Willard Reflects On Second City At 50 The Second City this month celebrates 50 years of making improvisational comedy, and Fred Willard, a Second City alumnus, joins NPR's Michele Norris to talk about the famed comedy club. The key to improv, he says, is to just do it.
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Willard Reflects On Second City At 50

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Willard Reflects On Second City At 50

Willard Reflects On Second City At 50

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For 50 years, the Second City Comedy Troupe has been churning out first-class talent: Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Mike Myers, and those are just the Canadians. There's also Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Jim and John Belushi, there's Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey - I could go on and on, but we simply don't have the time.

It all started on a snowy Chicago night back in 1959. A small troupe used experimental techniques and improvisational games to create a whole new brand of comedy.

All these years later, the Second City is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend with a splashy, star-studded three-day event. Second City veteran Fred Willard will be there. It's where he got his start before going on to make movies including "Best in Show" and "Waiting for Guffman."

Willard joined me to talk about the Second City's humble beginnings.

Mr. FRED WILLARD (Actor): It started in a little coffee shop down near the University of Chicago, which I guess is kind of a very intellectual college.

NORRIS: And a little bit uptight.

Mr. WILLARD: Is it? I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLARD: I always look at it as the kind of place I probably would love to go to but probably wouldn't be too successful. And I think it drew a very intellectual crowd, a college crowd, a graduate crowd. It was pretty low-profile. But I think it gained popularity - and I don't think there was anything like that at the time. It was before Monty Python. It was before "Saturday Night Live."

There were sketches in burlesque shows, but of course, Second City was - had a more subtle approach, and it was kind of offbeat, and it just grew slowly.

NORRIS: Second City did a series of sketches, and there was a lot of, as we said, a lot of improvisation, and the nights often had sort of a theme to this. But you really - it was almost like a high-wire act because you didn't know what to expect when you stepped on stage. You didn't - there was, you know, not necessarily a script that you would follow. And for that kind of work where you have to be spontaneous, and you have to be quick, and you have to be sharp, you have to be facile, how do you prep yourself for something like that? What do you have to do an hour before the show to make sure you can shine on stage?

Mr. WILLARD: You know, I think what it comes from is just doing it night after night. And I remember the first day someone pushed me out onto the stage. They said, get out there. I remember it was a sketch about - from news story that someone found a penguin on the El platform, and I had nothing, and they pushed me out there, and suddenly I got into it and did quite well. And the next night, I was standing backstage, and they were doing something. 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. I was - I just was cold the rest of the time.

So, the one thing they always taught us: never go on with an extreme character because you're going to be stuck with it. Never go on with just one joke because unless you have something to follow it up with, it's not going to go anywhere. The key is doing it over and over and over until that barrier in your mind, where you say, oh, should I say this, should I not say that, until that wears out, and you don't really think. You just get on and jump into the stream.

NORRIS: Now, perhaps it's not fair for me to ask you this, but I'm going to ask you anyway, but you were - you joined Second City at a point where they weren't using as many of the games and improvisational exercises that were the product of this acting coach, Viola Spolin, but there's - I'm just wondering if you would be willing to play along, nonetheless.

She had a series of techniques that she used, little games called magic music and who am I, and scene on scene. And there's one called gibberish interpreters. Are you familiar with that one?

Mr. WILLARD: Yes, I think I've seen that.

NORRIS: Where two players take on turns giving a speech on a subject of the audience's choosing, and so I'm wondering if you would be willing to - on the spot, right now - give us a speech, a little free association about NPR. Let's say the first title of that speech is "This is NPR."

Mr. WILLARD: NPR, as we know, looking backwards over the years and what is going on in our relationships around the world as we hold our hands together, hands out across the sea with China. You talk about our relationship with Germany, and where is Germany going these days? Where is the youth going and how we have to have a focal point with our president, Obama, and the delineation between Obama and the earlier Bushes, George Sr., George Jr.? And who can remember the difference? Was there a Sammy Davis, Sr.? I don't believe so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLARD: But my point is when the Sammy Davis Jr. outshines, but it all comes together as we look forward to the New Year, which some people say, no, it's the year closer to death, and others say it was a terrible year, it's a year closer to life, and we celebrate it here on NPR with Fred Willard, without Catherine O'Hara, who I wish had been here. She may be coming here now. You know, we had a time change four weeks ago, and she still may have not turned her watch back, as so many of us have, and could we only - would it be wonderful to turn our watches back to 1948.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Now, if we were really doing the Spolin exercise...

Mr. WILLARD: That was...

NORRIS: ...that was pretty good. That was impressive.

Mr. WILLARD: Well, that was a good one for me. I always remember Alan Arkin. He directed me in a play once, and he said to someone, there's two people that can talk and make no sense. That's Fred Willard and John Wayne.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLARD: I'm not sure what that meant, but...

NORRIS: Fred Willard, it's been a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. WILLARD: Well, thank you for having me. This was wonderful.

NORRIS: All the best to you, and happy anniversary.

Mr. WILLARD: Thank you, and many more.

NORRIS: That was Fred Willard. He was talking to us about the 50th anniversary of the Second City.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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