Tucked into a creaking corner of Chicago, a comedy club called The Second City waits for the sun to set and the stage to light up. My boyfriend and I had booked two tickets for the Sunday night show as a sort of grand finale for spring break in the Windy City. After dutifully shivering at the snowy Bean, stuffing ourselves with deep dish pizza and sipping expensive Intelligentsia coffee, one tradition of Chicago still remained unchecked: the comedy scene — specifically, improvisational comedy, trademarked through generations of talented actors at The Second City, whose sketches laid the foundation for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and launched dozens of stars into funnyman fame.
If you haven’t heard of Second City, the performers probably wouldn’t blame you (though fans, including myself, may be seriously offended). In the late 1950s, a misfit acting troupe made its mark on the seedy outskirts of the University of Chicago, performing short comedy skits in the back of a bar called Compass. Though the gig began as a gimmick to sell more drinks, the “Compass Players” quickly grew in popularity because of their unique interaction with the audience: instead of strictly following script, the players would act out audience suggestions with on-spot improvisation. These scenes combined to set a movement into motion — timely, organic comedy, performed on a bare stage, with only bar stools as props.
Heavily influenced by the Compass Players, The Second City soon opened its doors, housed in a cheaply renovated laundromat. It was 1959 and tides were shifting — Democrats were growing under charismatic John F. Kennedy a few years before his presidency, the Civil Rights Movement was underway and love was on the minds of righteous, Elvis-rocking teens — staging a perfect storm of satirical comedy to sweep the nation.
The Second City wave wasn’t a one-hit wonder, nor were the actors it whipped out through the decades, among them Bill Murray (“Ghostbusters”), Mike Myers (“Austin Powers”), Steve Carell (“The Office”), Jason Sudeikis (“We’re the Millers”) and my personal favorite, Tina Fey (“Date Night”). Though the lineup has shifted, replacing now-famous stars with the fresh faces we saw on Sunday night, the show’s essence remains: in the end, it’s all about the actors and the audience, together seeking humor through laughs and flops.
As Bill Murray said in an interview with the late Roger Ebert in 1990: “The reason so many Second City people have been successful is really fairly simple. At the heart of it is the idea that if you make the other actors look good, you’ll look good. It works sort of like the idea of life after death. If you live an exemplary life, trying to make someone else look good, you’ll look good too. It braces you up, when you’re out there with that fear of death, which is really the difference between the Second City actors and the others.”
In her book “Bossypants,” Tina Fey also comments on the unrelenting stage and the mutual trust between players: “I always liken it to basketball. If you get passed to once in a game, you have to learn to make that basket or you don’t get passed to again.”
Both Fey and Murray would later be plucked from Chicago and dropped in New York for “Saturday Night Live,” Lorne Michaels’ live sketch comedy show that first aired in 1975 and recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Fey would soon become the show’s head writer and a comedic icon. Murray would replace Chevy Chase (“National Lampoon’s Family Vacation”) and catapult his way to fame, proving that talent remains even when a star leaves.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “SNL” is how it strikes a subject with pinpoint precision, year after 40 years — a feat that can only come from hours of practice on a tiny stage, whether in a dingy bar or the spotlighted Second City theater, using the energy of the audience to feed the flame.