Way back in the middle of December, 1959, a cozy, 125-seat cabaret opened on the Near North Side of Chicago. It was an unprepossessing place that at first blush probably didnt seem all that different from the small venues found in any similarly-sized metropolitan area of the time.
However, over the next few decades, The Second City (a defiant moniker cribbed from a condescending New Yorker article about Chicago) would emerge as one of the most consistently impressive theatrical outlets in America, and the birthplace of a radical new form of humor.
In lieu of meticulously scripted and rehearsed plays or vignettes, a group of 8 young, mostly unknown actors offered up intelligent, witty and urbane sketches, scenes, musical numbers and parodies most of which were essentially made up on-the-spot in front of a live crowd.
True, the very nature of the endeavor meant that sometimes bits fell flat on their face or fizzled to an awkward end. But the combined talent of the actors, plus their refusal to talk down to their audience, struck a chord with those members of the public who thirst for challenging art.
Within only a few years, The Second City had become the epicenter of a bold new type of stage craft, and the theatre (and its improv classes) were attracting scores of vibrant, creative souls. Many of these acolytes would soon emerge as the core of the American comedy scene in the 60s and 70s, and despite the subsequent emergence of similar theatre/troupe/school combos (such as Chicagos Improv Olympic and Annoyance Theatre, and New York Citys Upright Citizens Brigade), Second City remains in most peoples minds the premiere source for improvisational acting.
An easy way to gauge the impact this group and their methodology have had on American culture would be to simply pick a bakers dozen of high profile Second City alumni whove parlayed the skills they learned there to greater success: actors Alan Arkin (The In-Laws), John Belushi (Animal House), Bill Murray (Rushmore), John Candy (Uncle Buck), Martin Short (Jiminy Glick), Eugene Levy (Best In Show), Mike Myers (Austin Powers) and Fred Willard (Fernwood 2Night); standup comics David Steinberg, Robert Klein and Bob Odenkirk; and director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day).
The influence of Second Citys techniques can be found in the sketch comedy of such network TV mainstays as Saturday Night Live and MAD TV, as well as cult cable hits like Mr. Show with Bob & David, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show and The Kids In The Hall. It also runs through groundbreaking films like M*A*S*H, Young Frankenstein and The Graduate.
For a while in the late-70s, members of the troupe even had their own highbrow late-night comedy show SCTV which has finally been released on DVD to great critical acclaim.
It was this near-mythic reputation that weighed heavily on Alex Fendrich when he threw himself to the lions and auditioned for the theatres current touring company. And, although it took the 30-year-old improv veteran more than a couple tries to make the cut, he says that was to be expected.
Oh, no doubt about it, he chuckles. Most people have to do that. Rarely does someone get hired after their first audition. I think even the act of auditioning is a rite of passage in some ways.
Fendrich says running this dramatic gauntlet can be rather unnerving.
The auditions for Second City are fully improvised. I mean, you show up, you hand somebody your headshot, go into a room, and for the next 30 minutes, youre gonna be asked to do scenes or play games with other experienced actors. No matter who you are or where you come from, you have to do this and its impossible to know whether itll go well or not.
Luckily for him, the Beloit, Wisc., native eventually got the nod, and after working in improv for 6 years as an actor, director and teacher, hes finally out on the road with the most esteemed company in the business. Its an opportunity and a lifestyle he digs greatly.
The exciting thing is touring, although its mildly disorienting. The travelling helps you find yourself and hone in on your strengths as a performer. Its always changing, and youre continuously in front of different types of crowds. The folks who enjoy touring never want to stop.
This particular show commemorates the 45th Anniversary of the theatre, and while Fendrich and the 7 other castmembers will salute that milestone with some classic bits from the Second City archives, he says there will be plenty of newer, original material in the 2-hour show but thats about as specific as he gets.
We plan the basic show that well take on the road, but since theres always a healthy does of improvisation, its always changing. I know thats a pretty vague answer, but the truth is rather vague.
That makes it a little difficult to adequately describe what goes on at a Second City show, but suffice it to say there will be plenty to laugh at, and more than a bit to ponder as well. This particular group has played a handful of road dates so far (they just returned home from Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Ca.), not to mention several hometown gigs, and Fendrich says the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
Everywhere we go weve had a great time. We played for one audience, though, and for some reason, the demographic skewed a lot older than usual. All I can say is this show is not really geared so much for people in their 70s, if you know what I mean (laughs).
Contrary to popular belief, most of the material the Second City is known for is actually scripted in advance, and rehearsed although those scripted pieces usually grow out of improvisational exercises. However, Fendrich says the actors try to indulge themselves a bit.
Its essentially a two-act show, he explains. But, if we can, well do a fully improvised third set, totally from audience suggestions. Thats encouraged.
Its that specific type of improv comedy that most of mainstream America is familiar with, thanks to the overwhelming success of ABC-TVs stateside version of the landmark BBC television series Whose Line Is It Anyway? That popular primetime show features a group of 4 experienced and versatile actors and singers racing against the clock to create humorous sketches out of thin air.
While Fendrich says he enjoys Whose Line, and appreciates the way its helped to educate the average person about the existence of improv comedy, he feels the format theyve chosen while perfect for a 30-minute TV program presents a rather limited view of the potential his chosen field can provide.
Theres a lot more to explore through the art form than just games. That being said, I think its great. What they do, they do extremely well. The people they have on the show are simply brilliant artists, Theyre hilarious and sharp actors.
And while working in improv means that each and every show is inherently unique, theres one batch of gigs that Fendrich says hell never forget. That was the stint he and his castmembers did with the USO this past November, entertaining the troops in Iraq and Kuwait.
That was an amazing experience in several ways, he recalls. There were moments when we were flying in Blackhawks over Baghdad. We heard a car bomb go off. Mortars hit the bases a couple of times while we were there. So there were definitely times which were cause for alarm. But, those moments were overshadowed by playing for the troops, talking to them, and spending time with these guys and women who are extraordinary folks in extraordinary conditions at an extraordinary place in time.
I remark that its ironic for soldiers who spend their whole time essentially thinking on their feet in stressful conditions to relax by watching other people do pretty much the same thing.
God, youre right. Youre absolutely right, he muses.
That actually sparks a memory for me. We heard some real improv there. I think we were in Camp Cobra, when a mortar hit, and the soldiers threw me and the other actors into a bunker and stood guard outside which was incredibly heroic, he says.
I mean, we were strangers. But immediately, their first goal is to protect civilians. It was pitch black, cause it was what they call a blackout camp without any lights on. And we heard this guy say to his men, Everyone stay calm, nobody freak out when we go out there. They had to investigate where the shells came from. Theyre going out into the darkness, with no idea of what could happen. So I guess in a way, theyre improvising this whole war, Fendrich says.
Every group has its own dynamic, he continues. Fortunately, we all really like each other. Certainly, going to war and sharing that experience, makes for a group that trusts each other. We know well take care of each other in extenuating circumstances. That makes it nice.
Fendrich who passed through Savannah on a personal trip last year says that sense of camaraderie will make their time in Savannah all the more enjoyable. The whole cast is looking forward to their Southern dates, especially after having to deal with the notoriously bitter Chicago winter.
I think weve got a day off while were there and were planning on relaxing and just trying to soak it all in. Weve heard about a famous all-you-can-eat buffet, so were looking forward to that as well.
Thats an entirely different type of improv altogether, I say with a smile.
The Second Citys 45th Anniversary Tour plays Trustees Theatre on Friday, at 8 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the SCAD Box Office, or by phone at 525-5050.