We’re enamored by the ones who got away: Tina Fey. Steve Carell. Mike Myers. Comedic giants who earned their chops on the Second City stage, not to mention three fresh talents—Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson and Cecily Strong—recently plucked to join “Saturday night Live.” But even if the comedy training ground is a bonafide pipeline to the big time, its day-to-day magic of churning out chuckles continues. on the eve of the theater’s November offerings—the Bicycle Men and standup artists Kyle Kinane and Robert Klein in UP Comedy Club—we asked some of its most important players why the world’s most beloved school of improv will always be loyal to Chicago.
Second City: The Home of the Ensemble
Like that other Chicago theatrical heavyweight, Steppenwolf Theatre, Second City is known for the ensemble. That’s by design, says co-owner, CEO and executive producer Andrew Alexander. “It’s not New York or L.A.,” he says. “Those two cities are not as interested in the process as opposed to the finished product.” That process allows a comic to perform his or her own material at the Training Center, with as many as 12,000 students enrolled (and growing) in Chicago, Hollywood and Toronto. Some of these jokesters might be the next John Candy or Gilda Radner, but some are simply lawyers, ad execs and anyone else looking to round out their social skills and study the art of comedy.
“It helps you manage stress and teaches you how to put yourself out there,” says Jack Kelly, a former sales rep who graduated from the the audition-only Conservatory program.
Can You Teach Funny?
It depends. “Can you take someone with a good sense of humor and turn them into Bill Murray? No. That’s an innate talent,” says artistic director Matt Hovde. But he adds, “We’re not in the dream-squashing business. We teach people how to find funny in their lives.” If you’re a natural performer, that might mean honing your writing skills. If your forté is words, it’s about putting you up on stage to test your point of view.
If a laugh erupts from the crowd, great; if not, that’s not necessarily a sign of disaster, says Mainstage member Katie Rich. “Humor is a byproduct of improv. It comes from revealing truth and tension in any given situation.” Rich fell in love with comedy during a high school field trip to “Truth, Justice, or The American Way,” starring Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. She got her “reps” in—the comedy world’s term for paying your dues—during three years of touring casinos and smaller clubs. And though many in her circle have assumed that “SNL” is her next stop, Rich won’t be boxed in. “SNL is just one of hundreds of things you can do with your career,” she says.
Second City: First in Heart
Crooked politicians. A brutal winter. In these parts, the comedic tap never runs dry. Chicago audiences are smart, savvy and know what works. If a joke bombs, the kind folks of the Midwest don’t count you out. “Chicago is more forgiving,” says Sec- ond City e.t.c.’s Chris Witaske, who currently stars in “We’re All in This Room Together.” “Our baseball team is the Cubs for goodness sake.”
Hijinks in the Hoods: Four More Comedy Clubs to See in Chicago
Second City (1616 North Wells St., 312-337-3992; www.secondcity.com) is only one piece of Chicago's comedic pie. Look for the following comedic destinations in their respective neighborhoods.
Area/Neighborhood: Roscoe Village
The Details: This bar turns underground comedy lab on Tuesday nights at 9:30 pm.
Get There: 2100 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-281-4444; www.beatkitchen.com
The Comedy Bar
Area/Neighborhood: River North
The Details: With comedic royalty at the helm—new partner and co-owner Jim Belushi—this standup joint based in Ontourage revives your Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for just $10-$15 with a no-drink minimum.
Get There: 157 W. Ontario St., 773-387-8412, www.comedybarchicago.com
Area/Neighborhood: Old Town
The Details: Before YouTube and funnyordie.com, there was standup. This staple has hosted many of the greats in its 30-plus years.
Get There: 1548 N. Wells St., 312-337-4027, www.chicago.zanies.com
The Annoyance Theatre & Bar
The Details: No topic is off limits at this theater, including a post- apocalyptic earth ruled by judos and what happens when a condo association is all up in your business.
Get There: 4830 N. Broadway, 773-561-4665, www.annoyanceproductions.com
The Details: Credit the founders for long- form sketches, and for putting their theater in Cubs territory, which could use the laughs during baseball season.
Get There: 3541 N. Clark St., 773-880-0199, www.ioimprov.com