In December, a Chicago institution will mark 60 years in business.
The Second City (@TheSecondCity) calls itself the world's premier comedy club, comedy theater and school of improvisation, and it certainly has made its mark on comedy in America. The list of famous Second City alumni is far too long to list in full, but it includes Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Stephen Colbert, Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Gilda Radner. Many of them performed on Second City's mainstage before taking their ideas to Hollywood and Saturday Night Live.
Nearly six decades after its founding, The Second City remains a mecca for young actors and writers hoping to make a career out of comedy — even though the rise of competitors like The Annoyance Theatre or The iO Theater mean there are more options than ever for aspiring comedians in Chicago.
On a recent Monday night, dozens of students gathered in classrooms or huddled in small groups in an open theater at The Second City's headquarters, practicing their sketches, eating a microwaved meal or just chatting.
Jessica Hanebury, 37, is among them. She started taking classes at The Second City three years ago.
Hanebury performs improv while holding a full-time job in advertising, but she says she always wanted to be an actress.
“I kind of spooked myself out of doing that, and I always kind of regretted it,” she says. Then she enrolled in The Second City’s training center. “Class after class I was sucked in and I was like, ‘This is how I really want to make my income, more than I just want it to be a creative outlet.”
She says her goal is to make a living writing and performing comedy.
"I’m so inspired being here,” she says. “It’s so much fun. I am truly bitten by the bug. I’m lit up about being here more than I’ve ever been lit up about anything in my entire life.”
Hanebury knows that most aspiring comedians never make it big in the industry, but she says she isn’t scared.
“I’m only worried that I would quit before I really tried,” she says. “If I can get even 50/50 to where I’m performing and making that part of my life and making that an outlet, I’ll be overjoyed.”
Jess Alexander, 27, was studying at the Moody Bible Institute to be a pastor, but he put that aside when he started a conservatory program at The Second City. Now he wants to do comedy full time.
"Some people say [Los Angeles], some people say New York,” he says, “I would love to just live in Chicago and raise a family, maybe teach, [perform] on one of these stages," Alexander says.
The Second City’s reputation intimidated him at first, but now Alexander says, he feels like he’s part of something great.
"This place used to frighten me in the wrong way before I got to know that the producers and the actors, they’re human just like anybody else,” Alexander says. “There's a lot of empathy that happens when you're in a place like this.”
There's also empathy because improv is all about feeding off of one another on stage. In fact, there are two schools of thought on how to think about improv: one is that you should try to lift up your castmates first before you think about yourself; the other is just the opposite.
"Taking care of yourself is really important because then you know what your deal is, what your character might be, what your objective is, and if the other person is also thinking that then you guys can make something together" Alexander says. “I think that applies to a lot of things in life — I’m in a marriage, and I hope that my wife doesn’t just have to just carry me the whole time … I think that translates really well.”
Alexander is sitting by a wall papered with black-and-white headshots of some of The Second City's most successful alumni — people like Eugene Levy, Mike Myers and Jane Lynch.
Anthony LeBlanc is on that wall, too. He's been at The Second City since 2003 and is now a director. He also works as an acting coach for Nickelodeon. LeBlanc studied computer science and physics in college and originally wanted to work for NASA. Then, he found comedy.
"There are some people who move here to be like, ‘I want to be on SNL’ or whatever that might be, but there’s also a large amount of people who just come in here randomly and then wind up working their way into comedy,” LeBlanc says. “Actually, I think that’s different about Chicago. New York and LA have a lot of people who are trying to move on in the industry. There are people here who are doctors by day, or lawyers by day, but at night they perform comedy at a high enough level that people pay money to see them.”
LeBlanc says Chicago’s comedy scene is unique in other ways, too.
"Improv was born here. That’s tied into the mentality of how it started with Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd teaching immigrant children how to relate to the new world that they’re in,” LeBlanc says. “It kind of comes out of this place of struggle and hardship that I think pushes people to really enjoy and have fun. You have to when it’s cold most of the time. When it’s negative 50 with the wind chill you have to laugh about something.”
LeBlanc says today success in comedy is not all about that regular visit from Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live, who comes looking for new talent.
And in 2019, The Second City has more competition for laughs in Chicago than it used to. Comedians starting out today in Chicago are just as likely to come up through The Annoyance Theatre or The iO Theater, formerly known as ImprovOlympic.
Since 1981, iO has built a reputation among aspiring comedians for its commitment to long-form improv.
Charna Halpern, who cofounded iO along with Del Close, says her theater is different from its cousin just a mile down the road.
“The reason I started was because if you weren’t one of the six people on stage at Second City you weren’t performing, and I wasn’t one of the six people,” she says. “There were so many of us who didn’t have a place to play, so I created this little game theater.”
In its early days, Halpern says, iO was a place for actors to play improv games and come up with sketch ideas they’d take to The Second City. But she wanted more. Enter Del Close.
“He said, ‘If you want to shut down your little game theater, we can create this thing I’ve been working on called The Harold,’ and I said, ‘Yes, please!’ And the work just became amazing,” Halpern says.
The Harold is iO's signature format for a long-form improv show. In The Harold, actors improvise not just funny scenes and moments, but characters and storylines that build a narrative arc and come to a conclusion over about 45 minutes.
Today there is a lot more to iO than just The Harold. Regular acts include the satirical news show Whirled News Tonight, improvised musicals, improvised Shakespeare, and a new addition, improvised Jane Austen.
Sarah Mobley and Kate Parker are two of the show's cast members. Years before they brought Improvised Jane Austen to iO’s stage, they were students at the theater.
Today both of them are regular performers, but they make a living elsewhere. Mobley is a special education teacher and Parker works odd jobs including retail, graphic design and babysitting.
“Improv is a skill for every situation,” Parker says. “For schools, for business, for customer service, for life, for friendships, it’s an amazing tool that you can use pretty much anywhere.”
For Mobley, there’s nothing like being on stage with other improvisers.
“Whatever is coming at you, you get to say ‘yes,’ and it teaches to say ‘yes’ to life,” Mobley says. “So not only is it a way of expressing your art, but also of expressing your philosophy of life. And being in it and doing it continuously makes you always reflect and say, ‘Am I saying yes to life enough while still taking care of myself?’ "
That passion for the art of improv is what keeps many people motivated in a field where financial success is far from guaranteed, even for iO’s owner, Charna Halpern.
“Property taxes have gone through the roof and it’s very difficult — this is the same thing that happened to UCB in New York, the governments are putting the comedy clubs out of business,” Halpern says. “I have to deal with all the administrative stuff … [but] I’m in the best business you could possibly be in, and every day I wake up and I know how lucky I am.”
That night before their performance, the cast of Improvised Jane Austen is getting ready in the green room, putting on froofy period costumes and warming up with improv games.
There's no script, of course, so the actors can only prepare by listening and playing off one other.
This segment aired on March 6, 2019.