By Susie Allen
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

Compass and Second City were really born on the top floor of the Reynolds Club.”
—Bernie Sahlins
Former Producer with Second City

Bernie Sahlins knows talent when he sees it. During his 26 years as producer with The Second City, Sahlins, AB’43, helped discover some of world’s best-known comedians, including John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, and Bill Murray.

But there’s a surprising secret to Sahlins’ success—funny isn’t enough.

“First I look for intelligence, and then for reference level,” he explains. “Do they know who the Secretary of Agriculture is? Do they know who Dostoevsky is?”

Sahlins’ approach might be unconventional, but its results are indisputable. Second City blossomed from UChicago roots into a global phenomenon that launched the careers for scores of Hollywood and television stars, many of whom will celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary Dec. 11–13 in Chicago with a series of performances and panel discussions. Sahlins will reflect on the early days of Second City in two talks, “The First Cast” and “Second City in the Sixties.”

The Early Days

From the earliest years, Second City made its mark with comedy that made intellectual demands on performers and audiences alike. Its founders—alumni Sahlins, Paul Sills, and Howard Alk—and many of its early cast members were UChicago graduates schooled in Bertolt Brecht, Greek tragedy, and Italian commedia dell’arte. They cultivated audiences who got their high-brow references and were ready for comedy that pushed boundaries.

That may be why Second City thrived, says Abby Sher, AB’95, who performed with Second City from 1998–2003. “People being dumb can only be funny for so long,” Sher says. “In order for humor to be funny, you have to honor your audience and honor their intelligence. There are several brands of humor, but the ones that seem to stand the test of time are the ones that make you think or aren’t afraid to tackle bigger questions.”

As undergraduates, Alk and Sills had both been involved with the Compass Players, a student-run company that pioneered improvisational theater—a technique that Second City later adopted when it was founded in 1959. “Compass and Second City were really born on the top floor of the Reynolds Club,” Sahlins notes.

Soon after Compass disbanded, Alk, Sahlins, and Sills decided to form a new theater. Influenced by European coffeehouse culture, they decided to start a coffeehouse, “because that was what one did in those days,” Sahlins says. One hundred people attended their first show, much more than anyone had anticipated. “I’ve met at least 1,000 of those 100 people,” he jokes.

Fans of the Compass Players, many of them affiliated with the University, flocked to Second City’s early shows. Sheldon Patinkin, AB’53, who directed many early Second City revues, says the UChicago audience allowed Second City to pursue its unique brand of intelligent comedy. “Since we all started at the U of C, and our audiences were made up of [people affiliated with the University], our reference level was very different in those days,” Patinkin says.

“No Kierkegaard here”

Severn Darden, a UChicago alumnus and one of Second City’s original members, was known for high-minded satire that skewered pretension. Sahlins recalls one sketch in which Darden delivered an earnest lecture on the artistic merits of a blank canvas: “Featuring two shades of white in which both shades are exactly the same.”

In another popular sketch, “Football Comes to the University of Chicago,” a coach attempted to teach four undergraduates the basic rules of football—with disastrous results. When first confronted with the football, one student exclaims, “Why, it’s a demi-poly-tetrahedron!” The coach, doing his best not to lose patience, reminds his ragtag team that “we have a left guard and a right guard—no Kierkegaard here, gentlemen.”

“I think there were a lot of sketches with that level of intellectualism,” Sahlins recalls.

Second City also gained attention for its perceptive political satire. Sahlins believes Second City’s willingness to tackle controversial topics was a reaction to McCarthyism and “a period of repression in the country. Politics was not discussed that way in the mainstream media,”Sahlins says. Audiences were excited to see Eisenhower represented on the stage. “We didn’t set out to be rebels,”he explains. “The political content was responsive to the time.”

Second City, Then and Now

With multiple touring companies and locations in Los Angeles and Toronto, much about Second City has changed. Yet Sahlins, who sold his interest in the Chicago location in 1985, finds that 50 years later, by and large the founders’ legacy is intact.

“Television has fostered an impatience with length,” says Sahlins, who helped create the cult-classic SCTV in Canada. “We would do 8- or 10-minute scenes, which you never see anymore. [Second City] has changed a lot, but so has the country.”

Like Sahlins, Patinkin has noticed a change in audiences. During a performance of the Compass Players, Patinkin recalls cast members Mike Nichols and Elaine May asking the audience to suggest an author. “They would improvise in the style of that author,” he remembers. “Now if we did that, we’d probably get Steven King.”

But intelligence remains one of Second City’s hallmarks. A film director once told Sahlins he could always recognize a Second City actor because he would read everyone’s parts, not just his own. “There’s an intellectual drive,” Sahlins says.

Sher agrees that comedy and intellectualism aren’t as far apart as they might seem. “Whether or not I read all the pages of Kant I was supposed to, I won’t say,” she says, “[But] with comedy, I do think, ‘I want all those neurons firing.’”

Sahlins is convinced that playing to an intelligent audience “is the only way you can do theater properly. If you feel contempt for your audience, they understand that. If you respect your audience, they respect you. Besides, we have to please ourselves.”

Of course, both Second City and Sahlins still know when to kick back and enjoy a low-brow laugh or two. Sahlins is friends with Prof. Ted Cohen, author of Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. But the two never discuss philosophy, according to Sahlins.

“We tell each other jokes,” he says. “You want to hear one? What did the snail say while riding on the back of the tortoise?”

“Wheeeeee!”

Originally published on December 7, 2009.