There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
You might expect that Bernard Sahlins, one of the founders of one of the most influential theater companies in the countrywhich gave us the likes of Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris; later, Robert Klein and Fred Willard; later still, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Dan Aykroyd, and, of course, John Belushiwould have a big, thick book’s worth of juicy behind-the-curtain tales to tell in Days and Nights at the Second City: A Memoir, With Notes on Staging Review Theatre. But only half of this slim volume is concerned with the history of the Second City stage company, and Sahlins is more interested in acting the college don than in dishing the dirt.
Which is why the longtime director and producer of Chicago’s venerable 42-year-old Second City Theater devotes the separate second half of his book to thoughts on staging Second City-style reviews. Because most of my own Second City-style reviews are ripped directly from the Second City TV show, I passed over this section lightly. Besides, it reads like a transcript of a weekend seminar. That seminar might be instructive and engaging in person, but it is slow going unless you are looking for
In this book about comedy theater, replete in both halves with pictures of his famously subversive troupe in action, Sahlins barely cracks a smile. Rather, he asks us to think deeply about theater, its meaning, its history, its import in our daily lives and the life of the nation. The short comic review is, he tells us, the “oldest form of western drama.” Furthermore, “We are heirs to a great tradition. And most of us honor that tradition, remaining vulgar, underpaid, and irreverent. I enjoin you to hold on to two of those three qualities.” That’s about as light as it gets.
Among the most frequently repeated words in Days and Nights are “intelligence” and “irony.” These are the hallmarks of the Second City style, and the theater’s initial success was partly because the actors smartly mined the irony fields before the attitude was on most people’s maps. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, being ironic could actually put you in jail, as Lenny Bruce discovered. And yet, Sahlins correctly observes, “A certain amount of oppression is good for comedy. The firmer the taboo, the more excitement when it’s violated…But unlike the Beats, unlike Bruce, we represented the respectable, the acceptable face of dissent.”
Respectable, but still gleefully subversive. Second City in the ’60s was “part of the expression of a growing anti-establishment sentiment.” What it was not, interestingly, was an improv troupe. Like many, I always thought of Second City as performing without-a-net improvised sketches, à la Whose Line Is It Anyway? or Second City’s San Francisco equivalent, the Committee, which also traffics in the “We need a suggestion for an occupation”-style show. (WKRP’s Howard Hesseman is an alumnus. Sahlins doesn’t mention the troupe for some reason.) Sahlins is no fan of improvisation, nor even the word “improv.” “[W]e almost never,” he says, “used improvisation as a presentational form. For us it was a tool for developing material.” Fine, but improvised sets based on audience participation were in fact a regular part of the bill. It’s curious that Sahlins downplays this aspect, because skilled improv depends on just the type of intelligence and heightened ironic attitude that he so admires.
Indeed, Second City material began and ended with irony, which Sahlins helpfully defines in Part 2’s “The Theoretical Basis of Our Work.” He insists that “we must include ourselves, our own beliefs, our own icons, our own sins in the irony. This absents cynicism and promotes humanness.” It’s difficult to judge the success of this philosophy by Part 1’s examples of scenes from past Second City shows, because, as Sahlins admits, “reading a Second City scene often leads to head-scratching. There are no obvious jokes.”
Furthermore, I suspect that Sahlins would rather be considered smart than funny. He sounds unrepentingly snobbish when discussing the importance of intelligence for the Second City actor: “[S]ince we develop our own material and deal with politics, art, psychology, and human relationships, intelligence is mandatory.” This is certainly true if you’ve ever seen an amateur bunch of improvisers rush for the nearest poop joke when their brains give out. But I’ve always been suspicious of actors “dealing” with issues, rather than simply telling a story. As Sam Goldwyn said, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.
Sahlins makes one serious error that amazingly missed detection. Recalling a 1963 trip to London, he writes that “four young men calling themselves the Beatles were making a splash,” and follows that sentence with this: “The Kings Road swarmed with young people sporting rainbow-colored Mohawks and with skinheads, their anatomies pierced in various places with safety pins.” Well, no, that was a generation later.
Here Sahlins briefly introduces Second City’s U.K. counterparts, the creators of the Beyond the Fringe review: “[i]ntelligent, talented young rebels spawned at Oxford and Cambridge…Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller.” The Second City swapped casts with actors from Cook’s anti-establishment club, the Establishment, to mixed success. Sahlins cleanly delineates the difference between British humour and American humor: “[W]e tended toward the humor of behavior and they emphasized the humor of comment.” But he fails to expand on this trenchant observation, moving on to a brief account of meeting his wife. (For a full chronicle of the British comedy review tradition, please read Harry Thompson’s 1997 account, the exhaustively authoritative Peter Cook: A Biography.)
Sahlins admits that he “wasn’t ready” for the changes to his art engendered in the late ’60s. The new kids on the block were children of television; their references were media-based, in stark contrast with those of the intensely theater- and literature-centric performers he’d started with. “[A] significant social change was taking place in a way that I was just beginning to perceive,” he writes. “The bright energy of the cast…came at a price.” Sahlins bemoans the fact that the new Second City actors actually had agentsand that time on his stage could be considered merely a good career move.
The agent of those changes, the “lodestar” of his generation, as Sahlins puts it, was John Belushi. The final chapter of the memoir portion of the book is titled “John Belushi, the Seventies, and the End of Innocence.” Belushi’s reference points were almost entirely of the moment. (And he was an incredible presence. I saw him live twice: Once in National Lampoon’s Lemmings at the University of Maryland, once at Georgetown as part of a NatLamp review.) Among casts that included Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle Murray, Gilda Radner, and Christopher Guest, Belushi stood out. Après Jake Blues, the Second City theater became a Chicago tourist stop.
Of course, Belushi made the smart career move, leaping to TV. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels wisely, if rapaciously, raided the Second City talent pool for his original cast, and for many subsequent casts as well, and Sahlins takes a few low-key swipes at SNL. He dismissively describes the show as “grounded in a bad-boyism whose main goal was willy-nilly to send up one’s elders: parents, politicians, all established authority. I didn’t mind the send-ups; it was the willy-nilly that bothered me.” What Sahlins doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge is the similarities between the ground broken by Second City on the stage and SNL on TV. As he notes, Second City’s first success came via college students who were wildly enthusiastic at finding smart material aimed directly at themselvesexactly the effect that SNL had in 1975, when it brought a sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll attitude to a television industry still ruled by big-band fans.
But Sahlins rightly bemoans the “rush to an adolescent world.” He makes the valuable point that when Second City began, children were not the dominant culture. “Most working writers, actors, and producers were past their youth. Their target audience was certainly not the very young.” Consider that Variety recently spotlighted the movie industry’s new lodestar: 14-year-old boys.
Although it is both interesting and informative, Sahlins cautions that his book is not a “formal history.” Anyone seeking gossip about, or a fuller account of, on all the now-famous people who have pranced across the Second City stage since 1959 should look elsewherelike Dave Thomas’ surprisingly good 1996 book, SCTV: Behind the Scenes, an oral history of the NBC (and before that, syndicated) television show that is probably what most people think of when the words “Second City” are mentioned. Thomas was a member of the stellar cast of Canadian Second Citizens that included Candy, O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Rick Maranis, and Martin Short. His book is rich in detail on the hows and whys of that brilliant show, and Sahlins is quoted often.
And a more detailed accounting of the intelligent, informed, and sophisticated theatrical, social, and political scene that led to Second City may be found in Tony Hendra’s ponderous 1987 tome, the near-rabid Going Too Far: The Rise and Demise of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment Humor. In fact, Hendra provides the kind of particulars one might have expected from Sahlins: “After thirty years of remarkable stewardship of the nation’s greatest comedic oil field,” Hendra writes, “Sahlins realized a massive $1.8 million from current owner Andrew Alexander, which averages out at $43,000 a year; he would have made a good deal more renting out the Second City Theater for revivalist meetings.”
One gets the sense from Days and Nights that attending a Second City performance 40 years ago was akin to a religious experience. Sahlins was certainly “saved” by his experiencehe sold his interest in a tape-recorder factory to run away with the crazy theater folks. And like a born-again preacher, Sahlins clearly still wants to testify about the big-brained irony gospel to another generation. But the “shock of the new” that Second City was able to deliver is no longer shocking to the new generationthe grandchildren of Belushi?who have been raised in the world of Alanis-style “irony,” wacky morning DJs, MTV’s Jackass, and Tom Green. Today, smart irony plays to an empty house. CP