<< Front page Arts September 10, 2004

Second City slays Obie crowd
Widely-respected sketch/improv group impresses

Second City: Members of this esteemed comedy troupe contemplate their next knee-slapper.

The Second City, an improvisational and sketch comedy theater school, was named for the inferiority complex of its home town, Chicago; the poor thing lived in constant darkness, blanketed by big ol’ New York City and her tremendous theater community. Second City has had a long history of real theater trained actors applying classical techniques to popular art forms, including improv and sketch comedy. The incredible success of Chicago’s improv and sketch (here on out referred to as sketrov) comedy theater scene is in part due to the power accredited to those two art forms, whereas in NYC improvisational theater was really just seen as a practice tool for real actors. Chicago invested the American world of sketrov comedy with life and passion, spawning a TV series, a national touring Second City troupe and many comedic geniuses.

In the 50s, improv was just beginning to be noticed as an art form and there were growing numbers of actors who enjoyed learning about, practicing and performing sketrov comedy. For this purpose a couple of theaters and clubs were created around the Chicago area where these folks could gather. As the number of people interested in sketrov comedy grew, a larger school was created that brought all these smaller studios together. It was called Second City.

In December of 1960, improvisational workshops started at The Second City. The craze grew very quickly after that with the release of a Second City record, Comedy From The Second City, a Second City Broadway run opening and a Second City London appearance. Then, in February of 1967, the Second City Touring Company was developed to bring improvisational theater to American cities. By the mid-70s, The Second City was a world-renowned school, especially with the recent debut of a new television show that featured several Second City alums — Saturday Night Live. Since then, people’s thirst for sketrov cannot be quenched, so now there are Second City schools and clubs in Las Vegas, Detroit, Los Angeles and Toronto.

Many of our greatest comedians trained at Second City and got their start touring with the Second City troupe. Some of the most renowned Second City alumni are Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, Bonnie Hunt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tim Meadows, Shelly Long, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson) and, last but not least, Alan Alda. The National Second City Troupe tours the country visiting and performing in theaters as well as at fundraisers, festivals, conventions and other such social functions.

They even do the occasional college show, as hundreds of Oberlin students experienced this past Saturday night at 8 in Finney Chapel. Before diving into the review of Second City’s show, one important point must be made, and that is the fact that Oberlin is very well-endowed with comedic theater groups. We have two improvisational theater troupes (Sunshine Scouts and Primitive Streak) and two sketch comedy groups (Writers’ Bloc and Piscapo’s Arm), and tolerance for “funny” on this campus is consequently quite high. So Oberlin students are well versed in the art of sketrov, and don’t laugh for just anybody. You’ve got to earn those giggles and guffaws and the Second City troupe got guffawed to the MAX.

Second City’s National Touring Company, currently a group of six, performed a three-act show consisting of a musical number, some classic sketch scenes, several silent scenes and a surprise third act, entirely improvised. The skits and scenes were separated by a much spicier version of ye’ old sketch-blackout-sketch format, which was a reputably stale system until the 90s when it underwent some serious alterations. The newer scene splicer, if you will, created incredible fluidity throughout the entire show. And people were definitely laughing. Not only was each one of the six group members hilarious and outstanding in his or her own right, but the group dynamic was so comfortable that there was really not a visible difference between the sketch comedy and the improvised scenes. Like I said, FLUID. Second City fully deserves its status as the best sketrov has to offer and Oberlin was lucky to have been included on its tour this year.


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