Second City's Paul Sills, Improv Innovator

Paul Sills, one of the founders of the Chicago-based improv group Second City, died this week. Scott Simon talks with Second City alumnus Harold Ramis about Sills' lasting impact on the world of comedy.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, who - who let the mouse in? But first, Paul Sills was one of the people who brought the feel of bebop into the theater. He was the founder of the Compass Players in Chicago, which grew into the Second City, which for almost 50 years has been a powerhouse for improvisational comedy.

You can now cite the stars by certain vintages, the Second City of Mike Nicholson, Elaine May, and Alan Arkin, or of the Belushi Brothers, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara, and now, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert. Paul Sills died this week. He was 80 years old and still working. Harold Ramis, the esteemed film producer, director, actor, and another Second City graduate joins us from just outside Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HAROLD RAMIS (Film Producer, Director, Actor): My pleasure.

SIMON: Where do you see the Paul Sills influence today?

Mr. RAMIS: Just about everywhere. In everything I do, I'm constantly running across actors who were at Second City and headlined. And if not Second City itself, so many people who've been through Improv Olympics in Chicago or the Upright Citizens Brigade or the Groundlings. There are groups everywhere now, every college campus has improv groups. And they were all spawned by the work of Paul Sills and, of course, Viola Spolin, his mother.

SIMON: You know, the phrase the golden age of Second City was five years before you got there. And, of course, now, it's an international enterprise in that a theater in an old Chinese laundry. But is there something of Paul Sills' spirit that you can discern there, even when it's a Second City company on a cruise ship or in Las Vegas?

Mr. RAMIS: Yeah, I think there is. Because one thing has never changed - it's almost like a religious creed - and that is that the work is communal, that it's collaborative. The motto was, if you'd focus really hard on trying to make everyone else look good, then we will either all look good together, or we'll fail together. And that's a better underlying message than the look-at-me kind of feeling you get from most show business and most entertainment.

The other aspect was always work from the top of your intelligence, which is something that I think had to come from the Compass and from Sills at the University of Chicago because they were nothing if not really well educated, really cultured, and really astute.

SIMON: And so that's where you get, obviously, routines like "Varsity Football Returns to the University of Chicago."

Mr. RAMIS: Right. Right. It's not a ball. It's an oblate spheroid.

SIMON: Paul Sills was apparently working more or less until the end. Is there a lot to be said for that?

Mr. RAMIS: Well, yeah. And I think the kind of work we do, no one feels like it's work. We call it playing. All the people who are trained in improv, they all say, do you want to play? Or, I'm playing at Improv Olympic. You know, Paul was never about the money or about the fame. And I think that's very liberating and, you know, allowed him to just always do only what he wanted to do. He never had to ask anyone for anything.

SIMON: Actor and director Harold Ramis speaking of Paul Sills, one of the founders of Second City, who died this week at the age of 80. Thanks so much.

Mr. RAMIS: My pleasure.

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