Willard Reflects On Second City At 50

The Second City alumni Robert Klein and Fred Willard in 1965. i i

hide captionThe Second City alumni Robert Klein (left) and Fred Willard in 1965

Courtesy of The Second City
The Second City alumni Robert Klein and Fred Willard in 1965.

The Second City alumni Robert Klein (left) and Fred Willard in 1965

Courtesy of The Second City

The Second City this month celebrates 50 years of making improvisational comedy, and Fred Willard, a Second City alum, joins NPR's Michele Norris to talk about the famed comedy club.

"It started in a little coffee shop down near the University of Chicago — and I think it drew a very intellectual crowd, a college crowd, a graduate crowd," Willard tells Norris. "It was pretty low-profile, but I think it gained popularity. I don't think there was anything like that at the time. It was before Monty Python. It was before Saturday Night Live."

Second City: Unscripted, a new book that marks the comedy club's 50-year anniversary, takes a look at the troupe's on- and offstage history. Read An Excerpt

So with no script to follow, how did he prepare to go onstage?

"I think what it comes from is just doing it night after night," Willard says.

Going Bananas

Art imitates life: A Second City sendup of NPR and a real story from 'Fresh Air.'

The first time he went onstage he says he "had nothing."

"They pushed me out there and suddenly I got into it and did quite well," Willard says. "And the next night, I was standing backstage and they were doing something and I said I have a wonderful joke and I went on and I did the joke and it got a laugh and suddenly there was nothing left there."

Willard says The Second City taught him to never go onstage with an extreme character and never go on with just one joke.

The key to improv, he says, is doing it over and over each night, until you're no longer thinking and you "just get on and jump in the stream."

The Second City At 50: The 'Harvard Of Ha Ha'

Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Andrea Martin and John Candy

hide captionDan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Andrea Martin and John Candy in a promo shot, Toronto, 1975.

Hugh Wesley Photo

A Southwest Airlines jet arriving in Chicago's Midway Airport on Friday was bound to have been one of the funniest flights ever. Alumni of Chicago's famed Second City theater were onboard, returning to their comedy roots for the weekend's 50th-anniversary celebration of the theater where they honed their acting, writing and performing skills.

From the beginning, The Second City has always been an unparalleled incubator of talent, launching the careers of a who's who of Hollywood, television and Saturday Night Live stars: Alan Arkin, Paul Sand, Barbara Harris, Fred Willard, Robert Klein, Peter Boyle, Joan Rivers, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Eugene Levy, Tim Kazurinsky, Mary Gross, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, George Wendt, Shelly Long, Bonnie Hunt, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Steve Carell, Steven Colbert, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Horatio Sanz and many, many more.

But serving as a Midwest farm team for the Hollywood and New York City big leagues was far from what the founders planned.

Co-founders Bernie Sahlins, Paul Sills and Howard Alk came out of the intellectual world of the University of Chicago, where they'd played in a comedy troupe called the Compass Players. In 1959, they saw an opportunity to break out of the buttoned-down 1950s and capitalize on the growing counterculture movement, and they opened a theater in a storefront on Chicago's near North Side that used to house a Chinese laundry.

"Second City came out of the '50s when there was more of this conservative mother-in-law comedy going on," says Mike Thomas, author of The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.

"Nationally, for a long time, Second City was really the only place people could come to see and be involved in this satirical, improv-based comedy," he says.

The Second City actors hone their craft onstage virtually every night. "If you're doing eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year for two or three years, you're going to become a very strong performer," says The Second City's owner and executive producer, Andrew Alexander.

Steve Carell, Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert and David Razowsky in 1993

hide captionSecond City alumni include Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert (shown here at left and second from right).

Courtesy of JenniferGirard.com

"It's also about encouraging failure," says Alexander. "That's what the improv sets are all about. That is where they get to take chances, and they take risks, and many nights, that doesn't work; it fails, but out of that failure makes them better."

It's a somewhat rigorous place to work and train. Thomas calls The Second City "The Harvard of Ha Ha" — it is tough to get into and grueling to get through, but it's potentially huge to someone's career.

"If you want to get good, come to Chicago and Second City," said theater director Matt Hovde, who is also creative director of The Second City's growing training center. "If you want to get rich and famous, you might have to leave, but if you want to get good, if you really care about improvising well and becoming an artist who has a point of view and can do the variety of things that Second City actors have gone on to do, then you need to come here."

The Second City brand has expanded far beyond the Windy City. The Second City Toronto has been a fixture for close to 40 years, producing many of the franchise's biggest stars. There are three traveling troupes touring the country, troupes performing on Norwegian Cruise ships, a corporate communications arm and a training center that offers improv classes to 2,000 students per session.

It's all part of a growing $30 million comedy empire.

Hovde insists The Second City hasn't lost sight of its roots.

"Night and after night, live onstage we put up a two-act sketch comedy revue that pokes fun at the world and the way it is," Hovde said. "It always comes down to that for us."

And that is how Second City plans to thrive for another 50 years.

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