Second City; Homegrown humor throws Chicago for a loop

Is there anything inherently funny about a suburban family Thanksgiving? How about Chicago aldermen? Waiters? The theme song from ''Green Acres''? Well, maybe the aldermen merit a chuckle, depending on your political persuasion, or the Thanksgiving gathering, depending upon your family.

But to hear Chicago's Second City comedy troupe tell it, this eclectic combination of events becomes definitely, screamingly funny. Or at least this audience thinks so.

Clumps of stay-downtown-after-work businessmen are sitting cheek by jowl with knots of charter-a-bus-to-get-downtown suburban matrons. Precious little of the Jordache look here among the polyester and pin stripes. No matter. Both groups are howling with laughter at such lines as ''It's a butterball (turkey); you can't mess those up,'' and ''Hi, I'm your waiter Todd, and we have some super, super fresh breads happening here tonight.'' And this is on a Tuesday night. Watch out for the weekend crowd.

But that's the way it is in the heart of Chicago's Old Town, where the renowned Second City comedy theater has been packing 'em in night after night for 23 years with its famous improvised brand of humor. It's become a local legend that has transcended individual cast members. And it's giving people here in the supposedly culturally impoverished Midwest something to talk about besides pork belly futures.

Like the late John Belushi and his brother Jim -"two brothers who each performed at Second City and went on to big-time success in films, television, and on Broadway. Or if you really want to show off the home-grown, or at least home-groomed, talent, an avid Second City devotee can rattle off a dazzling list of other Second City alums, including the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, David Steinberg, Shelley Berman, Robert Klein, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Alan Arkin.

Life isn't that tough here on the plains between the hills of Hollywood and the razzmatazz of Broadway. A little local humor can be just the thing. Especially when the humor has a pedigree like Second City's.

So why is nearly 50 percent of this Tuesday night audience leaving the theater during the second intermission?

''Come on, we weren't that bad,'' calls out a slightly startled female cast member. Even Ruby the pianist has stopped tinkling her ivories to watch the suburban crop file placidly out. The show was just starting to heat up.

After an hour and a half of the regular revue, which ridicules everything from ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' to Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, the final third of Second City's nightly performance is devoted entirely to improvised sketches based on audience suggestions. It's a chance to show off the cast's real skills. An audience is imperative. Yet despite this incentive, the charter buses were pulling out and the suburbanites needed to be on board.

But not to worry. Plenty of fresh audience is already queued up outside the door, as there is nearly every sold-out night. And this new batch looks much more on-line with the slightly off-center Second City troupe than the departing suburbanites. People such as the popcorn-chewing fan with hair like sheep's wool and a Styrofoam caterpillar hat hanging off his head. ''Two seats?'' inquires the usher. ''Four,'' munches the laid-back patron, brushing a plastic caterpillar leg out of his eyes. He'll get a seat up close.

He is just the type that the six cast members want to see in their theater: the young, the hip, the mellow, the socially relevant. In other words the current generation. They are the ones for whom the irreverent Second City humor truly exists. They are also the ones who instigate much of the improvisational humor. Because interconnecting with the audience and its concerns is everything to this company. And one of the big reasons that Second City has had so much staying power.

''This is burlesque, the highest (theatrical) form, the theater without heroes,'' says Second City producer Bernard Sahlins, a short tan man in tan clothes. ''We're not joke-tellers here. The audience and the actors are all about the same age (18 to 35), and we speak to their concerns,'' he explains. ''Our humor comes from audience identification. When we're cooking, people are saying, 'Yes, oh, yes.' It's the joy that comes from seeing the truth.''

In other words, who hasn't wrestled with a butterball turkey or hummed the theme song from ''Green Acres''? Or to put a proper label on it: satire, satire, satire. As New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote a few years back, ''The entire recent tradition of American theatrical satire can be summed up in three words - The Second City.'' Big words for what is essentially a regional theater.

But Second City had a unique beginning. Despite its humble birth in a former Chinese laundry, the theater grew phoenix-like out of the rubble left over from some earlier attempts at regional comedytheater during the 1950s. Its predecessors included such short-lived Chicago companies as the Playwrites Theatre Club, the Compass Players, and the Studebaker Theatre Company. Of the four theaters, Second City was the one destined to survive. Lifting its name from a derisive profile of Chicago in The New Yorker magazine, Sahlins and his two partners, Paul Sills and Howard Awk, debuted the Second City in December 1959.

Success was apparently instantaneous. Avant-garde playwriting was the nouveau order of the day, and the theater created quite a stir. ''It was a time when just getting on stage and saying the word 'Eisenhower' was considered exciting, '' Sahlins says. The then-experimental theater became a local ''must-see'' and began selling out night after night. That, and the fact that ticket prices have continuously hovered around the cost of movie, have kept the 290-seat theater generously filled nearly every night. Such an enviable track record has produced what nearly everyone at Second City now gleefully calls a ''critic-proof'' show.

It has also spawned an audience demand for more and more Second City. And as the main troupe can handle only up to six irrepressible personalities at any one time, two touring companies have been formed and a satellite resident company has landed in Toronto. Second City has also toured London, Broadway, and Off Broadway. Also, a nationally syndicated television show, ''SCTV,'' which debuted in 1977, has broadened the audience for Second City, and several forthcoming films feature Second City writers and actors. About the only thing the troupe doesn't do is produce designer sheets.

Yet all these spinoffs are side activities, according to producer Sahlins, the only one of the founding fathers still in residence. They are lucrative side activities, to be sure, but nevertheless they're secondary to what goes on here, ''at home.'' For if Second City is devoted to anything it is to Chicago itself.

A brief try at a New York-based Second City hammered home the point that the theater exists precisely because it is in Chicago, and not in Hollywood or on Broadway. As Sahlins says, ''I had to keep flying out (to New York) every three weeks to replace actors who were being 'discovered.' '' And the company quickly returned to its original focus of a Chicago-based troupe. ''In New York and Hollywood, everyone wants to become stars,'' the producer groans. ''Here in Chicago we are able to put that in a secondary position and concentrate on the work. We do eight shows a week. There is no substitute for this kind of stage time. It perfects the craft.''

The opportunity for a company of actors, comic or not, to work together on a show over an extended period of time is unusual. The absence of any major repertory system in the United States serves to accentuate the unique toehold Second City has among theaters. This is not wasted on the wisecracking, slightly zany bunch of actors and actresses now sitting pretty in the precious six Second City slots. They are well aware that their company is a rare bird among regional theaters. And competition for the positions is keen.

Most aspiring Second City residents come armed with fistfuls of past acting credits - local theaters, commercials, Off Broadway, the occasional film. And nearly everyone spends a year or more with one of the touring companies. This system serves as a kind of farm club for the main stage. Of course, there have been exceptions: John Belushi, who had only done college theater, landed a spot on the six-member ''City'' varsity squad right away.

While the corps of actors changes regularly (the average length of stay is about four years), the Second City format has remained virtually untouched over time: four or five actors, two actresses, two doors, some chairs, and a pianist. Oh yes, some weird costumes, but never any props. This minimalist approach to staging has allowed the group to concentrate on what it does best - improvise.

In fact, each of the two six-month-long shows consists entirely of material culled from the free-for-all hour at the end of each performance, where cast members act out ideas from the audience.

But to understand the inner psyche of the improvisational technique, one should travel to a mystic mountaintop - or rather sit at the feet of one Del Close, Second City's artistic director. Mr. Close has the bushy, don't-fence-me-in looks of a leftover radical from the heyday of Haight-Ashbury, except that he is dressed in a coordinating blue and burgundy leisure suit. A sign hanging near his head reads: ''Warning: these premises patrolled by an attack Yorkie.'' He begins to talk in quasi-mystical terms: ''You're in a different kind of magical space on stage.'' More to the point, what is the secret of improvisation? ''It's the shortcut we were looking for for 20 years.'' What is it, exactly? ''It's playful intelligence under fascist control.'' Fascist control? He rephrases that to mean ''discipline.'' Well, what does this do for actors? ''One is having a spiritual experience on stage all the time.''

Voices are even now emanating from that mystical ''spirit'' world.

''OK, got any ideas?'' cast member Meagan Fay hollers out to the new crop of Tuesday night's audience. ''Plane crashes,'' somebody yells. ''Oh, that's a fun one,'' she retorts, moving quickly on to another, less ghoulish suggestion. What will finally make it on stage that night is a non sequitur blend of sketches including Henry Kissinger as a local weatherman providing a ''global perspective''; an obsequious steward on an airplane (his name is Todd); and a mock screen test for film reviewers to replace Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on the PBS TV show ''Sneak Previews.'' One contender dressed in satin boxing shorts reviews the film ''Bambi'': ''One chipmunk, I forget his name, was particularly good, and showed a lot of inner intensity.''

Naturally, some nights are funnier than others. But the chief import of the improvisational time is that it provides a continuous opportunity for the actors to think creatively on their feet. Sahlins sees it as the reason for the theater's continued success. Knowing how to ''use the environment creatively, to be inventive,'' and to remain sensitive to what the audience thinks is funny: These are the keys to humor that works night after night. ''You have to assume your audience is as intelligent as you are,'' Sahlins cautions. Cheap and easy humor, or a simple ''political weather report,'' is not substantial enough.

Which is not to say that humor must remain the same over the years. Second City's early political jibes have given way to a zanier brand of humor. (Rumor has it that one of the most popular sketches involved a man with his head stuck in a can of baked beans.) Or as Sahlins says: ''Sometimes they want political humor, and sometimes they don't.''

Right now what seems to be most in vogue is the ''small, interpersonal'' type of behavorial humor. ''We try to make fun of ourselves,'' Sahlins explains. Thus there may sometimes seem to be a surfeit of wacky family relationships, bored folks waiting for a bus, and obsequious waiters, and so on. But as Joyce Sloan, the generally accepted den mother of the theater, says, ''Wyhx Z oays having to contend with someone who says, 'You're not as good as you used to be.' But what can you say?''

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