On a blustery fall afternoon, Andy St. Clair slips into an empty club, with rows of tables, wooden chairs and a bare stage awaiting its next bit of comedy magic.
It doesn't look like much, but the stage is something of a shrine.
This is The Second City, the place where legions of comics — among them Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Bill Murray and John Candy — sometimes killed, sometimes flopped, but always tried to make 'em laugh.
This weekend, the theater marks its 50th anniversary, a milestone that's even more impressive in the ephemeral world of show business. Second City has survived and thrived for a half-century with the same formula: small, youngish casts; parody, satire and improvisation; and hip, irreverent, topical, often political humor.
Decades ago, it was Alan Arkin in a rain hat and slicker phoning God — "That's N-O-A-H," he tells the divine — and auditioning ark candidates. Thirty years later, it was Carell (Arkin's cast mate in "Little Miss Sunshine") as a job applicant ordered to stomp his foot and disguise his voice so a blindfolded personnel manager can guard against biases.
From one generation to the next, Second City has cranked out talent with clockwork regularity. "It's a comedy factory," says Harold Ramis, a former cast member turned director-writer-actor-producer.
Now it's Andy St. Clair's turn. He's at the Wells Street theater this day for rehearsals for the 97th main stage show, "The Taming of the Flu."
Tall with a Midwestern geniality, St. Clair, 34, made it to the main stage after working his way up the ranks over six years, much like a rookie moving from the minors to a championship team. So his description of Second City is apt.
"I call it the comedy Yankees," he says with an easy grin. "When it's not funny, people are going to be, 'What's wrong with the Yankees?' But when it is funny, they're going to be, 'Well, they're SUPPOSED to be funny. They're the YANKEES.'"[...]
"The reason it's successful is because we stay relevant," says Andrew Alexander, co-chairman and chief executive officer since 1985.
Shelly Gossman, a current cast member born nearly 20 years after the troupe was founded, elaborates.
"Unlike any other theater, it will always be new and different," she says. "It's younger people writing what they think. ... It's always current. It can't get antiquated. It's not a script from 20 or 30 years ago. It's theater in the now."
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Andy St. Clair compares Second City to the New York Yankees.