. After the show, you cut loose. And if you don’t naturally slow down, it can go to such horrible places.
The 2003 cast of SNL, clockwise from left: Kenan Thompson, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Will Forte, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Darrell Hammond, Horatio Sanz, Fred Armisen, Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph and Seth Meyers. / Photo courtesy: AF Archive / Alamy
The ’90s was a watershed decade for Second City, with Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, Adam McKay, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, among others, passing through its doors around the same time. Many of them would go on to collaborate with each other in television and film. Then, in 1996, Walsh and Poehler boldly left Second City for New York to co-found sketch comedy theater and school Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) with Matt Besser and Ian Roberts. Dratch later joined Fey at SNL in 1999, where Fey was head writer.
Rachel Dratch: Everyone I know from that whole era is still working in comedy and getting paid for it. I don’t know if it’s just ’cause we were there at a great time or if you stick with it long enough, you will get better, make connections, and then your whole gang moves up.
Walsh: With UCB, it was like, “Let’s go to New York and get our own show, like Kids in the Hall”—just ambition and a willingness to be poor. We drove out in ’96 with our van and our boxes of props, thinking we’re going to work for six months and if we don’t get any traction, then we have to go back to Chicago with our tail between our legs.
Dratch: Amy Poehler was my understudy for the touring company. She was a pioneer. When those guys left to go start their own thing, I remember being like, What are they doing? That sounded so risky. But of course, it worked out. They kind of created the whole New York improv empire.
Odenkirk: I was excited when UCB came along. They just did not care! You could use their stage for stand-up comedy, you could show videos, you could do improv—you could go wherever you needed to make the most of your idea. Second City had rules. It was a little constricting, [but] that pushed people to play human beings. On Mr. Show we’d have a simple sketch idea, and we’d always try to push it to a place where a human person came out a little bit. That’s really Second City. Play to your intelligence. Although I would argue it’s play to your dignity.
Dratch: Tina Fey was hilarious from the get-go. For her, writing was just as much of a goal as performing. For the [SNL] audition I did the Boston [gag] that started with Tina at Second City—we played a mother-daughter Boston duo. And we had an NPR sketch where we would get a word from the audience and then we had all these NPR characters talking about this word. I played this storyteller person. If the word was “can opener” it was, “I remember the can opener of my grandmother … ” So I did that for my audition, too.
Ani Djirdjirian, Amber Ruffin and Nina Lafarga on Late Night With
Seth Meyers, 2019. / Getty Images
As Second City continued to funnel bright stars such as Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong to SNL, other alumni braved the wilds of comedy with their own vehicles. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele went on to create the popular Emmy-winning sketch series Key & Peele for Comedy Central, and Peele’s Get Out won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Meanwhile, Tim Robinson went from SNL to writing and starring in his own oddball Netflix series, I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson. During this era, Second City began to address concerns about racial diversity and gender equality, and expanded into tours with Norwegian Cruise Line, where Veep’s Sam Richardson cut his teeth. Superstore’s Lauren Ash spent the early part of the millennium with Second City Toronto before coming to the main stage in Chicago in 2008, and alum Amber Ruffin, who now writes for Late Night with Seth Meyers, will be launching her own show on NBC’s Peacock streaming service next year.
Sam Richardson: I did a show, South Side of Heaven, with Edgar Blackmon [in 2011]. It was the first time in the history of Second City where there were two black men on the main stage. It featured a scene in which Edgar would pop up in the audience and I would pop up on the other side of house and say, “I know what you’re thinking: How did the black guy get from all the way over there to over here so quickly?”
Amber Ruffin: At Second City, a director would be like, “OK, bring in a sketch tomorrow.” So you’d go do the show, you’d go home, and you’d write a sketch for the morning and that was really the work‚—which really helps me now at Late Night. It’s nice to sit with a sketch for two days and write and rewrite it, but it’s possible to do it in an hour.
Richardson: Tim Robinson and I were on different Second City touring companies, but we were like brothers. [Second City] hired us the same day to perform on the Chicago main stage. I met Jason Sudeikis when he would come from SNL and do sets, and he suggested I do a show with Tim. So we wrote [Comedy Central’s] Detroiters together, and Jason executive-produced. The three of us had this Second City history.
Alexander: You’re never sure exactly who’s going to evolve into their next phase and blow up in a big way, so it’s always a pleasant surprise. When they’re in the ensemble, the core of our work is, everybody’s treated equally. A lot of people in the industry think we’re crazy and we should be capitalizing on all of these careers, but if we start playing favorites, we’re no longer an ensemble. Whether SNL or film, I always get a huge level of satisfaction seeing people do well.
Richardson: The idea of doing the Second City main stage was like, Oh, my God, you’re one of the made guys. Never would I have thought I would be on Veep. During Veep rehearsals, we put the scripts aside and re-improvised the scenes. That’s how we wrote shows at Second City, and it allowed me to put so much into [my character] Richard. My first day, I was in the trailer with Julia Louis-Dreyfus talking about our shared history at Second City. It’s like a secret handshake.
For more on the iconic comedy theater, The Second City: The Essentially Accurate History (Agate Midway) is available Dec. 17.