Second City Still Funny At 50

The famed comedy troupe in Chicago, The Second City, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend. The group helped to launch the careers of Alan Arkin, the Belushi brothers, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Stephen Colbert; and Tina Fey to name just some. Dozens of alumni will gather this weekend in Chicago to celebrate the milestone.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here's a reunion I'd like to be at: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Jim Belushi will be among dozens of Second City alumni gathering in Chicago this weekend to celebrate the theater's 50 years of funny. The first Second City performance took place a half century ago. NPR's David Schaper reports on how a little storefront comedy theater became one of the most influential in the nation.

DAVID SCHAPER: What's most impressive about walking into the Second City's small lobby are the walls. You go up the stairs toward the bar and the walls are full of pictures depicting five decades of Second City's comedy.

Mr. ANDREW ALEXANDER (Owner, Second City): If we come over here to this wall, this is sort of where it starts.

SCHAPER: Second City owner and executive producer Andrew Alexander shows off pictures of casts and skits from December of 1959 through today.

Mr. ALEXANDER: You see a ton of great people: Fred Willard, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Mina Kolb.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. ALAN ARKIN (Actor): (as Noah) Hello God. God it's me, Noah. Noah. Yeah, N-O-A-H, Noah.

SCHAPER: That's Alan Arkin at Second City back in 1961. Arkin would go on to win an Oscar for his role in "Little Miss Sunshine," playing along side another Second City alum and one of today's biggest TV stars, Steve Carell.

From the beginning, the Second City has always been an unparalleled incubator of talent. But serving as a Midwest farm team for the Hollywood and New York big leagues was far from what the founders planned. At the University of Chicago, they'd played in a comedy troop called the Compass Players and wanted to capitalize on the growing counterculture movement.

Mr. MIKE THOMAS (Chicago Sun-Times): Second City came out of the '50s when there was more of this conservative mother-in-law type comedy going on.

SCHAPER: Chicago Sun-Times entertainment reporter Mike Thomas wrote the book "Second City Unscripted." He says while Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and a few others took on the establishment with biting satire in standup, Second City's ensemble work was unique.

Mr. THOMAS: Nationally for a long time Second City was really the only place people could come to see and to be involved in this sort of satirical improve-based comedy.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Woman: Banana.

Unidentified Man: Banana.

(Soundbite of drums)

Unidentified People: Banana.

SCHAPER: Improv is essential to Second City, making comedy out of a simple object shouted out by an audience member, as in this 1997 sketch with Tina Fey.

Ms. TINA FEY (Actor): You have been listening to an excerpt of the Polynesian banana dance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: And this is WBEZ Chicago, National Public Radio.

SCHAPER: Wait a minute. Making fun of NPR? Is nothing sacred? At the Second City, no.

Mr. MATT HOVDE (Director, Second City): Well, we certainly don't shy away from controversial topics. I mean that's often what's interesting.

SCHAPER: Second City director Matt Hovde.

Mr. HOVDE: Second City has a great history of dealing with, you know, sort of edgy sexual issues and political issues and racial issues.

SCHAPER: Hovde and others say the key to Second City's success is to be both funny and relevant, and Second City performers do so relentlessly, eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year.

Owner Andrew Alexander says that Second City alum have not just gone to success onscreen but behind it as well, as producers, directors and writers. He says that's because Second City performers are creating and writing their own material.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Here you get to develop your own character. You really get a chance to really develop your point of view, so you become a multi threat.

SCHAPER: Many here cite the freedom to try new things and fail as a critical element to their success. Author Mike Thomas called the Second City the Harvard of ha ha - tough to get into, grueling to get through, but potentially huge.

The Second City brand has expanded far beyond the Windy City. Second City Toronto has been a fixture for close to 40 years. There are three traveling troops that tour the country, 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.

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

Mr. HOVDE: Night after night, live on stage we put up, you know, a two act sketch comedy review that's going to poke some fun at the way the world is, and always comes down to that for us.

SCHAPER: And that, he says, is how Second City plans to thrive for another 50 years.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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