What it takes to be first at The Second City

Sketch Comedy is an essential ingredient in everything from the mid-century sitcom to the latest viral video.

Sketch comedy is an essential ingredient in everything from the mid-century sitcom to the latest viral video. 

Like any performance art, sketch has its hallowed ground where students come to learn the fundamentals; start an examination of comedy from any point and you will discover all roads converge with The Second City comedy theatre. 

The original Second City was opened in Chicago in 1959 as a place to study and perform Paul Sills' method of improvisational acting that had been developed by his mother and the mother of all improv, Viola Spolin. 

Sills began to assemble the strongest of his pupils into casts that would perform nightly shows. These shows would evolve into what is today a near quintessential right of passage in sketch comedy.

The Second City Mainstage show 

In 1974 theatre producer Andrew Alexander borrowed $7,000 and opened The Second City Toronto. Alexander wanted to bring a place to study Sills' method to the already-thriving comedy community. The Second City's Toronto outpost soon assembled its own Mainstage cast. 

The legacy of The Second City Mainstage show is vast. Toronto's Mainstage cast specifically boasts two of the school's most notable stars John Candy and Gilda Radner, and spawned the 1970s TV series SCTV

SCTV brought the world The Great White North sketches where Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas played Bob and Doug Mackenzie, two brothers who hosted a cable access show centered around the Canadian lifestyle.

These sketches would create an enduring pop culture reference and spawned the sub genre of "Hoser Comedy" (named for a person who has to hose down a hockey rink after their team loses... it was an insult Bob and Doug would hurl at everything and each other liberally).

Hoser comedy is a fiercely Canadian element evident in shows today such as Letterkenny, Trailer Park Boys, and more.

The halls and stairs of The Second City's current home on Mercer Street are adorned with photos of former Mainstage casts. 

Fresh-faced versions of major players from all parts of the industry are recognizable in these grade school-style group shots as if performers from the past are watching over the students they once were. 

Positions in the cast of The Second City Mainstage are prestigious for that very reason. A stint there means unequivocally you were a good comedian and became a better one. 

Second City today

The current cast of the Mainstage show is comprised of a dynamic group of performers who have all had different paths with one thing in common; it took years of work to get there. 

Some passed the five levels of improv classes offered by the training centre, then landed a spot in the year-long conservatory program, which only guarantees an audition for the hired cast positions. 

Cast positions are available in three different ensembles: Education Company, where cast members write a show that is toured around schools; House Company, an ensemble that performs in the facility's John Candy Box theatre on Friday nights; and Touring Company, that creates a show that is toured around the country. It is almost unheard of for a performer to get to Mainstage without putting in their time at one of them first. 

Simply put, there is no way to buy or fake your way onto The Second City Mainstage. It requires talent, work ethic, the ability to fit in and stand out at the same time... and of course be iconically funny. 

Once accepted, the cast writes a two-act comedy sketch show over a 12-week rehearsal process simply referred to as "process".

"Process" consists of writing and rehearsing from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., then returning at 9:45 p.m. to perform improv around concepts for sketches they are developing in front of an audience that has just finished watching the current Mainstage show. 

The shows have one main set, minimal costume changes, and next to no props. The material they create needs to be current and relatable, with a variety of laughs for all levels of intellect. The ensemble is tasked with delivering all of this, and once the show opens they must deliver it six nights a week for months on end. 

The current show is entitled If I Could #Throwback Time and is a satirical take on nostalgia, the humour of longing to live in the past and tackles many political issues such as conversion therapy, gender equality, immigration, and what we teach our children. 

It's a high-energy, neon-wrapped package, bursting with a collective comedy style that is fresh and contemporary. The set features early '90s shapes outlined in colour-changing lights among other retro design elements and pairs nicely with the modern absurdist humour in the show — softening the blow of many a truth that lurks under its DayGlo surface.

Show time

It's 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night and an hour before the show. 

One by one the cast starts to arrive. In the cozy backstage not an ounce of space is wasted. Lockers line the walls, covered in scribbles and signatures from past cast members and celebrities who have attended the show and leave hardly any space untouched. 

Bright lights from vanity mirrors, at the front of the room filter back on everything.

Pre-show rituals initiate. Low-energy discussions about the day's observations are had over light snacks and affirmations that tonight's show will be a good one. 

Cast member Natalie Metcalfe blinks at her reflection gradually turning to a smile. This is Metcalfe's first run with Mainstage. As she tests to see if her curling iron is hot enough, she clearly recalls the moment she found out she was being promoted. 

"I was at home, I was having a really low moment. I got that phone call, I was in touring company at the time and when my boss said she would like to offer me Mainstage... it was just full bawling." 

Metcalfe has accepted that in this line of work uncertainty is a constant reality. 

"You never know in this business if you are getting hired or fired, you just never know. The lifespan of a comedian in this type of environment isn't long, you're not going to be on the main stage for 20 years.

That phone call could be something really great, or really bad, I was so grateful it was something really great because it was a low moment so it felt real nice."

Something that has remained unchanged in decades of the Mainstage show, is that the cast works with a musical director, who for the most part accompanies each show live on piano and keyboards. 

The musical director for If I Could #Throwback Time is Jordan Armstrong, The Second City Toronto's first female musical director. Armstrong pops her head into the dressing room and is warmly greeted by the cast. 

As Armstrong stretches her fingers and rolls her neck, she casually picks at a delicious smelling takeout container of rice, meat and veggies, as she explains how the themes of nostalgia in this particular show left so much space for creativity when it came to her role as music director. 

"One of my favourite '80s songs is Tiffany's cover of I Think We're Alone Now. My job as musical director is to play piano live but, I also created a long playlist of songs I really wanted to get into the show. Then I shortlisted that to like five songs and obviously it gets shorter, and shorter because I have to serve the show." 

Armstrong held out hope, then a chance discovery towards the end of process found the song a place in the show. 

"Close to the end of process two cast members were talking about this really physical scene they wanted to do, which was about a pickpocket. I was like, 'This is the song we're doing.' It just happened, I just held on to it till the last second. I really wanted in there, I'm glad it worked out."

Faint chords of a guitar are played between moments of tuning, and Armstrong smiles and begins to lightly sing in the direction of cast member Tricia Black. Between strums, the two discuss the sonic profile of the past few nights. Eventually Armstrong leaves to check something. 

Once Black is satisfied with the tuning of her guitar. She exaggeratedly strikes out a few power chords and lays it on her lap saying to no one, in particular, "I miss playing for fun." 

Black's been busy recently, concluding a run of The Second City's all-female show entitled She the People, which included sold-out performances at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. It was also announced that She the People will be remounted at Mirvish's CAA Theatre in 2020. 

Musical comedy is a signature quality of Black's, who is also involved with the wildly popular show Songbusters where rotating members of the troupe perform improvised musicals. Looking up over her glasses and stroking her perfectly coiffed pompadour, Black is candid about what keeping this kind of performance pace requires. 

"For me when I have a difficult day I listen to music a lot. Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice it's Alright seems to be my go-to. I have a good cry... truly, honestly, the best thing is to cry sometimes." 

As show time approaches, the energy backstage begins to build. 

It's clear this is a cast that has a natural ease around one another. They bob and weave in various states of preparation, finding items the other is looking for that may have been borrowed without asking. 

A random microphone is discovered, and after determining it's not on and no one is looking for it, cast member Sharjil Rasool grabs it, jumps into the mirror light comically and proceeds to say "That's it guys I'm doing stand up tonight" 

It's this same spontaneous, endearing, energy and bright perspective that has allowed Rasool to be so successful at The Second City. It's clear he is a gifted improviser, after attending all classes and companies before joining this cast. 

Rasool is still amazed when improv is used as a basis for sketch writing, the humour will always be revealed in unexpected ways. He cites specifically a sketch entitled "My Bathroom and Me". 

In the sketch, Rasool sings a ballad about how nice it feels to lock yourself in the bathroom, take a hot shower… and proceed to over-analyze everything in your day. 

"Sometimes I just like being alone. The place where I feel like I have space to myself is in the bathroom. In your bedroom you can have privacy, but people can still barge in. The bathroom no one's barging in because it's such an intimate place." 

"When I originally tried the concept on stage I did it as a spa so people would come to this bathroom as a place to relax, look you sit on the toilet and you get to cry. Let it all out. Typical process; it just bombed!"

Only feet away, but from what feels like another dimension of focus, Clare McConnell repositions a cascade of red curls while exhaling in the direction of her mirror, as she shifts the light from the crystal salt lamp on her vanity.

McConnell is a hybrid performer; a dramatic actor who discovered The Second City while at theatre school. A large part of her body of work has been roles in television dramas. 

McConnell says her study of both genres has been vital to her as an actor, but explains why her work with The Second City has always been incredibly meaningful to her. 

"What I love about this job and what I've always loved about improv specifically, and comedy, really is that when I'm doing it, there is no room to think about anything else. It started for me as an escape from stuff that was going on when I was a teenager.

I didn't really start doing improv until my dad got really sick when I was 15. I needed somewhere where I couldn't think about that, something that was intense enough and immersive enough that it would take me away."

After drawing a breath, McConnell's mind snaps back to the task at hand and seeks out fellow cast member Alan Shane Lewis to go over something. 

"We are in a sketch about two of those things that flap outside used car dealerships that fall in love." 

With a confident nod of agreement, Alan laughs to himself about how truly whacked-out the premise is.

Alan Shane Lewis is a performer that credits The Second City with helping him find discipline and direction when his comedy career was at a crossroads. 

"My buddy Franco, [speaking about Franco Nguyen who is currently on CBC's TallBoyz] really encouraged me to apply for the Bob Curry Fellowship." 

Named for The Second City's first African American cast member, it's an improv program that is meant to raise up marginalized perspectives in comedy. 

"The fast-food sketch I wrote for this show was something Natalie and I came up with. One day I was like, what about a fast food thing? I thought an army thing would be funny. The whole idea of going to war, and late-night fast food people doing a reference to the movie Patton, where the flag drops down and the general gives a speech.

I used to work at A&W as a night manager, and every night it would be just like hell on earth, especially on the weekends!  People would just come in there and destroy that place, we were understaffed it felt like going to war.

It was a free-for-all! I would ask people to do things, and they would just say no. I didn't feel like a general — more like a babysitter, but the sketch seems to really work and get a pop, especially on the weekends. I like this job a lot better than that one." 

Chris Wilson emerges from an up-until-now unnoticed door, stepping into the main dressing room in show clothes. Satisfied with his appearance, he calmly retreats to a chair in the back of the room, deep in thought. 

This is Wilson's third Mainstage show and his ultra-modern deadpan, and at times absurdist style, is a heavy influence and necessary contrasting element for the overall comedic message in If I Could #Throwback Time.

An excellent demonstration of Wilson's strengths as a comedian is in a sketch entitled "Do You See?" that is partly about climate change apathy and partly about the arrogance of "experts" who know nothing.

This is the sort of sketch that is so character-driven, it transcends the need for a conventional beginning, middle and end, but rather requires sending a chorus of people holding blue glowing balloons into the audience. 

Wilson is the rare performer who had little experience with The Second City prior to auditioning. Instead, Wilson had gained notoriety in the sketch and fringe festival circuit with his duo, Peter and Chris. 

Wilson is the first to admit during the creation process of his first show that it took a while for his personal approach to sketch writing to merge with the style so many of his cast mates were already well-versed in.

"What is different now from then, is that the first show I came in with a bunch of ideas, just like stuff that I wanted to do, or thought about, I felt like I had more ideas.

This time I had less of them, but I trusted more in the Second City process of improvising and trying to discover, then re-improvising.

That's the way they teach to do shows in the training centre. I believe more in that process now, than I did in the first show because I very much approached it as a writer, I was definitely like, 'let's write it out! Let's write everything and perform what we've written.'

If I Could #Throwback Time was different because I was like, 'I'm going to give in to the way it's been done the past or a way of doing comedy here.' My approach is way different this time." 

As a stage manager enters and instructs the actors to take their places the cast makes their way from the dressing room to the stage. Audience chatter quiets into laugh-less silence.

Tonight's show on The Second City main stage is about to begin.


Marty Younge is a Toronto based arts and culture writer / digital creator covering all things in the world of comedy from Canada and beyond. She has covered Just for Laughs, SXSW and JFL42 and can be found on Instagram at @youngemodernlaughs.