At 50, Second City still churning out the laughs

Wed Dec 16, 2009 8:08pm EST
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By James B. Kelleher

CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Second City, the Chicago-based comedy theater troupe, marked its 50th anniversary this past weekend with an alumni reunion, the event drew as many stars as a Hollywood premiere.

With Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Bonnie Hunt, Harold Ramis and dozens of other former cast members in town for the event, there was plenty of laughter at the shows and panel discussions held to celebrate the milestone.

But the reunion -- and the sheer number of famous names it drew back to Second City's now sprawling home in the Old Town section of Chicago -- were also a serious reminder of just how mainstream the once scrappy group has become in an industry it once openly defied.

Formed in 1959 out of the ashes of a University of Chicago troupe called the Compass Players, Second City has become one of America's major laugh factories, launching the careers of everyone from Alan Arkin to Barbara Harris to Gilda Radner and Tina Fey. Along the way, its performers and performances have transformed the way the world laughs.

"It's something Chicago should be very proud of," said Robert Klein, who was a member of the troupe in the mid-1960s and went on to become a stand-up legend. "It's totally original."

Second City took a fresh, brainy approach to comedy, rooted in improvisation and ensemble sketches, powered by satire rather than one-liner jokes from stand-up comics.

Its fame and influence grew in the 1970s, when alums like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray became TV stars on the TV sketch comedy "Saturday Night Live" and when serious local actors -- inspired by its success -- founded groups like the Steppenwolf Theater that became cultural icons in their own right and solidified Chicago's reputation as an actor's city.

So last week's big celebration attracted dozens of alums and admirers like Fred Willard, George Wendt, Jeff Garlin and David Steinberg who have gone on to big careers in Hollywood.   Continued...

<p>Joe Flaherty (L), Eugenie Ross-Leming (2nd L), Harold Ramis, Jim Belushi (2nd R) and Judy Morgan (standing) perform a skit as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Chicago-based comedy theater troupe, Second City, in Chicago in this December 12, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Frank Polich</p>