THE SECOND CITY – American comedy’s Harvard in Chicago

Second City is not particularly funny from the outside, but when you pass under those arches…

To really find out about a nation’s zeitgeist, watch its comedy. I don’t mean the carefully scripted, censored-so-as-not-to-lose-the-ratings comedy of films and television. The raw comedy of the clubs is where all is revealed.

For fifty years, in Chicago’s The Second City, funny young people have been climbing onto the stage and winging it, thinking on their feet, improvising in front of a tough crowd. It’s a terrifying learning ground, but some have survived it and graduated to fame and fortune.

Second City alumni include Bill Murray, Don Adams, Tina Fey, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, the Belushi Brothers, Steve Carrell and Dan (Homer Simpson) Castellaneta. Photos of them with beards, sideburns and dated haircuts adorn the walls of the upstairs foyer.

So too do framed abusive letters from people mortally offended by Second City shows. They’re along the lines of ‘You people are filthy, perverted, sick, moralless and worst of all, anti-American!’

This may not be the place to come if you’re offended my swearing or adult material, but most people love it. So did we.

On a wet Sunday night we queued with an excited crowd to see Who Do We Think We Are? It was a mix of sketch comedy and improvisation, performed by six energetic, drilled and extremely witty young performers. We’ll be watching their film and TV careers over the next few years. We couldn’t take photos inside of course, but there are heaps of Second City shows on YouTube.

While some of the references to current Chicago issues went over our heads, it was fascinating to get a glimpse of up-to-the-minute concerns, with no sacred cows and no holds barred.

Sketches about the young African American shocked to find out that his white girlfriend regards him as a ‘safe black’, the wallflower Korean girl at a nightclub, the woman taking up Roller Derby as a hobby, Barack Obama after re-election coming back as an all-powerful super-dude, doing a no-more-Mr Nice-Guy routine – all were fresh and revealing to us.

But we didn’t sit there all evening thoughtfully stroking our chins, making notes on the sociological implications of the material. It was also very damn funny!

Jackie looked over us while Sally looked after us.


Gold Coast B&B

Second City is a short bus or subway ride north of downtown Chicago, but we stayed nearby at Sally Baker’s Gold Coast B&B.

After a few nights in some of Chicago’s finest hotels, it was lovely to stay in a real home.

Sally was a superb hostess, a terrific source of knowledge about Chicago’s art and architecture, with a great library on the subjects.

Beautifully comfortable bedroom…

…and if it hadn’t been pouring with rain we would have spent time in the garden too.

Rates at Gold Coast B&B from $129-229 per night. See bbchicago.com.

The Second City has shows seven days a week. See secondcity.com.

For other things to do in Chicago, see explorechicago.org or ChooseChicago.com

The writer was the guest of the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.

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Filed under Art, USA

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