Conversation: Harold Ramis and Bernard Sahlins on Second City’s 50th Anniversary

BY Tom LeGro  December 17, 2009 at 4:26 PM EDT

On a cold December night in 1959, The Second City opened in the Old Town section of Chicago in a small space that had previously been a hat shop and Chinese laundry. Founded by three guys from the University of Chicago who were out of work and looking to do an American version of European cabaret, they turned a minimal, makeshift stage into a revolution in American comedy.

Fifty years later, Second City stakes claim to having been the training ground for scores of now-household names. In the early years, the sketch comedy troupe included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin and Joan Rivers. By the late sixties, it was home to John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis and Gilda Radner. In later years, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey graced its stage.

From the beginning, Second City has taken pride in not shying away from controversial topics or high minded humor. It stressed an ensemble approach based on improvisation and pioneered the idea of sketch comedy.

“First thing we look for is intelligence and a wide range of reference. They have to assume their audience is at least as bright as they are, if not brighter. They have to know literature, politics, know the world around them. Then comes acting ability,” said Bernard Sahlins, one of the original co-founders. “Actually being funny is mostly telling the truth about things.”

Bernard Sahlins talked to us by phone from Chicago:

Titles of some recent revues reflect Second City’s mix of poking fun at politics, social norms and popular culture: Between Barack and a Hard Place; No Country for Old White Men; Facebook of Revelation; and Barack to the Future.

“Second City was the perfect form. It taught you all the stage craft you need and dramaturgy,” said Harold Ramis. “At the same time it lets you practice being funny in front of an audience.”

Harold Ramis talked to us by phone from Chicago:

Ramis joined the ensemble in the late 60’s and went on to become head writer of the troupes’ television project, SCTV, which started in Canada, but eventually made its way to the states. He’s gone on to write, direct and act in numerous comedy classics like Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day.

Last weekend, alumni, current cast members and fans enjoyed panel discussions and performances to mark the 50th anniversary.

“The core of Second City is exactly the same and that is the wonderment of it all,” said Andrew Alexander, the current CEO and executive producer. “Something that has lasted this long to still stay relevant is a testament to the founders Bernie Sahlins, Howard Alk and Paul Sils.”

“It is the most fun you can have and actually be paid for it,” says Ramis. “Sitting around a table with the funniest people you know and trying to make each other laugh.”