The push is on to get everything right. With only a week to go before Second City Toronto’s splashy new theatre on Blue Jays Way welcomes an opening-night crowd, workers are busy putting on last-minute touches. In the foyer, untended cigarettes burn in scattered ashtrays, as buzz saws whine and hammers thump in a syncopated, nerve-jangling symphony. Backstage, cast members Jack Mosshammer and Jennifer Irwin are flaked out on a couch, her head lolling on his substantial shoulder in a bleary-eyed testament to a show-business truism: comedy is bloody hard work. This time, though, the cast is feeling a tension beyond the regular grind of rehearsals, previews and 12-hour days. ‘We want to do justice to this beautiful space, as well as to the history,” says cast member Bob Martin, 35. “It’s been a really exciting time, but we’re all a bit nervous.”
Small wonder—because the revue the cast has been so busily working on for the past three months marks nothing less than the beginning of a new era for Second City. One reason is the new space: exit the Old Firehall, the company’s dilapidated shrine on Toronto’s east side, and enter the new, 350-seat, state-of-the-art building in the heart of the Theatre District, hard by such long-standing legit houses as the Princess of Wales and Roy Thomson Hall. And then there is the history. This year, the improvisational Canadian company that launched such now-famous comedians as Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short, Mike Myers, Catherine O’Hara, Gilda Radner— the list goes on and on—turns a ripe old 25. Under the circumstances, then, a touch of pre-opening-night jitters for the young ensemble was more than understandable. Opening on Jan. 28, their new revue—titled What Fresh Mel Is This?—will likely be the most-watched Second City revue in years.
If their work in previews last week was any indication, the seven-member cast—Martin, Mosshammer, Irwin, Angela Shelton, Marc Hickox, Jennifer Whalen and Jerry Minor— has nothing to worry about. Some of the sketches are gut-bustingly funny. One standout is a routine by Martin as an anal-retentive clean freak forced to let a sweating, flatulent taxi driver (Mosshammer) use his toilet, leading to a paranoid jazz-rap song with the theme, “There’s a cabbie in my bathroom.” Then, there is a scathing takeoff on corporate culture, in which two smarmy motivational speakers (Irwin and Minor) try to buck up the spirits of Roman galley slaves. In all, What Fresh Mel Is This?—the title alludes to new Toronto megacity mayor Mel Lastman—serves as a reminder that the funniest stuff out there is not on TV, in tawdry sitcoms or the fatigued comic doyenne that is Saturday Night Live, but in person, onstage and in your face.
That, of course, is the Second City tradition. The roots of the company lie south of the border, where in the mid-1950s a group of University of Chicago students—among them Elaine May and Mike Nichols, later joined by Ed Asner, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara and Alan Arkin—started up The Compass Players. In 1959, the actors-writers found a permanent home in an old Chinese laundry and renamed themselves The Second City—a derogatory nickname that New Yorkers had long used for Chicago. The company’s wacky improv, biting satire and commitment to actor-written material made it a hit, and in 1973 producers Bernard Sahlins and Joyce Sloane exported the idea to Toronto. But the first Great White Northern experiment—with a cast featuring Jayne Eastwood and Joe Flaherty, along with Radner and Aykroyd of later SNL fame—lasted only six months, owing to the fact that it never got a liquor licence.
Enter Andrew Alexander. British-born but
raised in Toronto, Alexander—then a smalltime stage producer—had become friendly with Second City’s owners while working for a year in Chicago. After the first Toronto company failed, Alexander saw opportunity in his home town. “Basically, I got the rights to do it up here for a buck,” he recalls. “And yes, it was my last buck.” Borrowing $7,000, he remounted Second City Toronto in February, 1974—with a liquor licence and a different theatre, a converted 100-year-old fire hall. For a while, the cast (Flaherty, Radner, John Candy, Eugene Levy and Rosemary Radcliffe) had to compete for attention with the rock bands that played on the other side of the tiny theatre. ‘The only way we could attract an audience was to offer free draft,” says Alexander. “I think the audience thought they were there for the beer and the rock ’n’ roll—and the comedy was interstitial.”
Not for long, of course. With the launch of SCTV in 1976, local cast members like Candy, Levy, O’Hara, Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas (a former advertising copywriter) took their act to the small screen and became international celebrities. Running for seven years on Canadian and U.S. televi-
sion, and still airing in syndication throughout North America and the world, SCTV remains the best-known incarnation of Second City-style comedy. The Old Firehall became a virtual factory of comic talent, the first stop on the careers of, among others, Short and Myers, as well as such Canadian actors as Patrick McKenna (co-star of TV’s Traders and The Red Green Show) and Kathryn Greenwood (Wind at My Back).
The hijinks of its cast and staff are part of Toronto theatre legend. Like the time in the 1970s when Alexander, ever looking for menu additions at the old dinner theatre, came up with the Oyster Moister—meat loaf topped with oysters—which made everyone in the audience sick. Or the night when SNLstar-to-be Bill Murray, visiting from Chicago, invited a heckler to “take it outside”—and in the scuffle broke the guy’s arm. “Every night was like a kitchen party—people would forget their lines, or not show up, or
get drunk,” recalls McKenna, who started as a doorman and then joined the troupe from 1980 to 1992. “But it was Second City, and you knew that John Candy and Dan Aykroyd and Martin Short—any name that meant anything—started in that little room. It was a university of comedy.”
Alexander, meanwhile, turned Second City into an empire. Along with his partner, Toronto businessman Len Stuart, he bought the Chicago operation in 1985, and then opened Second City Detroit eight years later. The company has also got into business education, running a booming corporate-video operation and offering improvisational training for executives. (An arm of Second City that the performers clearly like to poke fun at; see galley slaves, above.) On the less materialistic side, the company runs an improv school and has established an outreach scholarship program in all three cities designed to attract an ethnically diverse talent
At 25, Second City opens a new Toronto home
pool to Second City. “Diversity is a real big issue for me now,” says Alexander, 53. “It’s really about material—we need to reflect the community, and the face of Second City is changing in that regard.”
It is all part of the Second City challenge— to keep it fresh and new. “Every single day,” says Shelton, a 26-year-old import from Detroit Second City, “somebody has an idea and somebody else says, Wasn’t that on The Simpsons?’ or, ‘Didn’t they do that three years ago in Chicago?’ ” And on the walls of the new theatre—festooned with images of former cast members, along with a lone photo of the current troupe—there are more than enough reminders that today’s Second City performers are treading in the footsteps of giants. For the actors, it can all get a little intimidating. “When you come in before the show, you see people looking at the pictures and recognizing all of them—except you,” says Martin. “They’re like, Who the hell is that?’ ” If there’s justice in comedy, however, it’s only a matter of time before Martin, Shelton and the others draw oohs and aahs of their own. For now, all they have to do is what Second City Toronto has done for 25 years: make ’em laugh.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.