Something is working: The comic geniuses of "SNL" owe a huge debt to Second City

Second City knew the all-white-dude approach wasn't working -- it left out too many stories. Here's what they did

By Kelly Leonard - Tom Yorton
Published February 15, 2015 10:00PM (EST)
Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna on "Saturday Night Live"   (NBC/Al Levine)
Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC/Al Levine)

Excerpted from "Yes, And"

How to Build a Great Ensemble

People love lists. They are easy to comprehend and they tell a story without any narrative around them. How’s this for a list? Mike Nichols; Elaine May; Ed Asner; Shelley Berman; Jerry Stiller; Anne Meara; Alan Arkin; Barbara Harris; Severn Darden; Fred Willard; Joan Rivers; Robert Klein; Alan Alda; David Steinberg; Valerie Harper; Linda Lavin; Dick Schaal; Peter Boyle; Dan Aykroyd; John Belushi; Gilda Radner; Bill Murray; John Candy; Catherine O’Hara; Martin Short; Eugene Levy; Harold Ramis; Dave Thomas; Andrea Martin; Joe Flaherty; Betty Thomas; Jim Belushi; Tim Kazurinsky; Shelley Long; George Wendt; Bonnie Hunt; Mike Myers; Ryan Stiles; Dan Castellaneta; Richard Kind; Colin Mochrie; Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Jane Lynch; Bob Odenkirk; Jeremy Piven; Chris Farley; Tim Meadows; Adam McKay; Steve Carell; David Koechner; Stephen Colbert; Amy Sedaris; Rachel Dratch; Horatio Sanz; Tina Fey; Amy Poehler; Keegan-Michael Key; Jason Sudeikis; Aidy Bryant; Cecily Strong

Every one of these individuals logged hours in The Second City system, either as a member of our predecessor, The Compass Players, or in touring ensembles or resident stages. Generation after generation of top-tier comedy has received its core career training at the same institution. Clearly, something is working. And although it’s far more fun to mythologize the unbelievable track record we have amassed for launching the careers of so many great artists over so many years, the reality is that in building a school and professional stage that has become so established, we have an unseemly wealth of talent from which to choose. The list of folks who never actually made it onto one of our professional resident stages after studying with us is almost equally august, as it includes such notable stars as Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Jon Favreau, Kate Walsh, Kristen Schaal, Craig Robinson, Eric Stonestreet, and almost the entire Kids in the Hall ensemble.

Our approach to hiring may be simple, but it’s not without nuance. Just as you wouldn’t field a baseball team with nine right-handed sluggers, a stage ensemble is made up of players who make the whole greater through the diversity of their skills and personalities. So to build a great ensemble, we look for a variety of individuals who each possess strengths that will be enhanced within the group, and whose weaknesses will be minimized by it. Businesses must do the same. A manager’s ability to identify the key talents of his employees—whether C-level, middle management, or operational—is paramount to fashioning a high-functioning ensemble.

It’s not just about hiring to provide the business with a variety of expertise, either. It’s really quite simple. Like-minded individuals from like-minded backgrounds will produce like-minded results. But the world we live in today demands that we challenge the status quo; it demands a diversity of approaches to real-world problems. It’s about gathering a diversity of voices and life experiences to fuel the creative fires of innovation. In other words, hiring well often means hiring different. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s an adage that is often true, but not always wise. We learned this the hard way at The Second City. By the 1970s and through the ’80s, our ensemble had begun to take on a somewhat predictable pattern. There was the straight man, the funny fat guy, the ingenue—add a character actor and actress and you had a classic Second City cast. The Simpsons famously took a shot at us when Homer visited Chicago in a 2007 episode. The animated sign hanging in front of our famous arches on Wells Street read, “See Great Comedians Before They Get Fat.”

Through the first three decades of our existence, our casts in Chicago were almost all male, Caucasian, and straight. We share that dubious distinction with a vast number of American businesses. When your product is selling and your clients are happy, it’s easy to rest on your laurels and to become complacent. Many people find it easier to take great risks when the chips are down and they have nothing to lose. But success should also provide you the opportunity for introspection. Innovators don’t stop at good, and improvisers are restless creatives for whom risk is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Our prototypical casting came about from a kind of malaise that was actually born out of our success. Andrew Alexander never understood the cause of the gender imbalance at The Second City in Chicago. In Canada, where he ran the Toronto operation along with the classic SCTV television series in the 1970s and 1980s, the casts were almost always gender equal. Ultimately, he threw down the gauntlet—all Second City casts would be equal parts men and women. First, each touring company was made gender equal, and in the following years the Second City Mainstage and Second City e.t.c. companies would become gender equal. Tina Fey was part of the first gender-equal cast at The Second City Chicago in the 1996 Mainstage revue Citizen Gates. Another member of that cast was Tina’s future Saturday Night Live cast mate Rachel Dratch. The third female ensemble member, Jenna Jolovitz, went on to write for Mad TV.

Today, more women take classes at The Second City Training Center than men, a fact that we believe is due in no small part to the years in which the women on our stages were equal in numbers to the men. The same, however, cannot be said for actors of color. The year that Kelly started producing for The Second City, 1992, was also the year that Andrew created The Second City Outreach Program, an initiative designed to increase diversity in our school and on our stages. The origins of the Outreach Program go back to a warm night in late April. Andrew happened to be scheduled to fly from Los Angeles to Chicago on April 29, 1992, the day the Los Angeles race riots began in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. As the plane ascended, he could see smoke billowing from the streets below. It was an arresting image. When Andrew landed in Chicago, thousands of miles away from the melee that engulfed Los Angeles, he headed over to The Second City Mainstage, arriving in time for the third act of the evening—the improvised set. When a cast is in rehearsal, the Improv Set is used to test out new material. When we are not in rehearsal, more often than not the cast improvises based on the news of the day. Naturally, that night the first audience suggestion was the race riots. And being the good improvisers that they were, the cast took that suggestion and valiantly attempted to use improvised humor as a way to talk about the tragedy that was unfolding simultaneously on the West Coast. There was one significant problem: The cast was all white.

The stage was set: talented, earnest, funny white people looking to find truth and profundity in comic improvisation with other white people. That mix was going to provide neither cast nor audience members with any significant insights on this issue. The next day, Andrew called Kelly and the rest of the management team into his office. “What will it take to make our casts more diverse?” he asked. The answers included, “getting more actors of color into our classes,” and, “welcoming diverse voices into our building and onto our stages,” and finally, “making the hiring of diverse talent a priority throughout the company.” So we did. That summer, The Second City Outreach Program hosted three local comedy troupes at a series of workshops and performances: the Latin-American troupe Salsation; the Asian-American troupe Stir Friday Night; and a group of LGBT performers that Second City helped create called GayCo. Scholarships were created so that young actors of color could take classes at The Second City free of charge. Most vitally, when hiring for the professional companies, diversity was put on the list of the most important attributes to consider.

There’s really nothing like watching a bunch of white liberals faced with confronting true integration in their own backyard. Not everyone was comfortable with Andrew’s plan. Everyone championed his idea in theory, but then some lost their enthusiasm when they realized it was going to affect their actual day-to-day job. The most common concern expressed was that The Second City should always hire the absolute “best” improvisers for their ensembles, and by focusing on gender or diversity we might sacrifice quality. But this concern ignored the underlying principles that define the best ensembles. The best should be defined by how they work as a group—not on an individual basis. It is the very differences within the ensemble that give it power when joined together. No one thinks twice about building an ensemble with diverse skill sets, joining excellent writers with individuals who are stronger actors, and in turn pairing them with the most nimble improvisers. Is it such a leap, then, to think that building an ensemble that also considers socioeconomic background, age, sexuality, gender, or race might result in a group dynamic whose collective perspective might be capable of generating far more powerful and significant contributions to the culture at large than an ensemble where everyone is male, white, and straight?

If we hadn’t actively chosen to be an inclusive organization some twenty-odd years ago, there’s no telling how many stories would never have been told. We could not have been as effectively satiric when the nation elected our first black president had we not been blessed with actors of color in the ensembles. When immigration issues dominated the news, the fact that we had Latino actors on the stage allowed us to dissect that issue from a variety of angles. More recently, gay marriage has dominated the news cycle, and the LGBT members of our casts have created some remarkable pieces around that hot-button issue. Without our diversity initiative, we might never have experienced the particular genius of a young mixed-race actor named Keegan-Michael Key, in the seminal Second City e.t.c. revue, Holy War, Batman, or The Yellow Cab of Courage, developed in the wake of 9/11. The entire show revolved around a Pakistani cab driver, played by Key, driving through the streets of Chicago in the days immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center. Key’s character encounters every manner of reaction to the event—xenophobes, apologists, the angry, and the sad. In an effort to avoid the violence that befell other Americans of Middle Eastern descent after the attacks, Keegan’s character has draped his cab in American flags while blasting patriotic songs by Lee Greenwood, all in an effort to mask his ethnicity. Two new passengers, played by Andy Cobb and Sam Albert, get into his car.

ANDY Where are you from?
KEEGAN Me? I am from America.
ANDY No, like, where are you from, from?
KEEGAN Canada.
SAM I think he means, like, where are you from originally?
KEEGAN Well, it’s a very long story, boss. You know, I am from America via Canada, by way of (mumbling and covering his mouth, barely audible) Pakistan.
ANDY That’s all right. We’re all batting on the same team.
KEEGAN Yeah, but who wants to talk about Pakistan, right? America! America! America!
SAM Actually, I am a little bothered by the way everyone is waving the flag around like some sort of Band-Aid for the political wounds of this country.
KEEGAN Ohhh! Narcolepsy. (Keegan slumps in his seat. Andy wakes him up.) Oh, I am sorry. Every time someone talks like that, I have a narcoleptic fit. We don’t want to get in a crash so ... you better shut up.

That scene and that character would never have happened if our ensemble hadn’t included individuals whose entire lives could speak to some deeper understanding of ostracism due to the color of their skin.

Our organization has benefited greatly in seeking out new and diverse voices to become part of our community. But building diversity requires more than hanging out a shingle that says, “Individuals of all races, genders, and sexual orientations are welcome.” First of all, that sign is way too long. Second, you have to implement a diversity initiative through a variety of approaches. A diverse approach to hiring has provided us with countless other opportunities. We are currently developing an improvisational course specifically geared toward seniors. We seed the work in young people by doing outreach into schools and communities; we bring a variety of voices into our physical space through workshops, lectures, and open houses; we build communities within our own community. A collection of Latino performers in our school and on our stages led to Loco, a bilingual troupe that explores comedy from a Latino perspective. This new group represents another part of the revolution: According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one in five Americans will be an immigrant in 2050; the Latino population will triple and will account for most of the nation’s population growth for the next 25 years; whites will represent 47 percent of the population by 2050.

The numbers are changing. But this is about more than numbers.

Excerpted from "Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses 'No, But' Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration." Copyright © 2014 by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton. Excerpted by permission of Harper Business, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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