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Lessons From The Second City

By Michael Thomas, Artistic Director

I have to admit, when our Marketing Director, Colleen Cook, asked me to write a blog about my time at the Second City I was a little stumped. “Write about something funny that happened. When something went wrong.” Of course, something going wrong was what we’d always hoped would happen. Someone forgetting to make an entrance, a missed sound cue, a server dropping a tray of glasses, a cell phone ringing… Those sort of things were like little gifts to the improv-trained actor because they knew that the unexpected is funny – and they can riff on it. Even in the worst of times – as when a drunken high schooler, celebrating her post prom at our show, vomited all over herself, the server and the unfortunate couple in front of her – I watched the actors on stage spin upchuck into comedy gold. For the rest of the evening, the actors would somehow find a way to work a barf joke into the scene – and it would send the audience into hysterics. We were taught not to resort to potty/childish humor, (see below), but when forced into it, we could keep pace with the best/worst of them.

Looking back, some of the funniest, (albeit frustrating) moments came when I first started improv classes. There was always someone in your class who ignored the basic rules of improv and would completely change the scene so that they could, presumably, insert what they considered to a funnier situation or even just a corny pun or one liner. For instance, I recall that our suggestion for a scene was “a man whose wife is cheating on him.” . My scene partner and I got up on stage and I began with “I’m so distraught. I know something is going on and it’s driving me crazy.” My partner responded with “What are you talking about? I’m George Washington and it’s my birthday!” The guy had clearly been sitting on his hands waiting to unveil a hilarious George Washington birthday party scene he’d concocted – and he was going to do it whether we liked it or not. Fans of the television program The Office may recall Michael Scott’s failed attempt at improv. When he doesn’t know how to end a scene, he simply pulls out an imaginary pistol and shoots all of his teammates dead. The star of that show, Steve Carrell, is a Second City alum – and I’m certain that scene must have been based on his real life experiences.

Of course, there were also many memorable moments dealing with certain members of the audience. I don’t think we ever did a single show when there wasn’t someone in the crowd who thought they were funnier than the folks on stage. It usually went down like this:
Actor: We need a suggestion for a place. Any place. A train station. A taxi cab. Your mother’s kitchen.
Man in audience: Poop!!!
Actor: (ignoring him) An amusement park. A doctor’s office. An operating room.
Man in audience: A urinal!!
Actor: (still ignoring him) Betsy Ross’ sewing room. The deck of the Titanic. A hamster cage.
Man in crowd: Someone farting!
Actor: (ignoring him again while cocking a hand to his ear) I think I heard someone call out “A basketball court!”
The unfortunate man in the audience really felt as though he was the first person in the history of comedy to think of toilet humor. I’m sure he envisioned the audience hoisting him upon their shoulders and celebrating him as the great wit of his generation. The Noel Coward of gastrointestinal-based comedy.

But what I remember most about my time at Second City is that I witnessed some of the best acting and storytelling I’d ever seen. When I was in acting school, we wrote off our comedy improv class as a silly, albeit entertaining, diversion from the much meatier works of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. But what I discovered at Second City was that the best improvisers are also the most profoundly adept actors. And why? Because they are always listening and reacting. They stay “in the moment” – so their reactions are always honest and believable. Some of our most renowned actors, including Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Alan Arkin, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers and Martin Short – as well as my friends Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey – were trained at the Second City. I spent four years there in the 1990s – and met some of the most incredibly funny, kind, giving and generous folks I’ve ever known. Unlike so many, I didn’t seek out a job there, but came onboard thanks to my friend Jeff Richmond, who directed many of their main stage and ETC productions. At first it just seemed like any other gig – and I honestly just did it for the paycheck. But I quickly discovered that what they do is truly an art form – and I had fallen, bass ackwards, into one of the most profoundly life-changing experiences I would ever know.