Radner, Belushi, Alda, Harper Et Al Know the Comedic Source Is Chicago's Famed Second City

Take the best and worst of Saturday Night Live, the Marx Brothers and Marcel Marceau and that’s the Second City, Chicago’s celebrated improvisational theater. Every night of the year except Christmas Eve, audiences grin and bear with the unseasoned actors, knowing they may be watching potential stars. After all, Second City has spawned the likes of Alan Alda, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Alan Arkin, and SNL’s Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. The club has had a stunning influence on TV and screen humor. “Second City,” says Bernard Sahlins, the club’s impresario and founder, “is the base. It’s the source.”

After two decades it seems unlikely the source will ever run dry. Last December Second City celebrated its 20th anniversary—and the outrageous jokes and jokesters keep coming. Second City has minor-league clubs in nearby Dundee (so Sahlins can keep an eye on it) and in Toronto, a touring company and a syndicated TV show. NBC is currently considering a network program.

Both actors and audience in the Chicago cabaret tend to come from the same age group (18-35) and share a taste for slapstick. “People are less intellectually preoccupied than they were when we began,” observes Sahlins. “Once, the lonely brooder was in style. Now, people get high rather than brood.”

So Second City’s improvisations are mostly lowbrow. In one skit a young man trying to move back home finds that his parents don’t want him: They are enjoying their sexual freedom. In another, a campaigning Jimmy Carter proclaims, “I will visit Chappaquiddick Island to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Secretary.”

The audience’s response often depends on the level of spirituous consumption (mostly beer) at the Formica-top tables. The decorations are sparse and admission is only $5.50. The actors are paid $260 a week. Performers stay an average of four years—and leave of their own will. “You have to garrote someone to get fired,” says a member of the troupe.

The possessive and paternalistic Sahlins does not like his protégés lured away too quickly. When he opened a branch in Manhattan in 1962, New York’s talent-hungry agents and producers began to raid; he closed down. Sahlins likes to think of Chicago as the world capital of comedy. The night playwright David Mamet, a former Second City busboy, opened his American Buffalo on Broadway, Sahlins sent him a telegram saying: “Good luck on the road.”

Sahlins, 57, is himself a local product. The son of a doctor (there wasn’t a funny bone in the family), he majored in math at the University of Chicago. After World War II he helped smuggle European Jews into Palestine. Then he spent 10 unhappy years manufacturing tape recorders, hanging out on evenings and weekends at the Playwrights Theatre Club of Chicago. This led to a job as co-producer with the group. In 1959, when friends like Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin found they had nowhere to perform, Sahlins opened Second City in a Chinese laundry with Paul Sills and Howard Alk. The club moved to its present cinder-block building on Wells Street in 1967.

Sahlins’ initial $6,000 investment was provident. He is able to live elegantly in a Chicago townhouse with his second wife, British-born Jane Nicholl, a former 60 Minutes producer. (Sahlins has a daughter, Lee, 32, from his first marriage, to Fritzie Sager, a theater director.) Increasingly, he has turned to writing TV and film scripts (with the help of the Second City company and wife Jane).

But Sahlins’ heart is still in the club. “We give actors a place to fail,” he says. “That’s rare in this business. So they dare to risk here and do their most creative work.” To celebrate the anniversary, he took out an ad in Variety to list 219 actors, directors and musicians who had started at Second City (many others falsely claim the credential in their resumes). The list reads like a showbiz Who’s Who. Sahlins jokes, “Even Will Rogers got started here.”

Related Articles