Review: Second City, Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater by Sheldon Patinkin


A nice history of Chicago’s famous improv comedy troupe. The book does a good job delving into Second City’s origins, calling up Chicago’s theater scene in the early 1950s as well as the acting “games” that inspired the group’s original approach.

From there, author (and longtime Second City creative director) Sheldon Patinkin takes us to the present day, pausing to catch up with famous alumni, notably the Murray-Belushi-Ramis core in Chicago and the Akroyd-Candy-Radner glory days in Toronto. There are tons of familiar faces in here, from Alan Arkin to Tina Fey, and it’s fun to see how they intersected with Second City (sometimes briefly) before moving on to other things.

The lifers have a presence as well, including original owner (and occasional director) Bernie Sahlins, producer Joyce Sloan and actor/director/madman Del Close. It may just be effective PR, but the book does have a nice familial feel, emphasizing the ties, and the occasional fights, that drew these disparate performers together.

The book is more a history than a humor collection; jokes and bits are interspersed throughout its pages, but it’s more a collection of memories. There’s often a lot going on–actors coming and going, new playhouses opening in different spots to try to make some money. The narrative sometimes seems reduced to just a sequence of events–“this happened, then this happened, etc.” But the performer profiles sprinkled throughout and the clear reverence for what the group accomplished offer a unifying thread.

Hardly a tell-all, this is still a good read for comedy fans interested in the institutional side of things. It probably helps to be a Chicagoan…or at least a Torontonian.