Review of The Second City: Backstage at the Worlds Greatest Comedy Theater

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Review of Sheldon Patinkin’s The Second City: Backstage at the Worlds Greatest Comedy Theater

by Rolf Achim Kanjilal
September 8, 2002


As we grow older, from our innocent teens to our restless college years and onward to our staid married years and then into our thirties and parenthood, we see trends and fads come and go, and we become more experienced, more intelligent and more mature individuals.

Sometimes, we need someone or some group of people to help us through the hard and difficult times, to help us understand just whats going on in our lives and in the lives of those around us. The comedy cabaret, a cultural mainstay, is such a place a place of persons and of special people, who help interpret the thoughts, feelings and trends of the day. In particular, theres The Second City, with its rich Chicago heritage and established cadre of alumni.

The Second City, perhaps above all other comedy cabaret franchises or improv stages in North America, is the lifeline of North American comedy / satire for the younger generation (of persons 20 to 35 years old). It is also the cultural milieu for the older and more seasoned performers associated with it (now writers, producers, directors, television stars and movie stars), to battle with ideas and with each other. The mandate is to work with one another to come up with some ad-hoc expression of the topic under review during a skit or play. Something not always possible or easy.

The book (essentially a photographic history) opens up with the history of The Second City during the 1960s and with history of its predecessor, The Compass (1950s). The reader is introduced to the humble and impoverished beginnings of both cabarets and given brief individual synopses by Dan Aykroyd and Alan Arkin and others about the state of SC afterward. There are plenty of pictures, black-and-white and colour, and the pace of Patinkins writing is lively and to the point. He is an authority we can give credence to and trust. We are taken through the evolution of the Second City, from its Compass origins in the 1950s onto the SCTV television screen of the 1970s and further onward to the improvisation schools of the 1990s.

The CDs are well-paced and make for entertaining listening, ranging from the Brest Litvosk skit with political satire about China-Russia relations to an interview with potential football players at Chicago University to closing Canada off to crossborder traffic to early work done about IQ-testing during performance reviews in corporations. Included, is rare footage and the actual audience response and applause from the performances.

As far as coffee-table style books go, the size and length of the book are appealing. Photographs are interspersed with commentary on nearly every page, showing the artist grappling with the essence of his art improvised comedy. One can see the tension and suffering among the Second City hopeful, right from the 1950s conservative to the 1970s hippy to the 1980s yuppie and so on Some of the persons associated with SCTV and SC are perhaps given short shrift, but the main players and the founding fathers are in the spotlight and receive their fair measure of attention. Theres the legendary Paul Sills, hard at work, banging out script on his trusty typewriter against all odds seemingly, theres the iconoclastic Del Close gazing hypnotically ahead full of energy and at the top of his acting game, and theres more current alumni like the dearly departed John Belushi, lampooning the focal figures of their day such as Mayor Richard Daley of 1970s Chicago, Page after page of upfront comedy, photo after photo of the best of Second City alumni in action, giving the reader a quick, vivid and accurate overall picture of what went on in The Second City. Not just in Chicago and at its founding, but also during each decade since, and in Toronto, and in modern Chicago, in New York and in Detroit and on television (SCTV). Even across the pond in London, England! Where The Second City enjoyed a 9-year run among the tough and demanding British audience.

For those of us who see the Second City players close up, in their private moments or even on stage: auditioning or rehearsing or performing, we can benefit from a reading of The Second City: Backstage, and get a better view of whats going on to understand the sometimes bitter and fragile world of comedy. For others who have grown up with The Second City and its players, this is fine souvenir of the comedy cabaret of our day and days gone by. For the reader new to improv-based comedy, this is a good and thorough (for a coffee-table book, at least) eye-opening introduction to the cultural phenomenon known as The Second City and the medium of expression called improv-based theatre. Its a good photo-biography and overview. Its a good book.

Some of the players are no longer with us. Some have not lived up to expectations. However, more, are successes in the theatre and television. More still, are respected for their dedication, resourcefulness, talent, knowledge and professionalism in North American theatre. The whole roster up to and including 2000 is here for you to see, along with detailed credits and acknowledgements to all concerned with The Second City improvised theatre.

Long live an improv that seeks to break down the misunderstanding of modern life , the coldness of the technological age, and the immorality of our information age!


Rolf Kanjilal lives in Toronto.

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