Thursday, March 11, 2010

TJ Shanoff talks improv

TJ Shanoff spoke to the Plain Dealer last week before Second City's TourCo performed this past weekend.
"You'd have to be a real idiot to argue against the point that there'd be no 'Saturday Night Live' without Second City," said T.J. Shanoff.

Of course, Shanoff might be a little biased. He's been with the seminal comedic company since 1997 and is the director behind "The Second City 50th Anniversary Tour," which stops at PlayhouseSquare's Ohio Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday.

The director culled 50 years of SC sketches to put together Saturday's show, which features two acts of semiscripted material and a final totally improvised third act.

"Second City over the last 25 years really extended its reach and touches almost every form of comedy," Shanoff said in a call to his Chicagoland home.

"Improv used to be a theatrical exercise, and Second City has helped make [it] a viable form for performers. Chicago has many improv theaters, Cleveland had a Second City for a while. There are comedy and improv groups in almost every college around the country, and I don't believe it's presumptuous or misleading to say that none of that would have occurred without Second City leading the way.

"It's not just a famous comedy theater. It's laid the groundwork for making sketch comedy and improv acceptable," he insisted.[...]

"If you look at what's going on with NBC right now, with shows like '30 Rock' and 'Parks and Recreation' and the American 'Office,' these are either created or written by or have performers who got their start at Second City," Shanoff said.

Shanoff points to "30 Rock" star Tina Fey as an example. He calls her the quintessential Second City performer. She was part of the 1996 Chicago Mainstage troupe.

The key there is "part of the troupe." In Second City thinking, the company, not the individual actor, is primary.

"She knew she was great. Everyone there knew she was great. But she 'quote-unquote' knew that she was just part of the ensemble. She was no better or no worse than any other actor," Shanoff said.

"Now that Tina has gone on to have great success in film and television, she's brought along an incredible number of Second City people with her for the ride," Shanoff said.

It's called respect for yourself, for the theater and for your peers. And it's one reason why you won't see in the tour a lot of the more famous Second City sketches created over the years, such as the "Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker" character created by Chris Farley while he was at Second City.

"As the director, I don't want to saddle an actor with a Chris Farley part everyone's known for 20 years," Shanoff said.

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