Chicago is a city of many names. We all know it for its face-numbing air (The Windy City) that whips through the streets. But it also was once the largest meat-packing industry in the world (Hog Butcher for the World) and had great importance on the nation at large (City of the Big Shoulders) as noted in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago.” Then there’s “The Second City.” Originally an insult slung at the city by a New York City journalist, Chicago pulled a Yankee Doodle and turned it into a term of endearment, to say the city is second to none.
No one group champions the Second City spirit quite like the Chicago-based comedy school and theatre that adopted the name as their own. On January 26, The Second City comedy troupe brings to Wilmington a show with the energy of Chicago’s vibrant comedy community and a healthy portion of Port City culture. The troupe will weave aspects of Wilmington into the show, called “Second City Hits Home,” in the form of improvisation and sketch comedy.
“With improv, you’re the director, writer, and performer of this moment in time,” says Scott Nelson, an ensemble member of “Second City Hits Home.” “I fell in love with improv for the challenge of it. Improvising something that gets a laugh really feels like a job well done.”
“I totally agree with Scott on that,” ensemble member Jeffrey Murdoch adds. “There’s something about improv. You’re reacting from your gut and not overthinking things. It’s really cool to tap into that.”
Both Nelson and Murdoch travel in Second City’s GreenCo. U.S. Touring Company and spread laughs across the 50 states. Second City provides a wide variety of shows in addition to “Second City Hits Home” covering topics like politics, love, holidays, and social issues. In “Black Side of the Moon,” Second City teamed up with innovative Washington, DC theatre company Woolly Mammoth to create an all-black cast of sketch and stand-up artists. In the show, they examine Blackness through comedy and explore the challenges of living in America in the past, present and future. In partnership with Slate, they also created “Unelectable You” to deconstruct the election process and the public’s role in choosing the next president.
It takes an abundance of experience and talent to handle such a range of topics, and both performers came to Second City from unique backgrounds.
“I always liked to make people laugh, growing up with my cousins.” Murdoch says. “In college I looked into doing an improv comedy group at the University of Michigan. When I got into that, that’s when I really fell in love. Then I spent eight years in Chicago working desk jobs. But as soon as I got into Second City, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Nelson came to Chicago to pursue his dreams, too. Though comedy wasn’t always his main focus. He took improv classes to connect with people and make friendships. “I came here to be a general actor,” he says. “I just fell in love with the community out here. Eventually, I auditioned for Second City, and I’ve been working with them for the last three years or so.”
To earn a spot on a Second City stage is no small feat. Since being founded in 1959, they have grown to recognition, around the U.S., and honed the talents of numerous greats, including Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Keegan-Michael Key and Amy Poehler, to name a few. The school was founded by Bernard Sahlins, Howard Alk and Paul Sills, the son of Viola Spolin, an innovative teacher who developed the techniques of improvisation and sketch comedy the theatre still uses today. After their first show in December of 1959, Second City quickly became the go-to place for Chicago locals.
Second City’s growth into a comedy mainstay might also have to do with the culture of Chicago. “When you’re here in Chicago, it’s about working and getting better,” Nelson says. “Being here and immersing yourself in the comedy community, you’re always doing shows. I think on the coasts, there’s more fighting for stage time. In Chicago there’s enough to go around, so you can constantly work with audiences to find your own voice.”
Though Chicago’s influence is central to Second City, on Thursday Second City will add a helping of the Port City to their usual fare. In the days before the show, Murdoch, Nelson and the rest of the touring group—which includes writers, directors, managers and of course more performers—will be working hard to dig up the local culture, colloquialisms, quirks (and probably some dirt) about Wilmington to use in “Second City Hits Home.” Before their visit, Second City’s writers will research as much as possible and turn it into material for the performers. But as anyone who’s travelled knows, nothing communicates the heart of a place as well as a local. That’s why, when the troupe arrives in Wilmington, they’ll ask the residents they meet at the hotel, restaurants, and around town about their scoop on Wilmington.
“I really like doing localized shows,” Nelson says. “It’s fun to immerse yourself in a place even if it’s for one day. It’s a part of the show I look forward to every time.”
The show is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 26 at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium, and Second City looks forward to experiencing the city of Wilmington and meeting the people who live here.
“I want to hang out with everyone,” says Murdoch. “Tell everyone Jeff wants to hang out with them.”