Second City my ass*


On Saturday morning, I had the honor of moderating a Colbert Report discussion panel, part of the extraordinary Second City 50th Anniversary celebration. All of the folk you see above: writers Peter Grosz and Peter Gwinn, former exec producer Alison Silverman, co-exec producer Tom Purcell and Stephen Colbert himself, are all alumni of the Second City’s performing troupes, touring groups,  training center, and in Colbert’s case, the merchandise table. (He said that for a long time, he held the record for most T-shirts sold in one night.) 

Colbert is a kind and gracious man — one of his former producers once told me that you bust your butt for him not because you’re afraid of him, but because you don’t want to be the one to let him down — and his colleagues on stage and off glowed with the feeling of people who enjoyed their jobs. I got to ask some questions, as did the audience — mainly, about the difficulty of presenting, night after night, one could have been in less talented hands a one-note shtickfest.  Did they ever doubt they could maintain this conceit of an idiotic conservative talk show host for more than a night? No, they all answered, but many others did.

I marveled at how Colbert was able to conduct interviews with people while improvising in character — a task, in comparison to the straightforward interviews I do, that reminds me of the observation about Ginger Rogers: she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. (Actually, I misspoke and said, “Fred Rogers,” which led Steven to come back, “As in her movie, Flying Down to Miow-Miow.”)  It turns out that Stephen rehearses the interview, with staff members offering things the guest might say, and Stephen finding things his character (the other Colbert is always referred to as “him” or “he” or “the character”) might say in response.   It makes sense, but I still watch the show and am amazed… watching Colbert riff in character is to me like watching Michael Jordan go to the hoop.

They told a lot more stories, and made some more observations about their process — Peter Grosz talked about the discoveries they make about the character’s feelings, like and dislikes are like slowly uncovering his portrait; ie, finding things out about him that were always there, rather than adding new things to the conception — but my favorite moment came towards the end, where I asked the assembled whether or not it was important to them that the audience knew that Colbert (the person, not the character) was kidding.

Tom responded with something surprising — that one study of their audience discovered that everybody who liked the show, conservative and liberal, thought that Colbert — the real person — agreed with them. I suggested that this meant that at least half their audience — not saying which one — were idiots. They felt not; more, it was that the sincerity of the character’s opinions, whatever they were, and his generally honest and benign approach appealed to people. As Colbert said of his character, “He really wants to help people and help the country — he’s just really bad at it.” And then Colbert (the person — this does get confusing) said something that sounded like a practiced line, but was still wonderful: “Every night I say something I actually believe… I’m just never going to tell you what it is.”

I also was able to attend that evening’s Alumni Show, watching from above the packed theaters in one of the three packed simulcast viewing rooms, along with Second City alums and guests. It was… one of the most astonishingly great things I had ever seen. Legends of comedy — people like Shelly Berman and David Steinberg and Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty and Fred Willard and Robert Klein and George Wendt, along with some brilliant young (as of yet) unknown performers,  plus of course the Big Stars — Colbert and Steve Carell and Jim Belushi and Rachel Dratch and many others, doing the work that started them on their roads, and doing it with such incredible love and care.

The whole thing was one three hour highlight reel, but two of my favorite sketches involved Colbert: one with his old partners Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, in which they played two suburban brothers (and their mom), one worrying for the other’s success (and of course it was Colbert who played the loser brother) and the other, an insane piece of genius famous in Second City lore, as it was originally improvised on the spot (by Colbert and Carell) from two audience suggestions: “Maya Angelou” and “going home.” [SEE UPDATE BELOW.] Colbert brings Carell back to his southern home town, and, explaining the bizarre welcomes he gets as “Miss Shirley” from his old friends, he says to Carell: “At home, I’m an old black woman.”

Also brilliant: a classic sketch about a father and son getting drunk at the White Horse Tavern recreated by Jim Belushi and his own son, Robert Belushi — I’ve never seen Jim Belushi do anything better, ever.  A great modern sketch from Second City Toronto, in which a mother logs onto a chat as her teenage son…. funny and heartbreaking. And a genius, ten second bit with a guy playing a bagpipe, by which I mean, he was pretending to be a bagpipe. It was the kind of once in a lifetime event, like the Beatles at Shea, that one day,  everyone will pretend to have attended.

*and here’s what I mean by that asterisk. The day after this amazing amalgamation of talent came back to Chicago whence it was born, I was able to take my family to a fantastic production of “A Christmas Carol” — that’s right, “A Christmas Carol”  — – at the Goodman Theater,  and then to a fantastic meal at Paul Kahan’s new tacos and bourbon (and lime rickeys for the kids) joint, Big Star. Second city? Second to where?

UPDATE: Thanks to Mike Thomas’ book,  “The Second City Unscripted,” an oral history of the theater, I now know a lot more about the what is known around SC as the “Maya” scene. It was, in fact, improvised by Colbert and Carell, but not from audience suggestions. Colbert, who is from South Carolina, wanted to do something about going back home, where he felt he was a different person than in Chicago, and he also was intrigued by Maya Angelou… he’s quoted in the book as saying, “And I thought, ‘Ah, I wish I was an old black woman! They have so much character.’” And, as per Second City technique, he decided to try improvising a scene at rehearsal, with Carell as his primary partner, to see what happened.  Says Colbert of the result: “We never changed a word of it.”

19 Responses to Second City my ass*

  1. Max December 13, 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve ever been more envious of you, Mr. Sagal. Sounds like quite the night. I saw Colbert years ago on one episode of “Whose Line…?” and he was great then. I can’t imagine how incredible this must’ve been.

  2. Lorrieann December 13, 2009 at 9:28 pm #

    I love watching Colbert, and I think I ‘get’ it that he’s not really a far right wing nut. I hope that means I’m in the half of the audience who are not idiots.

    Really great article. I wish I could have seen this performance.

  3. Drew December 13, 2009 at 11:02 pm #

    I, too, am envious, that must have been one hell of a weekend;
    thank you for giving us a glimpse of the fun. I’d certainly go along
    with nominating Chicago for first place honors if you could only put
    a bubble over it from November to March….

  4. That Neil Guy December 14, 2009 at 4:39 am #

    I worry for Colbert, because of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, whose explicit moral is “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

  5. Dave Stanford December 14, 2009 at 5:57 am #

    I was looking up the basis for the nickname second city due to this anniversary show, and as far as I can tell it’s still an accurate with respect to literary and media stars. For example do any of the famous second city alumni become famous in Chicago, or did they go to LA or NY for that?

  6. Brody December 14, 2009 at 9:45 am #

    Thank you for sharing! Besides his graciousness, the fact that he’s a really intelligent guy makes him all the more funny. I too envy you, but not only for being there and participating but for the tacos and bourbon! From way up in far northern Ill (we’re almost cheesy) – Cheers!

  7. madbard December 14, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

    lovely post, peter. feeling the sheer awesomeness second-hand from you still feels overwhelming.

  8. Roland December 15, 2009 at 4:06 am #

    Peter did you go to second city as well?

  9. admin December 15, 2009 at 10:26 am #

    Reply to Roland:

    Nope. In fact, I have no training in comedy, performance or improv whatever, something I keenly felt watching all of these genius performers. Maybe it would have helped.

  10. John Russell December 15, 2009 at 11:24 am #

    Is there any place where a recording of this amazing night? I’d love to see it.

  11. John December 15, 2009 at 11:57 am #

    Wow. When I invent my time machine, this will be on my short list of things to visit. Hopefully there’ll be ticket scalpers outside.

  12. Ben Rosengart December 15, 2009 at 5:31 pm #

    And here I thought having a time machine meant never having to say, “I need a miracle.”

  13. Jesse December 16, 2009 at 8:52 am #

    I sent this post to my mom and sister. We’re all big NPR nerds but my mom never understood why my sister and I loved Colbert until she read your account of him and his character. Thanks for helping turn her to the dark side, Peter.

  14. Courtney December 16, 2009 at 1:42 pm #

    On Drew’s comment “I’d certainly go along with nominating Chicago for first place honors if you could only put a bubble over it from November to March,” I think that’s actually what makes Chicago special. It takes a certain type of individual to live in a city where the weather gets cold and windy enough to freeze off certain essential body parts. Also, without the great weather of L.A. or the fame of New York, you have to have a lot of cool stuff to keep the people living there and bring other people in to visit.

    Otherwise, you have Des Moines, which is where I live.

  15. Tim December 17, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    This Second City inferiority complex is similar to the feelings New Jersey folks have about New York. To paraphrase Mr. Colbert, “I am Chicago, and so can you!”

  16. Mike December 24, 2009 at 8:00 am #

    Is there any audio/video of this panel online? Thanks in advance – I’d love to hear the whole thing!

  17. Dave von Ebers December 24, 2009 at 8:42 am #

    Does my heart good to hear you say, “Second CIty, My Ass.” This city just gets inside you somehow. It’s nice to know it’s not just my provincialism that makes me feel that way. (By the way, DesMoines is a pretty cool town, too; Peter should run Dam-to-Dam one of these years.)

    On an unrelated note, your friend Adam Felber wishes us all Happy Holidays.

  18. Dave von Ebers December 24, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    P.S. “We are all Chicago now.”


  1. More news and reviews from the Second City 50th anniversary weekend :: No Fact Zone - December 14, 2009

    [...] Second City my ass – Peter Sagal’s blog: As Colbert said of his character, “He really wants to help people and help the country — he’s just really bad at it.” And then Colbert (the person — this does get confusing) said something that sounded like a practiced line, but was still wonderful: “Every night I say something I actually believe… I’m just never going to tell you what it is.” [...]