by Annette Kamps
What’s so funny??? – That’s the biggest challenge aspiring comedians and writers face while training at The Second City in Chicago, and then taking their shows on the road. One of several SC tour groups will be taking that challenge with a show at the historic Waupun City Hall Auditorium in Waupun, Wisconsin, on October 25. The show, sponsored by InSpire Magazine, will be performed by an ensemble of ambitious actors who know that SC has been the launching pad for sky-rocketing performers like Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Chris Farley, Mike Meyers, and more.
With theaters and training centers in Chicago, Toronto, and Hollywood, eleven touring ensembles, corporate communications and theatricals divisions as well as television and film operations, SC was called “A Comedy Empire” by The New York Times. Its Training Center has a student body of 5,000 per week and is the largest school of comedy in the world.
This year, SC tour groups are developing fifty-fifth anniversary shows with new sketches and updated classics. Two of the talented performers, Jasbir Singh and Liz Reuss, will be on tour somewhere in the Midwest. Jasbir, originally from Sheboygan, speculates, “At this point we don’t know who’s going where, but sometimes we get assigned near our home town, so I could be in Waupun, or others might get that assignment.”
No matter who comes to Waupun, Jasbir and Liz represent the passion required of all who become professional SC performers. Opportunities inside The Second City and throughout the Chicago theater world help them reach their ultimate goal of becoming a main stage SC resident actor. Hopefuls take classes open to the public and then audition for advanced training. There are also general auditions with the prerequisite of one year of improv training, so it helps to build background experiences.
During high school, Jasbir wrote comedic pieces, and joined some comedy bands. At UW-Madison, he did stand-up comedy and figured out his next move. “So many greats came from Second City, I thought, ‘That can’t be a coincidence!’ “ He went to Chicago in 2009, and “I dove in—took all the classes SC offered – writing, acting, improv, and got involved in other comedy theaters. It’s cool to see different perspectives and it helps you figure out your own voice.”
At Dennison College in Ohio, Liz majored in creative writing and then became a writer and editor. “I stumbled into comedy because I saw a sketch in Chicago and decided to get into SC’s writing program. When I took some improv classes, it all fell together.” She auditioned for the year-long Conservatory program and was hired as an understudy nine months ago. “The education opportunities are pretty vast, but it is exhausting, so you have to have a real love for it to stick with it.”
Jasbir agrees. “I think Second City lasted because people really care. There’s a passion for comedy and a drive to make a political statement. People come here with so many different backgrounds. It’s inspiring.” He recalled that Tina Fey still says The Second City, named one of the best twenty-five drama schools in 2014, was the best theater experience she had.
Both performers emphasize that maintaining SC’s reputation takes a lot of work, a lot of approaches to create a sketch, and total integration of writing and acting. Jasbir said, “When we build a sketch, some sit and write; others kind of walk around the room, making noises, writing notes, but there is a formula as well as instinct. The biggest lesson is how to trim down a scene.”
Liz explained, “Sometimes someone has a fully formed idea with scripts ready to go for the actors to try out. Or, we have a rough idea and see where it goes. Some shows have a third act with scenes and games that get the audience involved. This year, the anniversary will be the common thread with classic scenes representing where Second City has come from and is going.”
One of Jasbir’s favorite classics is from the ‘60’s. “It’s about a lonely guy who goes into a vinyl record and it talks back to him, but we change it to a pod cast.” He stressed that updated scripts are respectful to the original creators. “Some of the scenes haven’t been performed in forty or fifty years. The cool thing is the jokes hold up very well and the writers were so innovative.”
When Liz joined the touring program, she prepared by “getting up to speed with all the archives.” She usually plays the foil for the comedic actors. “It helps me see where I can grow and push myself, and I want to expand my range. I learned from my college professor that people like to see the truth of their own lives and the writer needs to honor that. ”
Building on his success with an original video series, Jasbir wants to create his own “brand-new-never-seen show” for SC and eventually be on its main stage. “I’d love that, but getting success is so random. You could get a TV show before you even get on that stage, so it’s very important to do your own thing, too.”
Both are looking forward to getting their work on the road for a live audience. Jasbir believes that is “a blessing – to see how people live and think.” Since SC is known for political satire, he’s prepared for different reactions. “We don’t want to offend, we just want to do the work. At the end of the day, a few people may not laugh, but they don’t walk out.”
Liz believes The Second City has become the hub for improv and sketch comedy because it’s “something that people hunger for. Commentating, having a view point, shedding light in a humorous way will stay relevant.” She believes the tour shows build audience awareness and that TV shows have picked up on that. “There are many SC alumni influencing TV shows. They promote creative leeway and an in-the-moment feel. ‘The Office’ is a good example.”
When the SC tour show comes from Chicago’s Old Town to Waupun this fall, it will bring those observations and studies to the city auditorium stage after a full day of on site preparation. The actors arrive early to run scenes, get director notes, work on timing, add new lines, and maybe pitch some new material. In between, they have dinner and walk around the town; but there’s always the unexpected situation, like someone becoming ill so that revisions need to be made on the spot.
Since InSpire features inspiring women, both performers were quick to identify the SC women graduates who inspire them professionally. Amy Poehler is at the top for Jasbir. “She’s producing shows with strong female comedians, has a cool thing on Facebook about powerful women, and a great Comedy Central show, ‘Broad City.’ “
For Liz, it’s Tina Fey. “She’s created an amazing career. She was the first female head writer for ‘Saturday Night Live’ and has her own production company. She’s still creating smart, relevant material and consistently shows that you can be a woman and be one of the major players.”
What’s so funny (or not so funny) for these two is that when people ask them what they do for a living, the answer can’t be simple. Liz said, “Now that I’m actually paid, it’s easier. It’s trickier when you are in the hopeful unpaid stage, but just love it.”
Jasbir said, “As soon as you say you’re a comedian, they think you’re funny and if you say you’re an actor, they think you’re stuck up. My poor mother doesn’t know what’s going on, but she’s coming to see me perform in Chicago!”
Given the fifty-five years of The Second City fame, they can expect lots of mothers and many more to attend well over one hundred scheduled touring shows, including the October show in Waupun.