By Jennifer Ferns
At a time when the world appears to be reduced to fancy graphics and theme music, more and more people appear to be turning to alternate sources for their information on world events. They’re longing for shows where the information is clear and there is no other agenda than the truth? well truth, and to make you laugh. Comedy Central’s Emmy Award winning The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has so captivated audiences by discussing the U.S.’s war in Iraq, that some TV viewers even prefer it to the “serious news”. Decades before The Daily Show however, there was another group of witty socio-political commentators that banded together during a different war aÃ the cold war.
It all started in 1959, when a group of University of Chicago students banded together to form a group named “The Playwrights Theatre Club.” They consisted of such pioneers as Paul Sills, David Shepherd, and Bernie Sahlins. Along with their other members, they performed extra curricular university theatre. This was a remarkable twist of fate, since the university didn’t have a theatre programme at the time, and still doesn’t. The group performed 25 productions until closing and reopening with a new name aÃ “The Compass”. This new company would bring aboard Mike Nichols, and Severn Darden. After some creative differences, Paul Sills, Howard Alk, and Bernie Sahlins ventured out on their own and decided to open what they thought would be a coffee house; but instead, it would be a place that would change theatre forever. They named it the Second City, a title by A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker Magazine that snobbishly referred to Chicago as the second city to New York. I don’t suppose Liebling would have guessed that title would name an international comedic institution that would survive for over 40 years!
14 years after Chicago’s Second City opened, this fresh new form of comedy made one of its homes in Toronto. Its beginnings were rough. It was during this tumultuous period when Andrew Alexander stepped in and acquired the Toronto franchise in 1974 and reopened it at the historic Old Fire Hall on Adelaide Street. Their socially charged stage thrived, showcasing such performers as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy and Eugene Levy in revues such as “the Canadian Show or Upper USA”, in 1974. They too would make the jump to television with their Emmy Award winning show SCTV, debuting throughout Canada in 1976 and then in the U.S. in 1977. This show, instead of satirizing the news, satirized television itself, with characters such as the SCTV station owner Guy Caballero, played by Joe Flaherty, who travels around in a wheelchair purely for the respect, and the memorable characters aÃ the McKenzie Brothers, played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, a beer drinking duo, created to fulfill the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s request for Canadian-oriented programming on the show.
In 1985, Bernard Sahlins sold the whole Second City franchise to Andrew Alexander and his partner Len Stuart, making Andrew the Executive Producer for all Second Cities across North America.
After experiencing 185 successful television episodes and many years in the Old Fire Hall, Toronto’s Second City decided to move, in 1997 to its current home at 56 Blue Jays Way, just north of the SkyDome, opposite Wayne Gretzky’s Restaurant. It is a state-of-the-art facility housing not only Second City’s Mainstage reviews, but also Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, an interactive dinner theatre where the audience members are the wedding guests at a wacky Italian wedding. It also houses the Tim Sims Playhouse, a small performance space showcasing young talent that is dedicated to the memory of one of their beloved Alumni, Tim Sims.
What may be less commonly known is that Second City also presents a Children’s Theatre. Their current diabolical show is called “Big Bad Wolf (vs. Lord Underwearface von Schtinker)” Accompanying the Children’s Theatre is the traveling Second City Educational programme for grade school to high school students designed to enhance a student’s curriculum with training that inspires laughter. However, children aren’t the only ones able to learn from Second City. A training centre for the young at heart is situated on Peter St. where budding performers can hone their scene writing and improv crafts.
Even though this Toronto landmark has moved up in the world, it doesn’t mean that they have forgotten what Second City started out to do when it moved from Chicago to “Upper USA” in 1973. Bob Martin, Director of the new show ‘Invasion Free since 1812’ says “For 30 years The Second City has been the voice of Canadian Satire. We want it to be an alternative news source for Canadians, a place where people come to hear the truth”.
So, although The Daily Show has its finger on the funny bone of American events (granted they did give former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman an honourable mention), Toronto’s Second City still shines bright, as our country’s lighthouse of honesty and humour in the storm of Canadian culture and world propaganda. The truth may be ugly, but at least it makes you laugh.