a safe place to fail, second city theater -- 9/11/14

Today's encore selection -- from The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater by Mike Thomas. The 1959 opening in Chicago of Second City theater, which made ensemble comedy magic by combining very high standards with a willingness to let its actors fail, and which became the training ground for such comic and theater luminaries as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, John Candy, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Alan Arkin, Bonnie Hunt, Bill Murray, Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Amy Sedaris and many more:

"America was in the midst of a comedy revolution when Bernard Sahlins, Howard Alk, and Paul Sills conspired in 1959 to open a bohemian coffeehouse for recreational smoking, erudite discourse, and satirical theater. Considering the times, it seemed destined for success -- or miserable failure. ... In addition to sharing a vision for what would become the Second City, another thing all three had in common was a diploma from the elite University of Chicago. ...

"Little did they know that the result of their labors would become an instant hit. Sahlins, who'd produced plays in 1956 at the handsome and historic Studebaker Theatre on South Michigan Avenue, initially invested six thousand dollars, and the new organization's defiant handle was reportedly conjured by Alk in ironic response to a snotty 1952 New Yorker magazine feature-turned-book by A. J. Liebling (Chicago: The Second City). ... While tough times ahead would continue to cause concern, the beginning was more auspicious than anyone had imagined. From night one, even as the budget carpet was still being installed, there were crowds in the lobby and lines out the door to witness the birth of a sensation. ...

Bill Murray in 1980 at Second City

SHELDON PATINKIN, former manager and director, and current artistic consultant:

There was more of a willingness to fail then, because we all knew that was the only way you were going to find the good stuff. That's true of Chicago theater. You can fail in Chicago and still get work.

ALAN ARKIN, cast member:

First and most important, Second City gave me a place to go; it gave me a place to function. That was the main thing. And the second most important thing, which was very, very close to the first, was that it gave us a place to fail. Which doesn't exist in this civilization anymore. There is no place to fail anymore. And failing at something is crucial. You don't learn from anything unless you fail. And we were not only allowed to fail, but almost encouraged to take chances every night onstage. We knew that twenty, thirty, sometimes forty percent of what we were doing wasn't going to work, and Sills never said anything about it, Bernie never said anything about it, and the audience didn't mind. They knew that two things would fail and the next thing would be glorious.

BOB DISHY, cast member:

[Director Paul Sills] felt a moral responsibility to the choices that you make in an improv. Now, of course, that's not on a day-to-day basis. He was also pragmatic, and he knew he had to do shows. But he was pained, physically pained, by what he considered cheap laughs. I mean, they would drive him up the wall. He'd come backstage and yell, 'Stop it! What are you doing?!' Because he had these high standards, which was great. I found it so enlightening.

BONNIE HUNT, cast member:

It definitely humbles you, because there are times when you go out there and you fail and you've got to brush yourself off and start all over again. It's kind of like being a Cubs fan. I think what I learned at Second City was that it was okay to take risks, to fall flat on my face and get back up and learn about myself. And I definitely learned to embrace the honesty of my own vulnerability.

TINA FEY, cast member:

Being in that company, in some ways you lose your fear of failure. Because there are always nights in that set when you're developing a show where everything tanks, or where you're just bombing, and you come out the other side of it, and you survive it. And that's such a great thing to get rid of-that fear of failure.

BILL MURRAY, cast member:

It's given many great performers their start, but more importantly, it's killed thousands of barely talented people and it's put them to death, and they're now doing the jobs they're built for. It's because they couldn't meet the rugged standards."


Mike Thomas


The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater


Northwestern University Press


Copyright 2009 by Mike Thomas


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