Just about every talented sketch comedian has, at some point, been part of the famed Chicago comedy troupe Second City. As the group with the incredible track record celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend with a series of shows, though, one of its alumni says it was born very much a child of the times — and not just the late 1950s in which it officially came into being.
Viola Spolin published “Improvisation for the Theater” in 1963, but her influence was felt decades earlier.
“She invented a series of theater games to teach immigrant children how to communicate,” says Harold Ramis, an actor, writer, director and one of Second City’s most notable alumni. “Those games really made a lot of sense for introducing people to stagecraft.”
Her son Paul Sills then applied the work at the University of Chicago, and soon a new way of approaching the theater was born. First Mike Nichols, Elaine May and others founded the Compass Players. Then Second City opened, in December 1959, “above a Chinese laundry in Chicago,” Mr. Ramis says.
“Improvisational theater was starting to happen. It was the era of improvisational jazz — the intellectual bohemian underground,” Mr. Ramis recalls. “It was at first an underground experience, but it became popular right away. It was smart, it was political and hit all the right notes for the late ‘50s. It was smarter than what people were seeing in nightclubs and more relevant and more satirical.”
Many people think the name came from a 1952 New Yorker article about Chicago written by A.J. Liebling, but Mr. Ramis points out that it was a satirist, H.L. Mencken, who coined the term, in his 1921 book “The American Language.”
“I think it could have happened anywhere, but Chicago has a great liberal intellectual history,” he says.
This one theater group has for more than 30 years groomed cast members for the nation’s top sketch-comedy show — “Saturday Night Live” — as well as countless films and television series. John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Mike Myers and Tina Fey are just some of the notable alumni.
“The actors who’d been through there all felt this great kind of kinship,” Mr. Ramis says. “We all shared a technique and way of working, and it was a very generous way of working, the opposite of the way stand-ups do.”
Mr. Ramis is well-known to audiences as a star of the “Ghostbusters” films and the director of comedy classics such as “Groundhog Day,” “Caddyshack” and “Analyze This.” It’s surprising, then, to hear him say, “I’m a little nervous about getting back onstage.”
Notable alumni will perform two shows at Second City on Saturday night. (Tickets sold out in 10 minutes.) Friday night features two shows reuniting the cast of “SCTV,” the Canadian television offshoot of Second City that ran between 1976 and 1984. It’s a cult classic, one whose fans can quote word for word the hilarious and bizarre skits from the show.
The group got $10,000 to do a pilot for Global Television in Toronto. Mr. Ramis was head writer, and the cast also included John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Mr. Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara and Dave Thomas. “Everyone just loved being together and writing together,” he says.
Canada is cold — and after Mr. Ramis left, the show moved to snowy Edmonton — but working there had its benefits.
“We were liberated from what makes television awful for me,” he says. “We had no network interference, and we had no sponsor interference. We didn’t have sponsors, and we didn’t have a network at the beginning. It’s like they just gave us a studio and said, ‘Do what you want.’ It was so cheap, nobody cared.”
The cerebral comedy of “SCTV” wouldn’t have been made in the United States, Mr. Ramis insists. “I’ve directed network pilots since, and [I] produced and wrote for a variety many years ago. No, it’s all interference here,” he says. “So it was very liberating being the poor cousin of ‘Saturday Night.’”
He sounds slightly nostalgic as he recalls the show, which was special in creating a whole world in its characters.
“We were content to be offbeat,” he says. “Our stuff was a little headier. We’d do a Chekhov play. Did the audience even know who Chekhov was? Did it matter? No. Because our play was like a parody of any Chekhov play, but then Mr. Chekov from ‘Star Trek’ enters.”
Second City is 50, but even it keeps up with the times. Mr. Ramis reports that the 800 to 900 alumni keep in touch online. “Since Second City started an internal Facebook and a Second City Web site,” he says, “alumni from all decades have been making pages and friending each other.”