I’m an improviser as well as a tour guide. I’ve been improvising and doing sketch in this city for almost twelve years; long enough to kiss a bunch of improv boys, get dissed by a bunch of improv boys, then marry one of those improv boys.
I’ve performed all over: Second City, The Annoyance, I.O…any bar that has anything resembling a stage (no, not dancing on it. That would be comedic alright alright). My first job out of college was at The Improv Comedy Club on Wells and Illinois. It’s long gone now, but I had my interview up on the stage; one of the greatest moments of my life.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Chicago is the “Second City.” I don’t mind, I like that we’re the 2nd or the 3rd or the 4th. If we were the first, I’d have to move; nobody wants that. We are however the first city when it comes to training a very specific kind of actor, a comedic one. Chicago is the mecca for improvisation and sketch training. This is where people come to learn their craft, once they’re done they take off for NYC or LA, but they come here to learn. How did Chicago become number one in this weird theater niche?
Certainly Second City had a lot to do with that. Second City was founded in in 1959 and started their training center in 1985. It was really the only place to go for this specific training (The Groundlings started classes in 1979, but they weren’t formed until well after Second City). SC was the place to be if you wanted to be the next Bill Murray or John Belushi. Its a very successful business.
Second City wrote their scenes using improvisation. Writing comedy this way was a really new thing in the 1960′s. Second City was the first to formulate it, regulate it and figure out a way teach it. Now we all use improv for our sketch writing at some point, it’s a really valuable too. The Training Center taught tons of people how to do improv and how to recognize something good when you see it so you can use it again later.
But Del Close, a crazy, super smart, obnoxious, hilarious and drug-addled comedian had a philosophical disconnect with Second City. Del played with Second City back in the 1960′s.
Del didn’t believe improv was just a tool. He didn’t think it was just a means to an end. He met up with Charna Halpern and in 1981 Improv Olympic (now I.O.) was born. They concentrated on improvisation as an art form; moving past the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” type games that had restricted it before. Improv scenes could be sad, or poignant, or touching, or hilarious, or scary…whatever. But improv was real theater and required real skills and talent.
There’s no mainstage sketch at I.O. – it’s all improv, all the time. You can go there and see everyone do their best to master The Harold, Del’s structured improv form. It’s not easy, trust me.
The famous people that you know from Second City all came from I.O. too, at least the more recent ones: Tina Fey, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Neil Flynn, Mike Meyers, Adam McKay, Chris Farley. A lot of this is because of Del. By the time I had him, somewhere around 1997-8, he was pretty far gone. He passed away in 1999. All I remember is that he hated it when we tried to be funny. He’d stand up and yell at you and leave the theater if you made a joke about a banana in your pants. But that was the crux of what he was trying to teach – be real, be intelligent, be thoughtful, be mindful.
He also was never really all that supportive of women improvisers. He didn’t think we all sucked, just most of us.
These two training centers created this crazy double helix of comedy genetics. (Am I mixing a bunch of scientific metaphors? Yes.) But they did, you can’t compete with Del Close on one side of the city and the power of Second City on the other. They were teaching two different philosophies using the same skill set of it’s performers. Soon enough came The Annoyance (1989) and their “you learned the rules now come break them” philosophy.
It’s a powerful trifecta of comedy, no one can resist the lure of Scylla, Charybdis and Mick Napier. There are so many 25 year old white boys out there; learning how to make the funny. We suffer from over-saturation now, too many of us and not enough audience members. Chicago still owns the comedy scene though, we’re just a more…silent partner.