I have this dream fairly often. I’m standing atop a trapeze platform, clad in tights and bedecked with sequins. I survey the crowd below, noticing a particularly wheezy old man taking shots from his inhaler between bites of popcorn. I raise my arm, one hand on the trapeze and push off. But as I release the bar and begin to flip forward rapidly, I look to my partner on the receiving trapeze, and rather than the powerful, muscled “catcher” that I’m expecting, the old man is there, flashing a toothless grin and holding out one withered arm. As I fall, I realize the net below has vanished.
This dream is a lot like performing improvisational comedy. You rely on your audience to a large degree and there certainly isn’t anything to catch you when you fall (except maybe your fellow improvisers, who can cushion your landing somewhat). But if things go according to plan, the scenes meld together seamlessly and people leave the theater muttering, “I wonder how long it took them to write that.”
If you catch Second City’s April 8 show at Duke’s Page Auditorium, you’ll see some prepared sketches spanning the company’s 42 years, but the segments of the show that will leave you scratching your head are the improvs. These guys are good. Founded by a group of fearless actors in the early ’60s, the company became hugely popular in the Windy City, eventually crossing the border into Toronto as well. In fact, when Canadian producer Lorne Michaels was looking for performers for his new late night comedy program, he tapped numerous Second City regulars. Saturday Night Live became a phenomenon and so did Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and John Belushi.
Most people see an improv show and think, “Ahh, that’s easy. They’re just making it up. I bet they don’t even rehearse.” While this might be true for some companies, Second City doesn’t fall in to that category. Before you can run, you must learn to walk, and each troupe member spends countless hours taking classes, performing in smaller venues and paying their dues before taking one of the coveted slots in Second City’s touring company. Learning the structure of each improv is of the utmost importance, and there are many rules that should be followed for the scene to be successful. The audience’s suggestions are also key: Creative, inspired input allows the performers to explore the depths of their abilities, while crude and vulgar suggestions can lead the laughs right into the toilet. But it’s this unknown element that multiplies the laugh-factor exponentially. When audiences realize that the joke that’s causing them to cackle was pulled seemingly out of thin air, the laughs flow much more freely.
Having performed improv for nearly 10 years, I’ve felt the exhilaration of a well-timed joke as well as the satisfaction of setting a fellow performer up for a great punch line. But seeing the real pros at work is a sight to behold. Second City has been fortunate to have the talents of great teachers like Paul Sills, Del Close, Charna Halpern and many others to guide its development. And the stars continue to spring from their well of talent. SNL currently features Second City alums Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sans and Tina Fey, the first female head writer in the history of the show. Attend Monday’s show and you’ll undoubtedly catch at least one star of tomorrow.
Just make sure you don’t sit next to the old guy with the inhaler.