Second City's A-Team of B-Players or Who ELSE is Who at Second City?
There was a time when comedy on television was at a cross roads. Prior to this amazing era, America television was beset with comedy along the lines of the fanciful "I Dream of Jeannie" sit-com banality and the shrill silliness of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." While brilliant in their own rights ("Jeannie" created by the genius Sheldon Leonard and "Laugh-In" was revolutionary and trend-settling) but something happened in the mid 1970's that changed the face of television comedy and American Culture. That "something" was called "Saturday Night Live."
With all the media fury that surrounded the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, one common denominator kept surfacing again and and again. A term most of America hadn't heard before, a term that meant little at time but actually stood for a catalyst that revolutionized the culture of the world. Everyone kept mentioning this "Second City."
In the mid 70's, my dad explained it to me this way: "Second City is a school in Chicago where people go to learn how to be funny." As a young class-clown of 9 or 10 years old, I was enchanted and had to know more.
The Second City was the origination of improvisational comedy. More correctly, it was the home of improvisational theater where the "play" was made up on stage, live, in front of the audience. No scripts, no preparation, no direction. Free from the restrictions of conventional "acting," the player was able to create as well as perform and this environment fostered many, many of today's top comedic talent.
Now, what you may not realize is that, while The Second City produced your Akroyds, your Belushis, your Farleys, your Tina Feys, your Bill Murrays, there were many others whom you might not list among those legendary names who also came out of the Second City. Here are a handful.
1. Severn Darden:
Aside from playing opposite both Stan Freberg and The Monkees in the latter's 60's TV show and portraying Kolb in 2 of the original Planet of the Apes films, Severin Darden approached comedy with an intellect and genius undocumented before. Darden was known to lecture audiences on metaphysics and wrote the legendary piece "Football Comes to the University of Chicago." (Look it up.) He is also less famous, but even more a hero of mine, for feeling up Joan Rivers.
2. Paul Mazursky:
Oscar Winning director and writer. Mazursky not only co-wrote the pilot episode of "The Monkees" (notice a trend?) but also wrote the Peter Sellers classic "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas." The man's resume reads like a syllabus for a college level film appreciation class. "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Harry and Tonto," "Moscow on the Hudson." The list goes on and on. And Mazursky shared the Second City stage with some equally brilliant talent.
3. Avery Schreiber:
A favorite of mine since I had the opportunity to correspond with him prior to my relocation to Hollywood in the early 2000's. Schreiber is recognizable by his mustache and trademark double-takes. The man was Belushi before Belushi– or perhaps Belushi before drugs. Schreiber also teamed with fellow Second City Alumni Jack Burns, who was, prior, comedy partner of some guy named Carlin. Burns and Schreiber also had their own series on ABC in the early 70's. So ubiquitous was Schreiber on 70's TV that if you watched for fifteen minutes any time between 1970 and December 31, 1979, there was a 33% chance you saw Avery Schreiber– and a 25% chance you saw him eating Doritos.
4. Dan Castellaneta:
Yep. Homer Simpson. If that's ALL he ever did, that's enough, but in addition to being on the Second City stage from 1983 to 1987, he was also Doc Brown in the "Back to the Future" animated show and doubled for Robin Williams' genie in the "Alladin" animated series. He also went to Northern Illinois University, where my parents met and I was conceived. Not necessary in that order.
5. Nichols and May:
A favorite of Ed Sullivan's and an act lost in time, I'm afraid, the Second City introduced the world to the genius that is Mike Nichols. Elaine May is no slouch either and together they put together late 50's-era smart satire which re-introduced the concept of "clever" to America comedy. On his own, Nichols is one of only ten people to have won each of the major American entertainment awards: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. To those who know him or worked with him, the reverent use of the term "genius" is often associated. Do yourself a favor and look up some of their material. You're using the Internet right now, for crying out loud. Watch and listen to some of their stuff and experience what thinking AND comedy can do together.
If you're interested in learning more about The Second City and don't happen to live in Chicago, Los Angeles or Toronto (in which case, you could go see Second City theater live), check out Sheldon Patinkin's amazing book "The Second City," published in 2000. Or visit your local library.
Tim Powers is a stand-up comedian, writer and former mustache wearer from Hollywood California. His touring dates and video samples can be see at www.timisfunny.com.