The Second City in the Second City
Author: Jinglan Hong
Program of Study: Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS)
Located at 230 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60614, sits a nationally-renowned comedy theater. Tthe Second City has been an influential improv comedy enterprise for the past decades. Its connection to Chicago is so obvious that one can see it from the name: The Second City was originally a term used by A.J. Libling in an article in The New Yorker to criticize Chicago on its lack of fine dining and entertainment as compared to New York City, and the migration of literary stars away from it. While sending outstanding comedic talent and productions around the world, the developments of Second City are always tied to its namesake — Chicago — in several ways.
The Second City Theatre traces its roots to a now-defunct performance group, The Compass Players. In 1955, Paul Sills, a University of Chicago graduate, and David Gwynne Shepherd, a Columbia University graduate who was disillusioned with the theater industry on the East Coast, founded this America’s first improv troupe. Many of the original members were classmates from UChicago. In December 1959, the first show of The Second City improvisational comedy troupe began. The show, which featured satire and commentary on social norms and political phenomena of the time, was a huge hit. From an early series of explorations, the Second City grew to success.
While the hybrid, improvisational, satirical form of comedy adopted by the Second City is known as Chicago-style improv, the relationship between this famous theater and its city is actually complex. The Second City has always been located in the Old Town, which is a quite affluent, middle-class neighborhood in the Near North Side and Lincoln Park(Chicago Data Portal, 2021). According to 2015-2019 data, the per capita income in the areas sharing the same zip code as the Second City is $84,212, compared to $35,482 for the City of Chicago. About five out of four of the area’s residents are Non-Hispanic White, while the citywide average number in Chicago is 33.28%(Chicago Health Atlas, 2021). From a socio-economic perspective, the Second City and the area in which it is located may not be so “Chicago-style”.
The old town was first explored by German immigrants. After World War II and the Great Depression, this area was not very prosperous and peaceful; in fact, it was quite the opposite. In the 1940s, Old Town residents formed the Old Town Triangle Association to revitalize the neighborhood. They founded the Old Town Art Fair, which attracted artists and visitors to the neighborhood from that time and is still held today. Over the next 20 years, it became the center of Chicago’s bohemianism, a center for art, music, and less-mainstream/high-brow culture. In addition to The Second City, the old town was also home to the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Old Town Ale House and many art facilities in the 1950s and 1960s. However, this community has never seemed to be a sample of racial diversity. It may be difficult for readers today to find population data from 50 years ago. According to a 1967 article describing the situation of Old Town, it mentioned the top three ethnic groups as German, Irish and Italian – diverse in terms of national origin, not in terms of race. Old Town was also Chicago’s first neighborhood to experience gentrification and the Second City, which was founded by highly educated people, was actually welcomed by the locals in its early years(Atcheson, 1967).
For years, the Second City expanded its reach around the world by opening theaters in other regions and sending talented professionals to other comedy television shows and related industries. Along with Chicago’s other famous improv comedy theaters, the Second City became a part of the city’s unique appeal. However, this story of a middle-class neighborhood and Chicago improv comedy has its dark side. In a book called Whose Improv Is It Anyway? Beyond Second City, Seham (2001) points out that “Chicago improv-comedy is dominated–both in numbers and in the control of content and style–by young, white, heterosexual men”.(p.18, 2001). The early target audience of improv comedies were mainly white men with higher education, and so were the original creators. Colored people, women, and other marginalized groups were not considered to be the primary audience that should be appeased, nor were they considered to be humorous, talented comedians. While the price of $1.50(it was soon improved to $2.50) for the Second City’s first show might seem cheap, the median family income of the black people in Chicago in 1960 was $4800, compared to $7700 of the white families(Bogira, 2013). In other words, admission was effectively out of reach. Furthermore, Similar topics of segregation did not seem to be a favorite theme of the Second City’s early shows.
Nowadays, a neighborhood may be able to maintain its own traditions and social structure, but a comedy business that is gradually oriented to the Internet will have a hard time doing so, especially in the post-pandemic era. Improv comedy, which traditionally takes place in small theaters and face-to-face, will likely need to partially change the way it evolves, seeking online attention and support and attracting a more diverse user base. The Second City did meet some difficulties.
In June 2020, a former employee of the Second City posted a trend accusing the club of racism on Twitter, which caused a huge response. This isn’t the first time the long-established improv comedy business has faced similar allegations, but this time it seems to have had to respond in the most serious way, with a statement that it will make internal improvements to address diversity issues. In the post-epidemic era, the Second City may need to diversify in all aspects, not only its financial sources and performance styles, but also should provide a more open and friendly working environment for workers of different races, genders and sexual orientations, and more respectful and diverse humor to the audience.
Will it succeed? Before the second city encountered negative public opinion, a review on the Tripadvisor website from July 2019 writes that, “Jokes felt forced. Shooting off guns and Ironically yelling black lives matter isn’t funny — it’s reality for some people out here and it’s nothing to laugh about.” And after the Ssecond Ccity encountered negative public opinion, a comment from August 2021 argued that “A performer acts as if he is Jesus on the cross while another cast member seemingly performs lewd sexual acts on him. This ruined the night for me. I am not Muslim but would feel the same if the Quran was desecrated. ” Perhaps today, we really need to work a little harder to reach a true understanding and respect for diversity and try to provide “proper” humor to everyone both inside our physical community and beyond it.
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