The Second City

I totally bought this book at Powell’s in Portland for a whopping $4.50. That title/topic plus that superb cover art? Irresistible. Poor graphic design, you are my kryptonite, for some reason.

Anyhow, in all seriousness, this coffee-table-esque book was quite informative, considering that its informativeness stops mid-80s. Though the book was published in 1987, thereby skipping all of Second City’s more-current and more-famous alumni, it still provides a thorough, comprehensive, extremely name-droppy history of what I think is one of America’s greatest institutions. Of course, if you read this blog, you know that “mildly interested” would not be an appropriate way of describing how I feel about comedy, so I might be more inclined than the average person to read and enjoy this book, but it still might be fun for those looking to see what exactly happened in the days before Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

Among many things, I learned (or perhaps re-affirmed) that Second City is comedy mecca. It was the right place, the right time, and the right people who all made it come together, and the results were (and still are) spectacular. I’m not going to actually recount the history here, since it’s way more effective in the book’s actual form, but I will say that I was left with an incredibly deep amount of respect for the Second City players and how hard they must have worked night after night. I know we’re dealing with entertainment here, so I don’t mean for this to sound as absurd as it might, but the improvisers on stage work hard, both then and now. Improvisation gets performers to use something that they wouldn’t normally use in acting, a quality that isn’t really defined and can’t quite be taught. But Second City did the best possible job of educating talent anyway.

The names that went through this place, and the branch in Toronto, are incredible: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, David Steinberg, John Candy, Bill Murray, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Shelley Long, I could go on… but I won’t, because then this post would wind up almost identical to many passages in the book. As I said before, the author Donna McCrohan relied very heavily on Hollywood name-dropping, lists of actors, and you-had-to-be-there retellings of skits (which I found especially loathsome for improvised pieces). I’d say those first- and second-degree anecdotes were the weakest part of the book. I preferred the parts of the book that detailed how the bigger name players came to Second City and where they moved on to.

And, of course, the quotes. When the stories came straight from the source, when McCrohan included long passages of waxing reminiscent, when the talented people associated with Second City were allowed to go off on tangents, that’s where the meat of the book was.

As usual, I’ll end this post with a few of my favorite quotes from the book. And they’re not quotes from skits, because it was infuriating enough for me to read them and not be able to imagine them happening.

p. 40 // ” True satire is more far-reaching than simple ridicule or humor. If the teacher has a mole and a strange nose and someone draws these in an exaggerated manner, the caricature may qualify as parody but it’s not satire. It’s only satire if it targets a defect that’s hurting someone else. Satire ridicules to expose, with the idea that awareness is a step towards remedy.”

p. 69, quoting Alan Arkin // “After the Susskind show, all of a sudden, we became the ‘in’ thing to go see. We were getting the mink coat crowd. And we were getting all kinds of referential laughs, that had nothing to do with the humor. That’s the kind of laugh I’ve always hated, where people laugh because they understand your reference and are letting you know that they know what you’re talking about, and how smart they are, which has nothing to do with their having been shocked or pleased or delighted.”

p. 103, quoting Shelley Berman // “THe best suggestions, though, are the simple ones. If the suggestion is already comedic–brothel, hooker, proctologist–you know the person who called it out either hopes that he or she is funny, or thinks that by giving you a funny idea, you will emerge funnier. The truth is, you don’t need that, and if you do need that, you’ve got to examine what you’re doing for your comedy.”