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The Second City, 50 Years of Jumping Off Cliffs

By Brian Dann

When I was nine years old Saturday Night Live went on the air and because my parents were usually out late on Saturday night, I got to stay up late and watch it.  Sure at nine years old some of the humor may have gone right over my head but I still knew that this was something different, some thing that we had never seen before. Watching John Belushi do his Samurai character, or Dan Aykroid try to sell us a Bass-O-Matic, Or Gilda Radner endear us with the sweet but always somewhat confused Miss Emily Litela, who ended every commentary with, “Never mind,” was an absolutely magical experience.  At nine years old it became my dream to one day be in the audience at SNL.  A few years later I learned something amazing.  I learned where most of these remarkable actors came from, and it was practically in my back door, The Second City.  I was so excited when I got to go to my first Second City show because to me it was the closest I would get to SNL with out actually going to New York.  After all, this was the place that it all began. In short, for me The Second City was incredible.  I watched the talent on stage trying to remember each one of there faces so that when I eventually would see them in movies or on SNL I could say that I saw them at The Second City first.  I honestly don’t recall who was on the stage that night but I remember that I could not wait to go back.  I watched the improv sets and marveled at how these actors could invent dialog right on the spot.  I never imagined that I could do that my self.

Then in my early twenties, just to do something different I decided to take an improv class at The Players Workshop.  It was one of those, lets go jump off a cliff and see what happens, moments.  I had no acting experience, except for playing a munchkin and the Tin Man in a forth grade production of the Wizard of OZ at Harand Camp where you could see my underwear right through my purple tights, and I for sure never did improv before. I figured what’s the worst that can happen, I forget my lines?  I loved it.  I can’t say that from the first class I fully understood improv, but just like when I watched the first SNL, or saw my first Second City show, I knew this was something different and I wanted more.  There were times that I struggled with it, and times that it all fell together, just like improv is supposed to, but the one thing that kept me going was knowing that at the end of this year long program, I got to perform my graduation show on the main stage at The Second City.  The day my graduation show finally arrived was the most exciting day of my life.  My entire family was there.  There I was standing back stage at the place that brought us such great talents like Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Robert Klein, Harold Ramis, and Alan Arkin just to name a few.  I stood there and stared at the walls wondering what great talents must have been standing right where I was at that very moment.  Then the lights went down, the music started and there I was, on the Main Stage at The Second City, performing a show that, just like so many improvisers before me, I had written with my fellow actors through the art of “Yes and…”.  The audience loved it, they laughed a lot.  I spent the next hour jumping off a cliff to see what would happen, and what happened was I landed on my feet.  What happened was I understood how those brilliant actors did what they did at that first show I saw at The Second City.  I learned that if you can do this, you can do anything because improv is not about being funny, it is not about telling jokes.  It is about being fearless, it is about being connected, it is about being honest, it is about being selfless, it is about the other person and it is never about you.  And even thought I had only done one improv show, that day I felt part of something special.

I was lucky because I graduated from the Players Workshop the last year that The Second City Training Center accepted Players Workshop graduates to their conservatory program with out having to audition to get in.  I knew that ever becoming an actual cast member of The Second City was a long shot, so if that ever did happen it would just be icing on the cake.  Hell, I got to study improv at the Harvard of comedy!  What I learned at Second City, in the training center was invaluable, but the classes were not where I learned the most.  It was the improv sets at Second City ETC and the Main Stage, where for me as a young kid it had began, where I knew this was something different, this was something special.  It was through watching the talents of the cast at the time, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, Scott Allman, Ian Gomez, Jackie Hoffman, Jenna Jolovitz, Dave Razowsky, and Amy Sadaris, in short, the most incredible group of improvisers and actors that I had seen in my life, that I learned my craft.  Watching these performers bring an idea to life and each night, tweak it and improve it, and take chances, and not be afraid, and know how to give, and know how to receive, and know how to be real, and not go for the joke, but instead find the humor that exists in life… is where I learned how to Improvise.  But most of all I learned that when you jump off a cliff, it’s ok if sometimes you don’t land on your feet, because sometimes that’s where the real magic happens.

So on this week that marks the 50th anniversary of an institution that changed the way the world laughs, I say thank you.  Thank you for this journey, thank you for bringing all of us, all of this talent that has enriched all of our lives, and while I may have never made it as a cast member of The Second City, thank you for teaching me the art of, “Yes And…”

Happy 50th Anniversary to The Second City.


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Brian Dann

Thanks David for the kind words. The biggest complement I ever got as an improvisor was from Mick Napier during one of his classes at The Annoyance Theater. He said to me after being on stage that my style reminded him of David Razowsky. Since I learned improv by watching you on stage and respected you greatly, it took my breath away. Thanks for teaching me how to do it right. Wish I could sit in on one of your classes.



Thanks for the heads up on your article. It's awesome, and it came just as I needed it!

Yes, courage and fearlessness are two of the many wonderful things we learned at Second City. That, and the idea that what you have to say you can, and how that leads to finding your voice and who it is that you are on this wonderful planet.

Thank you again.

David Razowsky

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