Amnesia and the Laugh Track – Mike Thomas, The Second City Unscripted

It now seems indecent, given the almost total amnesia enveloping this celebrated enterprise, to pose any tart questions about what actually happened at Second City; something that might stumble beyond the booster reviews, cozy nostalgia, and promo brochures. When amnesia corrodes to official memory it seems downright unpatriotic to suggest that the place now reeks of failed vision and a media-driven, Star-powered consumerism so blatant and ingrained that it seems genetic. To suggest that there is a sad chronicle underneath such a corporate Show Business success tale counters the tide of media wisdom.

The early Sixties brought about a satirical Renaissance which propelled Beyond the Fringe, Barry Humphries and the Goons in England; and Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Nichols and May to the fore in the United States. The grim gray Cold War Nowhere of the McCarthy period was suddenly swept away with a full frontal Brainiac attack engineered by, among others, the U. of C. renegades who formed Compass and later, Second City. Second City’s is a complicated, and meticulously forgotten story overseen by that shimmering rectangle dubbed corporate TV, where the Defense Contractor Network meets the laugh track. Author Mike Thomas’ Second City Unscripted roils with tales of infighting and solidarity, affection and vendetta, in tracing the apparently irresistible rise of Chicago’s Second City to the comedy colossus where 30 Rock wannabees now implore sacred career advice and life-enhancing experience.

“Whether your goals include being on 30 Rock, or you just want to get through your next job interview … your experience here will be life changing.” (Second City 2010 Course Catalogue)

The author is a journalist, a designation that used to imply research ability. Instead Unscripted embodies that boisterous commercialist hackery we’ve come to expect from the chronic boosterism posing as information that now passes for journalism. But should we step beyond the glossy media massage … there’s another more complicated story at work. The book affords some anecdotal evidence into what happened at the theater; but, without a context, this fragmentary approach makes for a good read that never jells. Rather than add Unscripted to an already lamentable series of Second City paint-by-numbers memoirs, lets make an attempt at a partial history of the place that veers from the acceptable path

For those interested in the unreported side of Compass and Second City there are a series of video interviews with ex-Compass/Second City people on youtube. There is no evidence that unscripted author Davis took a look.

The founding fathers of Second City were a mixed bag: director/teacher Paul Sills; entrepreneur Bernard Sahlins and filmmaker Howard Alk. Sills’ mother was the First Lady of Improvisation, Viola Spolin, and her book on theater games put theatrical improvisation on the map. Spolin’s efforts grew out of group work, play theory, and the ideas of an extraordinary teacher, Neva Boyd. Spolin blazed the thorny way to Improvisational Theater and gave it a theoretical and practical basis. (I’m using ‘Improvisational’ to distinguish Spolin’s work from Improv – which has rusted into a brand name.) She is slowly coming to be seen as one of the great theatrical thinkers. As the years have wound on at The Second City, her method has been forgotten while generations of Second City disciples have gone on to teach their version of what they never themselves experienced: the fabled Sills/Spolins influence.

Carol Bleackley Sills and some dedicated folk keep the original method alive in Door County, Wisconsin, ( and at New Actors Workshop in New York. They have no connection with Second City. It may come as a distinct surprise that a founder of Second City was one of the first major American Brechtians. The broad, external acting style Sills developed comes directly out of Brecht and infused both Second City and Story Theater. Second City may have begun as a “satirical cabaret” —but “satirical,” with its vaguely political implications has now faded to the more marketable “comedy” category, as the theaters Promo brochure makes all too clear.

Sills directed Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (1953) and Three Penny Opera (1954) – with Chicago’s Playwrights Theater, and was among the first Americans daring enough to stage these works. Shortly after Playwrights folded, Sills’ Fulbright scholarship took him to Brecht’s theater in Berlin. Sills’ later watched his Second City labors and his mother’s ideas reworked to suit “comedy” tactics and he came to resent this diminution. Today the theater openly recruits writers, and teaches comedy writing: evidence of its tenuous claim to mounting improvised shows. The inevitable necessity to write a Second City show while paying a well-worn homage to Improv’s tattered banner is a fixed feature contradiction of Second City PR.

One of the central tenets of Sills’ approach was that the players ‘not work for laughs.’ Here’s immediate evidence of how far his method diverged from what became of it at Second City. The early Second City shows were a mix of both satirical and “character” pieces. The Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris “Beatnik at the Art Gallery” scene was a good example of Sills’ character approach. Sills’ insisted on a balancing his shows, maintaining that a purely comedic approach merely dumbed audiences down. His balanced approach – the tragic mask beside (and inside) the comic one – disappeared at the theater with his departure, and never resurfaced.

The consequent shift in methods at the Second City is nowhere clearer than in the careers of Sills and comic guru Del Close. Close had an on-again off-again relationship with the theater, marred by drug episodes, suicide attempts, and street cred-seeking devotees who often emulated the Master’s lesser moments. I wrote three shows for Close and another Second City alum in the Eighties (at Cross Currents Cabaret) and recall with dismay Close’s biographer assuming that the writing there was a collective effort; so ingrained was the Improv mystique. Sills and Close were polar opposites in method, vision, and praxis, and Thomas’ book doesn’t try to understand why, or what the implications are.

Here’s Paul Sand, one of the best of the early improvisers: “There’s nobody else. Everybody else elbowed their way in. And Paul (Sills) was sort of cheated out of money and things by a lot of people. He didn’t strive for fame because something else was on his mind…He is the only one. He is Second City.”

Bernie Sahlins, brother of the legendary radical anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, was owner/fixture at the place for years until he sold the business to Canadian entrepreneur Andrew Alexander who promptly turned what had been a semi-vanity operation into a theatrical phenomenon generating mega-bucks. Alexander was quick to see that the Second City approach, based on Sills/Spolin’s legacy, would prove a marketing bonanza. The theater’s Training Center blends its educational programs seamlessly with self-help and personal actualization pitches coupled with Show Biz career teasers.

Alexander’s trek through the minute pecking orders, careerist minefields, and ossified back-stage politic he inherited at the theater provide superb anecdotage, lessons in survival and pointers about carefully calibrated deference midst the banshee wail of Banzai ambition and Thespian scramble. The Second City brought many a measure (even overdoses) of fame; a result that first touched and then irritated Sills. It kept Sahlins at center stage long enough to enjoy the financial fruits of Alexander’s buyout. (Alk, having left early on, went on to create a significant body of film work.)

The Second City myth, has three parts:

1: In the Beginning there was University theater, first Playwrights, and then the Compass and finally Second City: a hard-pressed band of actors who labored long and survived to see their effort and Sill’s mother’s method thrive and go on to kindle the careers of Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Shelley Berman and Nichols and May. Sills’ oversaw this period of experimentation, chaos, and edgy inspired work: it remains the Periclean Age at the theater.

2. Sills, prompted by a growing interest in community and in extending his Mother’s method, moves on to found The Game Theater. Sahlins is the only one left standing, and within a few years he inherits a TV-driven publicity bonanza propelled by the success of Saturday Night Live, which spurred a tsunami of hyperbole. The TV show is a launch pad for film careers in what is now a media success formula. The theater at this point makes a quantum jump away from the artistic entity Sills envisioned. That there ever initially was at the Compass and Second City an attempt at fostering an egalitarian vision now seems absurd, but Sills and David Shepherd (Compass) passionately shared a desire to use theater as a way of creating community bonds and for advancing a Progressive politics. Both Sills and Shepherd, incensed by America’s Cold War climate, sought theatrical alternatives.

3. The final phase is Andrew Alexander’s franchising which staggers financially fora moment before generating steady millions. The Canadian is a marketing virtuoso who had an impeccable sense of just where the “Improv” scene bleeds into America’s media- driven TV culture. “Improv” since has spawned a universe of groups, contests, personalities, schools, theaters, and TV, but it remains monochromatic despite Sill’s attempts to push the method beyond the lame laugh mill patterns.

Sadly, but for Janet Coleman’s excellent book The Compass and Jeffrey Sweet’s oral history Something Wonderful Right Away, Second City literature remains mostly embarrassing nostalgia. No one else has gotten remotely close to the real story. Bob Woodward’s book on the late John Belushi took the academy award for clueless exposition. Belushi’s meteoric rise, tenure at the theater, and lurid death still cap the Star stories which obsessed some of the theater’s performers, and generated a world of tabloid dreck.

John Kapelos: “I remember meeting Chris (Farley) and he wanted to have the same fate as John (Belushi.) … Thats how badly the Second City thing had morphed in my opinion.”

Kapelos comment is typical of anecdotes that demand and then generate no questions on the author’s part. Sills left the theater he founded and directed, embittered about the acting profession, show business, and Second City’s embrace of all that he found fatuous and inconsequential. He described debasing his mother’s method to a comedic formula as “stopping a Coke bottle with a diamond.” He went on to found the Game Theater, Free Theater, and finally Story Theater. All were attempts at disassociating his method from the comedy logo and moving onto something befitting what he saw as his Mother’s legacy.

Dennis Cunningham: “ He (Sills) hated the actor mentality that would get in the way a lot.”

Sills’ Cross? His method was fated to be tied to the very show business banalities he most loathed. While Sills labored to deepen and extend his mother’s method, the Second City marched on, overseen by a management so obdurate and implacable that it suggests opera buffo. Superb pianist Fred Kaz is left with nothing after decades of dedication and, but for Andrew Alexander and Jim Belushi’s intervention, penury. In the wake of Sill’s departure in the mid-Sixties come waves of Borscht Belt shtick, befuddlement, directorial schizophrenia, casts force-marched through desperate material, and the degradation of a visionary legacy. It made for terrible and unnoticed ironies. The rhetoric of Improvisation remained: “you’re in your head,” “stay in the space,” “share your …..etc.,” but the actuality had become a joke-driven quip scramble.

Murphy Dunne: “ I remember one time Bernie (Sahlins) came in and said to all of us, (nasal voice),”Tomorrow I want everybody to bring in some jokes. We’ll add the satire later.”

Sheldon Patinkin: “Paul (Sills) did this LSD trip (Sills’ last show at the theater) … which was way beyond the knowledge of (names three cast members.) It went back to Oedipus, which they didn’t know anything about. It traveled history, none of which they were cognizant of … So they hated it.”

Joe Flaherty: “And Bernie (Sahlins) wanted to direct. And those guys knew Bernie is basically an accountant, so they were having problems with him directing.”

The wide range of literary references wielded expertly by early casts soon disappear and the shows fade to whiner angst, toilet jokes, and media mist, as literacy blanches into banal TV lore. During Sahlins’ tenure the theater makes an attempt at conquering television. Second City TV (SCTV), shot in Canada on no budget, became an instant underground hit. John Belushi ruefully noted that SCTV outdid what was going on simultaneously at the deep-pocketed Saturday Night Live. Actor Dave Thomas recounts a Zen moment with Sahlins, who had been “editing” an SCTV segment without bothering to view the footage. Thomas, who saw his work demeaned, went ballistic. Sahlins retreated, responding: “I don’t need to put up with this shit. I’m rich.”

Sills remained a prophet in the wilderness after Second City, and endured a long penurious struggle to sustain Story Theater and to disseminate Spolin’s method. He remained acerbic toward celebrity speculation, eight figure film deals featuring food fights, and self-limiting appeals to the upper reaches of Frat boy consciousness. The demoralizing triumph of theater without content was not just a product of corporate TV. Community theater became increasingly desensitized politically, with the advent of the theater board – management/fund raising teams at the top of many formerly independent organizations who dictate arts agendas and policies in a manner consistent with the values of well-heeled Board members.

The actors interviewed for Unscripted are largely, if not all, management-friendly, but this capitulatory attitude has to be weighed against the performer’s life of serial ingratiation. One of the later cast member’s, amazed at the cliques that formed backstage, remarks:” It was high school all over again.”

Rose Abdoo: “Andrew (Alexander) was taking Second City into the 21st Century … T shirt sales, drink sales … it was going to be McSecond City, and that’s what I didn’t want to be a part of.”

The television landscape is so barren, so void of content that only the documentary film and satire remain media sectors where even an enfeebled criticism is tolerated: hence, the lionization of Jon Stewart and Michael Moore. For those of us interested in how the Improvisational saga migrates from Playwrights and the first American attempts at Brecht to the Borscht Belt insipidity of a celebrity culture bent on mass success, Mr. Thomas book poses no questions and offers no answers. Satire, in its Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert forms has inverted the media: there is nothing else out there that attempts a critique of a society in meltdown. In actuality: Jon Stewart does News: Fox does comedy. The media remains the Empire of the Blind promoting toxic, rampant consumerism. The Second City hardly could be immune.

Second City director Bruce Pirrie: “And I realized its because its commerce … in ten words or less tell us what its about. Because then you can market it … I’d done a show in Toronto… Financial hit … called Facebook of Revelations … The take away from the success was: get a brand name in the title.”

Does it matter that Second City became a franchised brand name: a corporate logo selling “Improv” comedy as sit-com career booster while boasting a method that veered so far from the vision of its originators that it contradicted what they intended? This question is evidence that the theater’s history remains unwritten. “Second City Unscripted” is a vast confused mirage, but there may come a time when someone is interested and able enough to look at the theater’s history without one eye on Variety and the other on the bottom line. Then watch out. Until then, don’t drink the comedic Kool-Aid, and listen for that faint orchestrated cackle. The laugh track is beginning to fade.

Warren Leming is a writer and former actor/musical director with Paul Sill’s Free and first Story Theater Company. He formed the Post-Rational Players with Del Close, and wrote three shows for the group at Cross Currents Cabaret. He produced (with Chicago Filmmakers) and directed the first Brecht on Film festival in the United States. His latest work is a feature documentary ‘American Road,’ (, forthcoming in 2011.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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