The Second City — the Chicago-based sketch comedy and improv powerhouse that helped launch the careers of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Tina Fey, Bill Murray and many others — is for sale for only the second time in its 61-year history.
The news comes as theaters across the country have been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on venues. But The Second City is also facing allegations of racism and sexism that led to the stunning resignation of co-owner Andrew Alexander earlier this year.
What the sale means for the company, which also has schools and theaters in Hollywood and Toronto, remains unclear. The company’s theaters are open in Toronto, but “evolving situations in Chicago and Los Angeles are being closely monitored,” according to a Tuesday news release. The school’s classes have moved online.
In a statement, the company said it will consider “qualified expressions of interest through a process that will play out over the coming months,” according to the release.
The news of the sale just six months into the pandemic creates another question about the short-term viability of the famous comedy scene in Chicago, which is also home to The iO Theater and The Annoyance Theater.
The Second City — which today trains about 18,000 aspiring actors, directors, comedy writers and improvisers every year, according to WBEZ’s Curious City — has a long history in Chicago.
In the early ’60s, The Second City stage was made up of college students who performed satirical theater in response to the political and social movements of the time. For many, it was a brief stop before going on to other careers, said Jeffrey Sweet, author of Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players.
“All of a sudden [original cast members like Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris] started becoming famous out of Second City, and people went to Second City to start their careers,” Sweet said. “So that was the first big shift.”
The launch of Saturday Night Live in 1975, signaled another shift for the theater, which changed from social and political satire to “people who wanted to get into show business,” Sweet said.
And, many did.
Some of the biggest names in entertainment have trained at The Second City, including Alan Arkin, Aidy Bryant, John Candy, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Chris Farley, Keegan-Michael Key, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Mike Myers, Catherine O’Hara, Amy Poehler, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers, Sam Richardson, Amber Ruffin, Horatio Sanz, Amy Sedaris, Martin Short, Jason Sudeikis and Fred Willard.
Saturday Night Live’s Chris Redd, another alumnus of The Second City Touring Company, talked to Curious City about the theater’s place in comedy.
“The community is a major part of why I think Chicago is a great place for improv. It’s the birthplace of so many great institutions and teachers,” he said in a February 2018 Curious City story. “The amount of stage time is also a key element to Chicago. There are so many places to play and develop, and even more places to start your own shows and create stage time for yourself. All of this mixed with the different styles and competition is just an ingredient for success.”
Allegations of racial discrimination and pay inequity
The company has been rebuilding its administrative culture and policies after a June 4 tweet by alumnus Dewaye Perkins triggered a viral firestorm that led to Alexander’s stunning resignation.
Angela Oliver, a performer on Chicago’s improv and sketch comedy scene for more than a decade, said she felt tokenized at The Second City. And she wasn’t alone in that criticism. An open letter from alumni and employees issued on June 8 said the theater participated in racial discrimination, pay inequity, and manipulation and monetization of the Black community.
The Second City has since posted a series of steps it’s taking to address the alleged racism, including hiring an outside HR firm to review and investigate the allegations and provide directors, producers, stage managers and music directors with anti-racist education.
“I have had an extraordinary 47-year run guiding this wonderful living, breathing, dynamic comedy institution,” Alexander wrote in the Tuesday news release. “But it is time for a new generation with fresh ideas to take the company to the next level.”
Longtime Chicago improviser Susan Messing said it’s time for a change, and she hopes the next leaders of The Second City are listening to some of the concerns raised by alumni like Perkins and Oliver.
Messing, 56, also hopes The Second City can return to its roots: “We need social and political satire and that maybe needs to be reworked and reframed,” she said.
The Second City did not give a reason for Tuesday’s announcement. Second City’s advisor on the sale is Houlihan Lokey, a global investment bank.
Second City management could not be reached for comment, and employees declined to comment.
The Associated Press and Curious City contributed reporting.