Second City returns with scaled-down shows — but bigger ones on the way

For now, new exec Jon Carr says improv-heavy shows make sense as we determine, “What is funny now?”

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The cast of “Happy to Be Here” is performing plenty of improv on Second City’s mainstage.

Timothy M. Schmidt

The last few months at Second City have been about old habits — restoring some of them, and tearing down some others.

It’s a theater undergoing unprecedented change — new ownership, new priorities, a new commitment to digital content. But at the core of the company throughout its 61-year history have been live stage revues, built of sketches devised by an ensemble of actor-writers, and that’s not changing.

Those shows, like all live theater, were absent during more than a year of pandemic shutdowns. They have not returned yet. The company has been working its way back into in-person productions, starting with a show called “Happy to Be Here” that opened May 7 in the prestigious mainstage space at North and Wells.

Of course, COVID-19 protocols bring changes to the Second City experience: masks (on the audience, not the performers), mandatory preshow questionnaires, temperature checks at the door. And instead of the usual two-act collection of scripted sketches, this one has just one act, largely improvised, with a few breaks for short scripted bits.

The idea, Second City executive producer Jon Carr said, was to simplify the performance for a cast that’s been largely out of practice since last spring. It’s “a show that’s easy for them,” without much to memorize, he said.

And as a bonus, the improv segments allow the actors to respond nimbly during a volatile time.

“There’s a big question mark of: What is funny now?,” Carr said. “After a year of being off, we haven’t had that immediate feedback, and tastes change and comedy changes and what we think is funny and top-of-mind has changed. And so we need the improv there, to be a little bit flexible.”

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Jon Carr has been executive producer at Second City since December.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

A similar show, called “Out of the House Party,” opens Thursday at the adjacent e.t.c. theater. Carr calls these “reopening shows” to distinguish them from Second City’s more demanding, more polished sketch revues.

Even scaled down, the shows have been well-received by audiences denied live entertainment for so long, Carr said: “It’s kind of a twofold response, right? It’s the response of, the performers on stage are talented and funny and people are having a good time. And then it’s the response of, ‘Holy crap! I’m sitting next to people!’ ”

But bigger shows are on the way. In about two months, if all goes as planned, a director and cast will begin daytime rehearsals using Second City’s traditional process of improvising to find scenes worthy of shaping into sketches for a revue. Tickets already are on sale for preview performances of the new mainstage show, the 109th in Second City’s history.

That room, where funny people make a show just as hundreds have done before, could be an oasis of stability at a theater otherwise reeling. Last June, as artists of color spoke up with accusations of institutional racism, Carr’s predecessor, Andrew Alexander, stepped down and issued a statement calling himself part of the problem.

The exit of Alexander, a co-owner of Second City, began a transition process that culminated in the February sale of the company to ZMC, a New York firm run by private equity investor Strauss Zelnick.

The new owners, Carr said, have been supportive of him and his fellow managers and have not been imposing their will on the company. “The big thing for them,” he said, “is to make sure we’re getting the resources we need to do the best work we can and frankly to come back from a pandemic.”

As for Carr, his focus is on “finding ways to incorporate more voices.” He envisions using the smaller theaters in the Second City complex to present shows aimed at particular niche audiences, people who might like what they see and be drawn to the more mainstream shows at the mainstage and e.t.c. stage.

“And suddenly what you start seeing,” he said, “is a diversity of our audience because we’re hitting so many people and we’re doing it strategically.”

Another step toward stabilizing Second City, he said, has been taking a fresh look at old habits. “Why are we doing these things the way that we’re doing them?,” Carr said. “And if the answer is, ‘Well, that’s how we’ve always done it,’ is there a better way of doing this? Is there a more equitable way of doing this?”

Case in point: the Second City archive, a massive storehouse of recordings and scripts sometimes repurposed as material for touring companies or classes. Since his arrival in December, Carr and colleagues have been combing through the old content and — in addition to exposing him to the classic ’90s Pictionary scene, “one of the funniest things that I’ve ever seen” — the process has helped identify outdated bits that don’t demonstrate the diversity Second City is striving for.

“It’s not like we’re deleting them and they’ll never exist anymore,” he said, “but some of them [we’ll] just use to talk about them. Because we have to have those kinds of conversations and make sure we’re not just pretending that these things didn’t exist.”

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