On Dec. 16, 1959, Chicago’s Second City Theatre opened its doors — and redefined funny.
In the 50 years since, countless talented jokers have appeared on Second City stages, including Martin Short, Dave Thomas, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, Catherine O’Hara and Joe Flaherty. Those are just a few of the alumni who showed up for last weekend’s star-studded 50th anniversary celebration in Chicago.
Second City, which now has outposts in Los Angeles, Detroit and Toronto, was founded by a trio of Americans: Bernie Sahlins, Paul Sills and Howard Alk. But a Canadian has overseen the triumph of the company in the 21st century. Brampton, Ont.-bred Andrew Alexander bought Toronto’s Second City for a pittance back in 1974 and, two years later, he and business partner Len Stuart launched the wildly successful and influential series SCTV. In 1985, the pair took over Second City Chicago, where Alexander remains the CEO and executive producer.
Alexander spoke to CBC News from his home in Chicago about Canadian comedy, the pervasive influence of SCTV and how he changed the face of Second City for the better.
Q: You grew up near Toronto and went to college in Indiana, though you're the son of British parents. These days, you’re living in the U.S. Has your exposure to so many different regions influenced your understanding of comedy?
A: Well, I actually grew up in Brampton – now best known as the hometown of Michael Cera! There were only a few thousand people living there when I was growing up. Nowadays, I think the population’s closer to a half-million. [Chuckles.] I’ve absorbed British influences, Canadian influences … and obviously, spending a lot of years in Chicago has had a significant effect [on me]. Sometimes those influences are subtle. One example of that is SCTV, which blended Canadian and American [sensibilities], but was strongly influenced by Canadian television.
I think [being an outsider] has played a role in how I’ve approached [my role at Second City]. It sort of motivates you and gives you that observational opportunity. And on the creative side, I think that’s helped inspire people here.
Q: There’s an apocryphal story about how you bought Second City Toronto from Second City co-founder Bernard Sahlins back in 1974 for $2 and a contract scrawled on a napkin. But you’ve said the company was actually $30,000 in debt when you took over. Why did you take on what must have seemed like a failing enterprise?
A: Well, I was in the hole as well, so it wasn’t a big leap for me.[Laughs.] I wasn’t making much money – maybe several hundred bucks a month at the Ivanhoe [Theatre in Chicago]. I borrowed about $7,000 from a guy I knew in the meatpacking industry and jumped in. After that, we lived from week to week. At the time, the Old Fire Hall [Theatre in Toronto, which became Second City’s home base] was owned by doctors and lawyers. They got themselves into trouble because they’d bought this magnificent facility but didn’t know how to run it. There’s one great story: one of the doctors, he was an obstetrician, I think. He realized how much in debt he was after I started going through the books. He was also going through a messy divorce around the same time. He walked downstairs, checked himself into St. Mike’s Hospital and immediately put himself on a Valium drip. [Laughs.]
There was space available downstairs at the Old Firehall, so I bought the whole lower floor. I had the idea to offer free beer to the audience. Nobody was interested in coming to see our comedy shows at the time, but they came for the beer. Upstairs on the second floor, there was a fine dining hall run by a guy who used to run Winston’s. The people who walked into this elegant dining room didn’t know what to make of all of us downstairs, where the free beer kept flowing.
Q: Can you remember when things began to shift?
A: Around ’78. We’d been doing [SCTV] for a couple of years and things started to fall into place. Me and my business partner, Len Stuart – who’d helped produce SCTV – decided that we should buy out the doctors. They were thrilled!
Q: How much has comedy changed over the 35 years or so that you’ve been involved with Second City? Has the rise of political correctness had any effect on the tone of your productions?
A: It hasn’t affected what we do onstage – you can get away with pretty much anything you want with a theatre audience. There’s not the same filter. And certainly, the producers don’t have a lot of say over the content. Once we hire the writers and directors, it’s their baby. We’ve lived and died by that over the past 50 years.
If you’re talking about things changing, though, I guess you can see some evidence of that on TV. Of course, there’s always been a certain outlet with cable and pay TV, where the content has never really been restricted. That’s different from the '60s and '70s – I mean, [Winnipeg-born writer and comedian] David Steinberg did something here, his Jonah and the Whale sermon, that got the Smothers Brothers cancelled [in the late '60s]. We felt it ourselves [at the time], but probably to a lesser degree than the Smothers Brothers.
With SCTV, we’d always end up arguing with the censors, but it was mostly over what they thought was funny or not funny. Bob and Doug McKenzie are a great example of that. We initially developed that as filler, because the CBC wanted more Canadian content, eh? NBC hated [the characters] and kept saying, "We don’t get it, it’s not funny," but we were determined to keep them in the show. Sure enough, that became a hugely successful bit.
Q: Are there significant differences between Canadian comedy and American comedy?
A: Canadians have a tendency to be more reliant on physical expression. There’s more character work, a lot of larger-than-life character types. You see that a lot in East Coast humour, stuff like CODCO and Kids in the Hall.
Q: Second City has divisions in Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. Do you notice any regional differences in what’s funny?
A: Much less so than I did 15 or 20 years ago. The world has become so much smaller, and the information age has made things so much more global – even politically. Our actors seem to come from all over, too. We’ve got some Canadian talent here [in Chicago]. [Belleville, Ont.-born] Lauren Ash is part of the current cast.
Q: The format of SCTV hinged on mocking contemporary television paradigms: you had everything from Joe Flaherty’s schlocky horror-meister Count Floyd to the game-show parody Half-Wits. Do you think SCTV had an effect on television as a whole?
A: I think it did. If you talk to Conan O’Brien, he says it was the show that had the greatest influence on his comedy work. Judd Apatow was a die-hard SCTV fan. Ben Stiller was a huge fan. You have all these iconic comedic talents who are fans. When people talk about the cultural influence of Second City over the decades, it’s just extraordinary – not just the direct influence of the players, but the number of people who count themselves as fans.
Q: What makes Second City comedy distinct?
A: There’s a quintessential Second City quality. You can see it with Tina Fey, with Steve Carell: they’re ensemble players. Their whole goal is to make their co-stars look good. You can see that in Tina’s writing, and how she performs with fellow actors on [30 Rock].
Q: Has that been the ideology of Second City throughout the past 50 years?
A: Definitely. It’s all about saying yes, not saying no; building a scene and moving it forward; not blocking, but agreeing. I think it’s even more pronounced, actually, since improv became a real phenomenon in the last 15 years. Now, a lot of that is due to Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, who made Whose Line Is It Anyway so popular. These days, we have 3,000 students a term taking classes [at the Second City Training Centre]. With four terms a year, that’s 12,000 kids! It shapes the kind of actors we get on the stage. By the time they join the company, they have a year, a year-and-a-half of training.
Q: What are you most proud of having accomplished over your 35-year involvement with Second City?
A: I think the biggest thing – in Chicago, specifically – is diversity. In 1992, I was living in L.A., around the time of the Rodney King riots. I flew back to Chicago the day after the riots broke out and went straight to rehearsal from the airport. And I watched five white guys struggling to make some kind of comedy out of the situation in L.A. I was so struck by how lily-white our company was and I knew we had to change. So I hired an African-American lady to do outreach, and since then we’ve had real diversity in our casts. It’s affected the point of view [of the productions] and has made it more rich. After all, Second City is supposed to be a reflection of the community. Now, that’s even more difficult in Toronto, where there’s so much multiculturalism. You have the East Indian community, the Chinese community, where there isn’t the same tradition [of comedy] in the cultures.
Q: I suspect the tremendous success of Russell Peters will shift that.
A: I think it will. And I hope we’re a part of that. Hopefully, Russell Peters is serving as a role model for kids growing up now.
Q: Do you have any big plans for the next 50 years of Second City?
A: We’ve been very cautious about the growth of the company, and our different divisions all seem to be growing very nicely. And of course, I hope we’ll continue to influence North American comedy.
Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBC News.