Cracked Up: Remembering Chicago’s Comedy Legends

Words by Matthew Vanatta
Photos by Second City/Todd Rosenberg

What do John Belushi, Tina Fey and Bill Murray all have in common? They all have a direct lineage to the illustrious and notorious comedy scene in Chicago, Illinois. Home to Second City, one of the country’s foremost comedy training grounds, the Windy City has been producing legendary comedy acts since the 1950’s.

While Chicago’s comedy roots started well before the 1950’s as the city’s legendary vaudeville acts drew large audiences as early as the mid-1800’s, Chicago really cemented itself as a comedy powerhouse when the legendary improv theater Second City was founded in 1959 by a group of improv actors who were both thumbing their noses at convention and the condescending coastal elite who dubbed Chicago as North America’s second most important city, behind New York City.

Second City was revolutionary in almost every regard. Situated in a small and intimate club in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, it wouldn’t take long for Second City to find critical acclaim. In 1960 the club was featured in Time Magazine quickly gained steam as one of Chicago’s most important theatrical venues.

(Photo: Second City / Todd Rosenberg)

While not the only improvisational or comedy club in the city, Second City still changed the genre as the performers developed a reputation for biting social and political satire. In a time of vast cultural change, Second City rode the wave of a cultural tsunami that was permeating every facet of social and political life in the United States. One of the founding principles of the establishment was to not play down to the guest. Instead of relying on hacky jokes and bits to appease the common denominator, they instead relied on intellectual wit and cunning humor, forcing the audience to rise to their level.

Some of the first players in the group would go on to achieve legendary comedy status, including comedy icon Joan Rivers, who joined the cast of Second City in 1961, and Del Close who, while not as famous as Rivers, is highly regarded as the finest improve teacher of all time. Second City began offering courses to the public in 1960.

By the early 1970’s, a little over a decade since its inception, Second City was expanding and also showing globally with international shows in London and Toronto. The 1970’s also saw the addition of cast members that would go onto to define modern comedy. A young Chicago comedian named John Belushi was gaining a reputation as a racously and radically funny improv actor and comedian. Ushering in a new guard, Belushi was both pushed and supported by a cast of iconic contemporaries including household names like Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, John Candy, Gilda Radner, Martin Short and Eugene Levy.

In 1975 a young comedy writer turned television producer named Lorne Michaels pitched a cutting edge sketch show to NBC and shortly after was producing a late night weekend comedy showcase that would eventually be known as the cultural juggernaut Saturday Night Live. Based largely on Second City’s approach to political and social satire, SNL not only borrowed heavily from Second City’s approach to sketch, but also hired a number of Second City’s most prominent talent, including Belushi, Radner and Aykroyd.

(Photo: Second City / Todd Rosenberg)

Since SNL first aired in 1975, it has used Second City as a pipeline for up-and-coming talent and has continued to scout talented players from the improv theater and school, including Tina Fey, Chris Farley and Amy Poehler. While Second City’s most notable performers are largely associated with SNL, it was also the launching point for notable comedians Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, who would go on to find worldwide fame after their tenures at Second City.

Chicago is more than just a one act town, though, and also plays host to a number of independent improve clubs, alternative theaters and stand-up comedy clubs. This range of venues and clubs has gone on to produced some of the most talented comedians in the game, including modern talent like Hannibal Buress and John Mulaney. Mulaney, who was born and raised in Chicago,  filmed his critically acclaimed 2015 special “The Comeback Kid” at The Chicago Theater.

(Photo: Fuzzy Gerdes)

Buress, who has found success through his innovative stand-up and appearances on popular shows like The Eric Andre Show and Broad City is Chicago to the core. Both born and raised in Chicago, Buress has played many of the city’s legendary clubs and still lives in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

 

Guaranteed Laughs

 

The Chicago Theater

175 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601

 

Second City – Chicago Mainstage

1616 N Wells St Chicago, IL 60614

 

Zanies

1548 N Wells St, Chicago, IL 60610

 

The Lincoln Lodge

956 W Newport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657

The Windy City is home to a number of established and new innovative comedy clubs including Zanies, which is celebrating its 40-year anniversary and still pulls in nightly national acts like Jeff Garlin and the aforementioned Buress. And The Lincoln Lodge, which is an established club in the alternative comedy movement, boasts notable alumni like Natasha Leggero, TJ Miller, Fred Armisen and many more. If you are into experimental comedy and sketch, The Lincoln Lodge is a must.

No matter your comedic taste, Chicago has a club, theater or DIY space to accommodate. While Chicago may be best known for its pizza, sports and famous mobsters, it should be equally recognized or its grand contributions to modern comedy. From the legendary Second City to nightly open mics, The Windy City hold its own as an iconic comedy city.

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