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Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater

by Mike Thomas

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-345-51422-6
Publisher: Villard

A Chicago Sun-Times staff writer weeds through hours of interviews to fashion an in-depth oral history of comedy’s greatest talent factory, The Second City.

When Bernard Sahlins, Paul Sills and Howard Alk founded a coffeehouse in 1959, they had no intention of starting a comedy dynasty. Sahlins and Sills had produced a few plays around Chicago, but didn’t think of putting together a show at their new club until it was nearly ready to open. They gathered up a few friends—many leftover from the defunct improv group the Compass Players—and started hosting comedy and political satire. A half-century later Second City is still a comedy institution, what many alums believe was “the purest and most fulfilling creative experience of their lives.” Thomas tries to capture the group’s vast history—its hundreds of performers and dozens of success stories, its multiple outposts and massive influence on SCTV and Saturday Night Live—and it proves to be a daunting task. The author focuses on Second City’s early history and its most recognizable—and notorious—graduates, recounting tales of John Belushi’s massive appeal and Chris Farley’s excesses. Thomas capably builds a coherent narrative from all the backstage moments and business dealings, but the interviews often fail to provide adequate depth about what has made Second City so successful. There are also notable absences—particularly Mike Myers and Bill Murray—that create narrative gaps the author struggles to navigate around.

Not for casual fans, but a light treat for improv aficionados and comedy junkies.