Second City's 50th Anniversary Celebration

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From left: Eugene Troobnick, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Paul Sand, William Mathieu, Mina Kolb, Severn Darden, Andrew Duncan
  • Courtesy Second City
  • From left: Eugene Troobnick, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Paul Sand, William Mathieu, Mina Kolb, Severn Darden, and Andrew Duncan

For me, the 50th-anniversary reunion show at Second City on Saturday was epitomized by a single sketch—an oldie but goodie called Phono Pal, from the Old Town comedy theater's fifth revue. Created in 1961 by Paul Sand and Eugene Troobnick, it depicts a shy loner (Sand) playing a record by a motivational speaker (Troobnick, from offstage). As he listens to the voice on the scratchy LP, the loner starts to converse and bond with it. At last weekend's show, Sand—a brilliant, quirky actor with a special knack for conveying a paradoxically comic melancholy—sat on a caneback chair and pantomimed playing a record on a turntable, just as he had done 48 years ago. But since Troobnick died in 2003, his lines were spoken by another Second City alum, a member of the troupe in the mid-1990s: Stephen Colbert, one of today's most accomplished inheritors and purveyors of Second City's tradition of satire. That was Saturday's show in a nutshell: a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration among artists of different generations, coming together to celebrate Second City's unique contribution.

Featuring current and former members of Second City's various ensembles in the U.S. and Canada, the nearly four-hour evening offered a smorgasbord of comic sketches. At its best—about 90 percent of the time—the show featured hilarious material performed with Second City's distinctive blend of crack timing and improvisational spontaneity.

A sampling of sketches and the people who performed them:
Waiter, with Dan Castellaneta and Isabella Hoffman as a couple at a restaurant being served by a condescending waiter portrayed by Richard Kind; Bus,about a group of CTA passengers (Kind, Hoffman, John Kapelos, Betty Thomas, and Bonnie Hunt) on a nightmarish ride; Castanets, with campy Jack McBrayer dancing a flamboyant flamenco to the accompaniment of singer-guitarist Peter Grosz; the sublimely silly Chairs, with McBrayer, Sue Gillan, and Martin Garcia as white-collar workers performing a tightly coordinated ballet in rolling office chairs; Llama Brothers, with Joel Murray and Joe Liss as country singers venting their sibling rivalry onstage; Brest Litovsk, with Harold Ramis as a slacker college student trying to bullshit his way through an oral exam administered by his professor, Joe Flaherty; Killer, with Molly Erdman as presidential contender Hillary Clinton trying to hire a hit man (Brian Gallivan) to whack Barack Obama; Fred Willard and Robert Klein in Army, a World War II spoof; Funeral, a 1972 classic about a group of mourners trying to stifle their laughs as they attend a service for a man who drowned in a can of pork and beans; a vignette from Second City's current main stage show Taming of the Flu, in which two comfortably married couples in 1959 brag about their brand-new bomb shelters and 17-inch TV sets while noting that Mayor Daley is backing a young presidential candidate running on a platform of hope and change; and the 1994 Maya, an absurdist masterpiece in which a white man (Colbert) visits his small southern hometown, where he is viewed as an old black woman. As his buddy (Steve Carell) watches in uncomprehending horror, Colbert exchanges a lingering, loving kiss with the man s/he left behind, played by David Razowsky. The male-male kiss, daring for Second City in '94, still takes an audience aback. (I wonder if Fox News had a spy on site to record the moment so they can prove liberal satirist Colbert's a "homo.")

I was particularly amused by Glass Mamet, in which a a shy young actress with a limp (Melody Johnson)—whose credits consist entirely of playing lame Laura in The Glass Menagerie—auditions for a role in David Mamet's all-male, profanity-packed Glengarry Glen Ross. (The routine, developed by Second City's Toronto company, has a special Chicago resonance: as a youth Mamet worked as a barback at Second City here, and of course The Glass Menagerie had its world premiere in the Windy City back in 1944.)
Other sketches featured the likes of George Wendt, Tim Kazurinsky, Kevin Dorff, Scott Adsit, Jenna Jolovitz, T.J. Jagodowski, Rachel Dratch, a surprisingly svelte Horatio Sanz, David Pasquesi, Tim Meadows, Eugenie Ross-Leming, Susan Messing, Keegan-Michael Key, Ruth Rudnick, Amy Sedaris, and wizard musical director Ruby Streak. Three star alums performed monologues: David Steinberg coasted through a mock sermon reinterpreting Old Testament history, Shelley Berman capitalized predictably but hilariously on his trademark bitter neurotic persona, and Jeff Garlin did a few minutes of disappointing stand-up that climaxed with a Tiger Woods sex joke. (Gee, haven't heard one of those lately.)

Of special note was White Horse, in which Jim Belushi and his son Rob played a working-class dad and his estranged, college-educated son downing shots of grain alcohol at the same Greenwich Village tavern where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. The sketch itself (from 1978, not one of Second City's best periods) isn't all that good, but to watch two generations of the same family working the stage together was striking. And, of course, it's impossible to watch Jim Belushi on the Second City stage without recalling his brother John.

Earlier in the day, current Second City member T.J. Shanoff hosted a pair of conversations honoring the early years of Second City. In the first, former Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen and Second City cofounder Bernie Sahlins commented on video from a 1960 show featuring witty satire, graceful physical comedy, and character work of real depth and nuance by Sand, Troobnick, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Severn Darden, Mina Kolb, Andrew Duncan, Howard Alk, and the troupe's first musical director, William Mathieu, who played piano with one hand and trumpet with the other simultaneously. Two classic sketches were shown: Football Comes to the University of Chicago—in which a coach (Duncan) tries to whip three nerds (Arkin, Darden, and Troobnick) into a team—and Museum Piece, a lengthy scene about an uptight culture vulture (Harris) who encounters a scruffy guitar-playing folksinger (Arkin) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Arkin's character encourages Harris to "be spontaneous" and improvise a song, but in reality he's trying to soften her up so he can get her permission to crash at her "pad." Created through improv and brilliantly performed, this wasn't a sketch: it was a one-act play. The video displays Harris's masterful comic precision (put to such great use later in A Thousand Clowns and Nashville) and showcases Arkin's musical gifts (he'd been a folk musician before turning to acting).

The director who guided those idiosyncratic actors, Paul Sills, got a segment of his own that afternoon: a panel on his legacy, moderated by Richard Libertini and featuring Sand, Berman, Melinda Dillon, and Kolb and Dick Schaal (both in wheelchairs), along with Sills's widow Carol. To my mind, Sills was one of the two most important director-teachers in post-World War II American theater, the other being Lee Strasberg. If Sills had chosen to work in New York he might have received the critical and professional recognition Strasberg did. But he stuck with Chicago at a time when little outside attention was paid to the grassroots theater movement taking root here. The discussion—enhanced by comments from audience members, including Sheldon Patinkin, Sills's protege and successor at Second City—identified the distinctive qualities that made Sills so brilliant and influential: his ability to discern an actor's unique essence emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually (a word Libertini used with trepidation), and his insistence that the actor mine that personal core rather than "acting like," as Schaal put it. The key to Sills's improvisational style—a technique that grew out of the theater games his mother, Viola Spolin, codified in her landmark text Improvisation for the Theatre—was to get actors to "stop acting." Though Second City was always a comedy company, Sills focused on getting actors to go for truth rather than laughs. "Get out of your head," he would say, nudging actors to connect with their surroundings and the people with whom they were sharing them. Of course, "getting out of your head" as a performance tool is only effective when the performer has a good head to get out of. Sills's actors weren't just talented, they were smart and well educated. The early Second City sketches reveal a level of literacy and intellectual depth that today's performers—and audiences—can't begin to match.

Shelley Berman cited Sills's instinct ending a sketch when it had reached its peak, not when it had run out of steam. And audience member Warren Leming called Sills "one of America's first Brechtians," noting Bertolt Brecht's influence on Sills's vision of a satirical cabaret theater. (Sills directed the professional Chicago premiere of Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, in 1953 for the Playwrights Theatre Club, a forerunner of Second City.)

Sills—who left Second City within a few years of co-founding it and went on to create the off-Loop phenomenon Story Theatre—didn't live to witness this anniversary. He died last year at 82. Mention of his passing at Saturday's panel prompted a litany of other early Second Citizens who've died: cofounder Alk (who, as a filmmaker, documented the 60s counterculture in films about Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton), Darden, Troobnick, Roger Bowen, Del Close, Avery Schreiber, Hamilton Camp, Tom Erhart, and Anthony Holland. The morbid exercise climaxed when someone in the back of the room called out, "Fred Kaz!" The panelists' confused looks were memorable, because Kaz, Second City's former musical director, is alive and kicking—as he proved that night at the reunion show, when he accompanied David Rasche in a comic song.

Second City's 50th anniversary weekend was a hugely entertaining event and a marketing and PR bonanza for the troupe. But the panels and performances also displayed a depth of feeling that transcends the company's commercial success. It was a heartfelt reunion of artists and viewers who've grown up together, inspired by the people who came before them. It was also a sobering reminder that time moves on. The message came through loud and clear at the reunion show, during a 1993 sketch by Colbert and Paul Dinello about two brothers pondering their futures. "In five years you're gonna be 35 years old," said Dinello to Colbert, who is now 45. "You're not taking care of yourself." The line drew a huge laugh, because Colbert is in fine shape—but he looks his age. But the visionaries who created Second City are reaching the end of their road, and even the kids who followed in their footsteps are aging.

Second City's longevity is the result of a delicate balance between reflection and renewal. New waves of artists will come along and transform it to keep it in tune with the culture. I hope they'll also respect and keep alive the legacy bequeathed to them by Sills, Sahlins, and the other original Second Citizens.

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