When talking about Chicago, there are two distinct epochs: the crime, corruption and pizza that marked its pre-The Second City days; and the crime, corruption, pizza and comedy that defines it today.

The Second City: Laughing Matters

Tonight and Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
The Ark

The Second City, an improvisation group that not only put Chicago on the comedic map, but also launched too many stars to name, turns 50 this year. In celebration of their golden anniversary they’ve put together “Laughing Matters,” a special best-of-the-best sketch show that will open tonight at The Ark.

“It’s an understatement to say it’s been hard to look back on the decades and decades of material and pare that down to only a two-hour show,” said Jessica Mitolo, Second City member and director of “Laughing Matters.” “Imagine combing through and having to choose between a sketch by Stephen Colbert and one by Steve Carell — difficult.”

However, this dauntingly large catalog of sketches represents exactly what The Second City is known for: unbridled creativity and a proclivity for tackling every topic swirling around their actors and audiences heads. And that, Mitolo explained, comes from the process of improv.

“All the sketches (the audience) will see are generated from ideas submitted by the actors, which are improvised in front of live audiences again and again until they become solidified enough to be considered a script,” Mitolo said.

For those worried that a scripted, “best of” show doesn’t have the same immediacy and punch that improv might bring, Mitolo explained that there’s still the same audience interaction and spontaneity driving the show.

“There’s a beautiful part of improv where you might never see it again and that’s still true in this show,” Mitolo said. “Not to overstate it, but the audience is vital to the set. The actors are still feeding off the audience, reacting to what they find funny and adapting to make the show as humorous for them as possible.”

As for the show’s material, Mitolo explained they tried to bring a little of everything together while writing.

“You’ll see material by big names from their early days, but you’re also going to see some of the most current pieces still being preformed on our main stages,” Mitolo said. “But on a level of material too, it ranges from politics and race, to murder mysteries and even more bizzare.”

The Second City has always been defined by its topical immediacy, and even in “Laughing Matters,” where source material can at times be decades old, the humor hopes to come through.

“You’d be surprised at how much some things don’t change,” Mitolo said. “Especially during an election year, the issues of race, news outlets, politics are very cyclical. And even if some of the topical pieces aren’t as immediate anymore, the way we’ve approached that material — by focusing on timeless relationships — keeps it present, keeps it funny.”

To emphasize this, one might consider that though “hanging chad” jokes aren’t totally relevant anymore, the issues and relationship of voter fraud and voting regulation is still as pertinent now as it was 12 years ago. It’s these broader social strokes that the show captures, Mitolo explained.

“In the end, we’re comedians and the show is there to be funny,” Mitolo said. “Maybe audience members don’t agree always with the material, but hopefully the show encourages an arena where everything is at play, everything is on the table and everything can become part of the humor.”

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