Second City, from Candy to Colbert to Carell
The famed Chicago satirical troupe turns 50 this month, and not everyone agrees on what kind of work it actually does.
Second City has always insisted it be viewed and treated as a theater (it has a contract with Actors’ Equity) as distinct from a comedy club. Although many people think its shows are wholly improvised, they are actually shaped, honed and tightly scripted.
“We use improv as a tool,” says co-founder Bernie Sahlins, “not a performance form. Material rises out of improvisation, but it has been written, tried out and tested before it goes into the show as a finished piece. The improvisation is basically public rehearsals.”
That always-contentious view infuriated many improv gurus, most notably the late Del Close, another quixotic Second City figure. A legendary story has the pair repeating the argument at the hospital, as Close lay on his deathbed, with Sahlins finally conceding that improv could be considered an independent art form. For that day only.
The theater's alumni are celebrating this month, back in Chicago. To read the Sunday Arts & Books story by Chris Jones, theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, click here.
Photo: Steve Carell, left, and Stephen Colbert, second from right, in 1993. Credit: Snowbound