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Second City will launch Harold Ramis Film School: How improv has gained popularity in Hollywood

Second City is opening the Harold Ramis Film School, which will be a film school aimed at studying comedy. The institution will accept its first group of pupils in September.

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    Harold Ramis attends the celebration for The Second City's 50th anniversary in Chicago.
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Second City has announced it is opening the Harold Ramis Film School, which will be a film school aimed at comedy.

Actor and director Ramis, who passed away in 2014, was a member of Second City, which is based in Chicago and consists of a group of actors that perform at the city’s Second City Theatre. The group has also created TV shows, offers classes, and has locations in Los Angeles and Toronto. 

The Harold Ramis Film School’s advisory board will include actors Steve Carell, Catherine O’Hara, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eugene Levy; 20th Century Fox production president Emma Watts; and Sony Pictures president Doug Belgrad, among others. 

Trevor Albert, a producer who worked with Ramis on such films as Ramis’s directorial efforts “Groundhog Day” and “Stuart Saves His Family,” will be the school’s chairman.

Students at the school will not receive a degree but will get a certificate upon completing the year of the program. The first group of pupils will be accepted this September.

Second City says this is the first film school aimed solely at comedy. 

Director Adam McKay, who has helmed such films as the Oscar-nominated movie “The Big Short,” “Anchorman,” and “The Other Guys,” told the Chicago Tribune he felt the time was right for this school. 

“More and more you're seeing improv becoming the standard method by which comedy is made – in Hollywood and everywhere else,” McKay said. 

Second City is one of the places that’s looked at as an incubator of talent for Hollywood and other entertainment arenas. It holds this status along with comedy groups like the New York-based Upright Citizens Brigade and the Groundlings, who are in Los Angeles.

Improv in theater and improv comedy are, of course, nothing new. But the influence of such groups as the Groundlings and Second City have been seen more and more in Hollywood and in comedy in general.

Second City is a comparatively older group, with the group’s theater having opened in 1959. The group itself says it was inspired by the methods of Viola Spolin, who wrote the book “Improvisation for the Theater.” Her son, teacher Paul Sills, was the first director of Second City and legendary comedy personality Del Close worked there. 

The Groundlings came together in 1972, while Amy Poehler, an original member of the Upright Citizens Brigade and which started its stint in New York in 1996, was a former member of Second City.

“Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels turned to groups like these when he was finding the first cast members of “SNL,” with some cast members coming from both Second City and the Groundlings. While “SNL” consists of written sketches rather than on-air improv, many of the original cast members came to the show with that background.

The training informed some of the most beloved comedies of all time. “Ghostbusters” actress Annie Potts recalled how improv training was used by some of the other actors in the film, which included former Second City members Bill Murray, Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd. 

“I [was a] theater-school actor, not [from] improv, so their methods were foreign to me,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair.

Some of TV’s recent acclaimed comedies have also used improv. TV Guide writer Kate Stanhope writes that when actors were being hired for “The Office,” those who made it through did improv rather than normal screen tests. 

Meanwhile, another NBC sitcom, “Parks and Recreation,” which starred Amy Poehler, often had the cast engage in a “fun run,” Entertainment Weekly reporter Dan Snierson wrote, where the cast filmed a version of a scene that incorporates a lot of improv.

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