Review: Jeffrey Sweet Updates His Second City History—Now With That Elusive Viola Spolin Interview

Forty-five years ago, Jeffrey Sweet wrote a book—the story of Second City, which was then only about a decade old. But Chicago’s preeminent comedy theater had a much longer history, beginning with theater games devised by Viola Spolin for neighborhood kids in depression-era Chicago. These games became the basis for the improvisational theater that has thrived in Chicago ever since—first in Hyde Park, then as the north side Compass Players in the 1950s, at Second City and its outposts all over North America, and at dozens of comedy clubs in Chicago and suburbs—and elsewhere too.

Sweet, a multi-hyphenate writer, playwright, screenwriter, lyricist, critic, journalist, teacher, and historian, has updated his 1978 oral history of Second City in a new edition titled Something Wonderful Right Away: The Birth of Secord City­—America’s Greatest Comedy Theater. The book is made up of 32 fascinating interviews by Sweet with most of the famous names of Second City—from Mike Nichols to Shelley Berman to Gilda Radner. But he doesn’t just include the names familiar to us from their late night or Saturday Night Live gigs. He provides in-depth interviews with the creators who actually turned Spolin’s theater games into improvisational theater—including her son, Paul Sills, and director David Shepherd plus Second City stalwarts such as Severn Darden, Del Close and Sheldon Patinkin. 

The updated history is notable because it adds his interview with Spolin herself, which he was not able to use in the first edition. (For the new edition, he obtained permission from Spolin’s family.) Sweet recounts his conversation with Spolin, who died in 1994 at the age of 88:

From left, Eugene Levy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Rosemary Radcliffe, and John Candy in 1974. Photo courtesy Second City.

“I had done that interview with Viola , but she refused to grant me permission to use it. She wouldn’t sign the release. And I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Oh, Jeffrey, honey, people have been making money off me for years. And I’ve decided to draw the line here.’ And I said, ‘Viola, you’re really drawing the line in the wrong place, because if you think I’m going to make any serious money off this book...‘ She said, ‘Well, I just made my decision, I’m going to stick by it.’” 

The 1978 interviews are used in their original form but Sweet adds update notes at the end, which, in some cases, include the performer’s date of death. 

Another new interview is with comedian and classically trained actor Keegan-Michael Key, who began at Second City Detroit and then moved to Second City e.t.c., the Chicago company’s hipper secondary stage, before moving to the main stage. Sweet says he was very aware that all the interviews in his first edition (and all the Second City performers) were white and added the Key interview for some balance. 

Sweet observes that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the institutional racism of American theater meant that Black performers didn’t look at Second City and see it as a path available to them. Key agrees and notes that people in Black and low-income neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago had no idea that, “somewhere in this vast United States, somebody was codifying terminology and a methodology for building comedic scenes.” They learned improvisation by playing the dozens in the streets. 

Missing from Sweet’s comprehensive study are interviews with two major figures in Second City history: John Belushi and Elaine May. Sweet explains why Belushi isn’t in the book at the end of his Gilda Radner interview. Why? Belushi never kept an interview appointment and never explained why. Elaine May, on the other hand, was “openly hostile” to Sweet’s project. She called some of the participants and asked them not to cooperate with Sweet. Mike Nichols supported it; after learning about May’s calls, he called the same people to vouch for Sweet.

Cast of 2023 revue, Don’t Quit Your Daydream, outside Second City’s Wells Street venue. Photo courtesy Second City.

The founders of Compass and Second City (mostly university students reacting to the McCarthy era) were profoundly critical and cynical about politics and the corporatization of America. Sweet observes in his new Closing Thoughts chapter that while the performers continued to criticize corporate ethics on stage, the company’s management struggled with many of the same issues and contradictions, especially regarding race. That contradiction became public in 2020 when CEO Andrew Alexander released an “extraordinary mea culpa, acknowledging that ‘The Second City cannot begin to call itself anti-racist... That is one of the great failures of my life.'” Alexander, founder of Second City Toronto and its SCTV program, resigned and in 2021 sold Second City, privately held for 61 years, to a private equity group.

For a student of theater or a fan of Chicago-style improv, Sweet’s book is a treasure of the underlying concepts of the art form and the philosophies of its founders. Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, for instance, notes that improv theater is popular theater (as distinct from formalized: ”literary theater,” which he scorned). Think of popular theater like itinerant troupes of players rolling across the countryside and stopping to perform in the open air for audiences along the way—often with stock characters, improvised out of their own ideas and language, much like traditional commedia dell’arte. In a modern parallel, Sweet notes that Larry David’s HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, was largely created using the Compass Players’ method of actors improvising from basic scenarios.

Sweet’s book has been a major influence on many actors—not just a book that was forgotten a few years after its publication. Keegan-Michael Key comments that Second City is a part of his life that he’s most proud of creatively. “Second City, on the corner of North and Wells, was my comedy Harvard. And I know from the book I performed on the same stage as all those earlier people. I think your book is vital. It’s like the Bible.”

His book also brought back memories for me. As a college student at UIC at Navy Pier, my Hyde Park friends talked about the performers they saw at Jimmy's on 55th Street. And then a young man I was dating during the summer between semesters took me to what seemed to me a revolutionary form of entertainment, a comedy club on the north side, where we saw the Compass Players. I don't remember anything about the show except that I thought it was trés sophisticated. (We also went to the Blue Note downtown, so he got double points as a good date.)

In addition to the interviews, Sweet’s book includes a valuable 16-page history chapter, as well as a preface, 1978 introductory notes, and the new chapters “Closing Thoughts,” “A More Personal Perspective” and “Recommended Resources.” A foreword to the new edition is written by Mick Napier, artistic director of the Annoyance Theatre, about his own path to improv enhanced by Sweet’s book. 

One negative about the book—and it’s an unavoidable negative in the electronic era—is that Sweet includes many links and references to things you might find on YouTube or elsewhere online. Those links, of course, cannot be live if you’re reading a print version of the book and the links may or may not work if you’re reading an e-copy. Your recourse will be to retype the URL or do your own online search for the same material.

Sweet was a founding resident writer for Victory Gardens Theater, where many of his plays were first produced. Among his plays are Flyovers, Porch, The Value of Names and The Action Against Sol Schumann. His books include The Dramatist’s Toolkit and O’Neill, a history of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

Something Wonderful Right Away: The Birth of Second City—America’s Greatest Comedy Theater is available from your favorite bookseller and from the publisher’s website

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.