60 Years
of Comedy History

It all started with children’s games. Rooted in the groundbreaking improvisational games of Viola Spolin, The Second City opened its doors on a snowy Chicago night in December of 1959, and a comedy revolution began. Co-founded by Bernie Sahlins, Howard Alk, and Spolin’s son Paul Sills, the small cabaret theater grew to become the most influential and prolific comedy empire in the world, developing an entirely unique way of creating art and fostering generation after generation of superstars.

1950s

A comedy revolution begins

On a cold Chicago night, The Second City opens its doors at 1942 N. Wells Street, the former site of Wong Cleaners & Dyers.

1959

Bernie Sahlins, Paul Sills & Howard Alk Open The Second City

The carpet was still being nailed down as the audience entered on opening night, December 16, 1959. The show began with Barbara Harris singing “Everybody’s in the Know.”

Paul Sills

Considered by many to be the founding father of improvisational theater, Paul Sills was a firm believer that improv yielded best results when players stayed true to the possibility of spontaneity.

Read Bio

1960s

The Second City expands

Becoming a hangout for celebrities like Anthony Quinn and Hugh Hefner, The Second City makes its first (but not last move), swapping addresses with their new, larger theater next door.

1960

Alan Arkin comes to Chicago

"Second City wasn’t a theater ensemble to me; it was a halfway house.” -Alan Arkin

1961

Joan Rivers makes her debut

"I was really born as a comedian at Second City. I owe it my career." -Joan Rivers

1962

First London appearance

The Second City swaps stages with London's The Establishment, marking the troupe's first UK run.

1963

The Second City goes north

The company makes the first trek to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, putting down Canadian roots a decade before opening The Second City Toronto.

1964

'Second City Reports’ airs in the UK

Bernie Sahlins produces a TV series in Manchester called 'Second City Reports,' which airs in the UK.

1965

Fred Willard joins The Second City

Fred Willard (right) examines Robert Klein with a sausage stethescope.

1966

Bob Curry makes Second City history

'Enter, from Above' opens with ensemble member Bob Curry, The Second City’s first African American actor.

1967

Second City visits the UK 1967

The Second City moves south to its new (and still current) home at 1616 North Wells.

1967

The Second City Touring Company hits the road

Joyce Sloane launches The Second City Touring Company with the aim of training talent and bringing comedy to audiences across the globe.

1968

'A Plague on Both Your Houses'

On the heels of the Democratic National Convention, the 28th Mainstage revue 'A Plague on Both Your Houses' runs just blocks from where police, the National Guard, and anti-war protesters clashed.

1969

Abbie Hoffman’s applause-worthy alibi

Political and social activist Abbie Hoffman spends his days at the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial...and his nights performing at The
Second City.

1969

Harold Ramis joins the cast

The addition of Ramis was just the beginning of how the Chicago cast would set the tone for an entire generation of comic performers who were as hilarious as they were radical.

1969

The Second City's first decade

The Second City hits double digits, celebrating its 10th anniversary with a show called 'Old Wine, New Bottles.'

1970s

A new generation of powerful voices

Belushi. Radner. Candy. Aykroyd. O'Hara. Levy. Murray...

1971

John Belushi makes a splash

A 22-year-old John Belushi makes his Second City debut in 'No, No, Wilmette.'

1972

Future stars cast a ‘Spell’ on Toronto

The Toronto production of 'Godspell' opens, featuring future Second City and 'SCTV' stars Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, and Eugene Levy.

1973

The Second City Toronto opens

The Second City goes international, opening a theater in Toronto on Adelaide Street. There’s no air conditioning, no liquor license, and almost no audience.

1973

Legends in the making

Bill Murray, John Candy, and Betty Thomas debut in 'Phase 46 or Watergate Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight,' Chicago’s 46th Mainstage revue.

1974

The Old Firehall

Second City Toronto finds a new home at 110 Lombard Street in a 19th-century firehouse called the Old Firehall.

1974

The great switcheroo

'The Canadian Show or Upper U.S.A.' opens with a cast that includes borrowed Toronto players Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy, and Eugene Levy.

1975

‘SNL’ rocks the comedy world

'Saturday Night Live' premieres on NBC with Second City alumni John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner, with Bill Murray joining the cast in its second season.

1976

Second City visits the UK 1976

‘SCTV’ Hits the Canadian Airways: The iconic sketch show would go on to earn 2 Emmy Awards and a significant spot in TV history.

1977

Meet Martin Short

Martin Short joins The Second City, taking over for John Candy in 'The Wizard of Ossington,' Toronto’s 9th revue. I" would not say that my work at Second City had intellectual appeal as much as more of a clown quality." -Martin Short

1977

A syndication deal for 'SCTV' means American hosers from coast to coast are delighted, eh?

1978

‘Something Wonderful’ Happens

'Something Wonderful Right Away' is published, Jeffrey Sweet's oral history of The Second City and the Compass Players.

1979

Second City Turns 20

Two decades in, there’s no doubt that Second City is a nationally known comedy institution.

1980s

A Time of Conservatism and Consumption...

..Just like when Second City got its start.

1980

The Blues Brothers

After meeting at Dan Aykroyd's speakeasy across the street from TheSecond City, Aykroyd and John Belushi become 'The Blues Brothers.'

1981

‘SCTV’ Comes to NBC

NBC airs 'SCTV' as a late night 90-minute program called 'SCTV Network 90' on Fridays after Johnny Carson.

1981

‘The Great White North’ Hits the Top 10

Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas release an LP based on their 'SCTV' characters, "Bob and Doug McKenzie," which were dreamed up as the direct result of the CBS’s requirement for “identifiable Canadian content.”

1982

Second City visits the UK 1982

'SCTV' wins its first Emmy for for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program.

1983

The e.t.c. Opens in Chicago

The Second City e.t.c. debuts next door to Chicago’s Mainstage in Piper’s Alley with its first show, 'Cows on Ice.'

1983

Déjà Vu at the Emmys

One year after its first, 'SCTV' takes home a second Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program.

1984

The Second City’s 25th Anniversary

The Second City’s 25th Anniversary special films at Chicago’s Vic Theatre and airs On HBO and Canada’s CBC.

1985

Under New Ownership

Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart acquire Bernie Sahlins’ interest in The Second City.

1986

Wayne’s World

Mike Myers performs a character named “Wayne” in the Toronto Mainstage revue 'Not Based on Anything by Stephen King.'

1987

Stephen Colbert Gets a Job

Stephen Colbert takes a job at The Second City answering phones in the box office and selling t-shirts in exchange for free classes.

1988

Betty Thomas Returns to Direct

Betty Thomas leads a cast that includes Mike Myers, Bonnie Hunt and Richard Kind for 'Kuwait Until Dark or Bright Lights, Night Baseball.'

1988

Second City Toronto Turns 15

A one-hour CBC/Showtime special featuring clips of the 15th anniversary reunion show at Toronto's Second City.

1989

Second City Santa Monica

Second City’s West Coast outpost opens in Santa Monica's refurbished Mayfair Theater. Before closing in 1992, Robin Williams makes a legendary guest appearance.

1989

The World Loses Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner passes away of ovarian cancer on May 20th, 1989 at age 42.

Gilda's Club

Cancer support organization Gilda’s Club opens in 2005 with the mission of ensuring that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community.

Donate to Gilda's Club

1989

Second City Turns 30

Chicago's 30th Anniversary show was appropriately titled 'It Was 30 Years Ago Today.'

1990s

Second to None

This decade shook up everything, on stage and off.

1990

Steve Carell Plays the e.t.c.

After a stint in the Touring Company and Second City Northwest, Steve Carell opens 'Northwest by North Wells.'

1991

Stephen Colbert and Nia Vardalos Hit the ‘Burbs

Both former box office employees, Stephen Colbert and Nia Vardalos appear together in 'Ku Klux Klambake' at Second City Northwest.

1992

The Outreach Program Launches

The Second City’s Outreach Program launches as a part of The Second City Training Center with the mission of providing new voices of color to the community, as well as an opportunity to learn at The Second City.

Second City Diversity & Inclusion

As a result of the initiative led by Frances Callier, pioneering improv groups in the LGBTQI, Asian American, African American, and Latinx communities formed. The program is now run by Dionna Griffin-Irons, and every year qualified actors and improvisers enter the program through the Bob Curry Fellowship.

Learn More

1993

Second City Detroit Opens

Detroit stages 25 revues over its 14-year run, with talent that includes Keegan-Michael Key and Angela V. Shelton, the only Second City actor who has been a member of all four resident stage companies in Detroit, Toronto & Chicago.

1994

Tina & Amy Get Hired

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler both audition for The Second City Touring Company. They both get hired.

1995

Piñata Full of Bees

Chicago’s 'Piñata Full of Bees' opens, shaking up Second City’s format and challenging the structure and content of all the revues that came before or after it.

1996

'Citizen Gates'

'Citizen Gates' features the Chicago Mainstage’s first gender-equal cast, directed by Mick Napier and featuring Tina Fey, Jenna Jolovitz, and Rachel Dratch.

1997

Second City visits the UK 1997

Welcome to Blue Jays Way: Second City Toronto moves to a new facility in advance of its 25th anniversary.

1998

Second City Toronto Turns 25

Canada’s comedy giants return for the 25th anniversary celebration, which is aired as a one-hour special on CBC.

1999

R.I.P. Del Close

Del Close passes away on March 14th, 1999, after holding a “living wake.”

1999

Second to None

The Second City Chicago celebrates its 40th anniversary with an alumni-filled weekend of celebration.

2000s

Laughter by land & by sea

In addition to forming new artistic partnerships, The Second City expands to two new cities and one new frontier: the sea.

2000

Hamlet! The Musical

In partnership with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Second City Theatricals debuts 'Hamlet! The Musical.' Pictured: Mick Napier as Hamlet and Alexandra Billings as Gertrude.

2001

The Second City Las Vegas

In partnership with Jam Theatricals, The Second City Las Vegas begins a six-year run at The Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

2002

Outreach & Diversity

The Second City Outreach & Diversity division expands to a full-year program.

2002

'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'

Based on the real-life wedding of Second City alums Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez, 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' becomes the highest-grossing independent film of all time.

2003

The Second City's Annual All-Nighter

The New York Times features the 24-hour improv and music marathon, then in its 2nd year of raising money for disadvantaged Chicago families.

2004

The Second City's Romeo and Juliet Musical

Detroit alum Keegan-Michael Key and MADtv's Nicole Parker Redford lead the production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the full name of which was 'The Second City’s Romeo and Juliet Musical: The People vs. Friar Laurence, The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet.'

2005

The Second City goes to sea

Second City takes to the high seas with Norwegian Cruise Line in an exclusive partnership that lasts fourteen years.

2006

The Second City Hollywood sets up shop

Though Second City had been holding improv classes in Hollywood since 2000, additional space was rented in 2006 to accommodate the growing program. Graduate Bill Hader credited his classes at The Second City Hollywood during his 2018 Emmy acceptance speech, saying, "I was taught there that you should always make the other people look good, so I hired other great actors who made me look good.”

2007

The Second City & Columbia's Comedy Studies Program

The Second City Training Center and Columbia College Chicago offer students college credit and a "semester abroad" immersed in the world of comedy.

2007

Mr. Obama goes to The Second City

The future president makes a visit to The Second City to see the 94th Mainstage revue, 'Between Barack and a Hard Place.'

2008

The Second City Alumni Fund is established

The Second City Alumni Fund came into existence during a one-night event at Second City Toronto. Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty and Martin Short came together to raise money for a former 'SCTV' crew member facing serious hardships.

$1,000,000 and counting

Over a decade after its creation, the Fund has raised over $1 million and has aided dozens of veteran performers and staff from the 'SCTV' and Second City families facing serious health or financial challenges.

2009

'Rod Blagojevich Superstar!'

The former governor takes in a performance of Second City’s musical based on his rise and fall...long before beginning his 14-year prison sentence for corruption.

2009

Second City visits the UK 2009

Happy 50th birthday! The Second City celebrates 50 years with a star-studded weekend of performances.

2010s

Second City on fire

The company burns as brightly as the extra-alarm fire that almost destroyed it.

2010

Just for Laughs Lifetime Achievement Award

The Second City is presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal.

2010

Second City Hollywood’s grand re-opening

The Second City Hollywood celebrates its newly renovated Training Center facilities with an open house and shows.

2011

Cleaning up at the Jeff Awards

The e.t.c.’s 35th revue 'Sky’s the Limit (Weather Permitting)' brings home 3 Joseph Jefferson Awards.

Jeff Award Wins

As of 2014, Second City has been awarded 37 Jeff Awards in total, including recognition for the work of Bernie Sahlins, Mick Napier, Rachel Dratch, Shelley Long, Jackie Hoffman, David Pasquesi, Nia Vardalos, and Keegan-Michael Key.

2012

UP Comedy Club

UP Comedy Club opens on the third floor of Piper’s Alley as a new space to incubate theatrical works and feature stand-up performers.

Booth One

The 285-seat classic cabaret-style theater becomes the new home of a replica of Chicago’s most storied seat. Originally a fixture at old Hollywood hotspot The Pump Room, the original Booth One sat the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, David Bowie, Josephine Baker, Audrey Hepburn, and Ronald Reagan.

2012

The Second City is big in Japan

The Second City announces a partnership with Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd to bring improv training and performances to Japan.

2012

Martin Short 'goes home'

'I, Martin Short, Goes Home' airs as a special on CBC, co-executive produced by Andrew Alexander.

2013

'The Second City’s Guide to the Opera'

A partnership with Lyric Opera of Chicago produces 'The Second City’s Guide to the Opera,' featuring renowned soprano Renée Fleming and Sir Patrick Stewart.

2013

Remembering Bernie Sahlins

The Second City, including Bill Murray and Colin Mochrie, celebrates Bernie Sahlins at a memorial held in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

2014

The inaugural Bob Curry Fellowship

The first sixteen recipients of the inaugural Bob Curry Fellowship are announced.

Bob Curry Fellowship

The program is offered to qualifying actors and improvisers from diverse multicultural backgrounds to train and study at The Second City in Chicago and Toronto. This unique fellowship boasts a rigorous master program for serious minded talent seeking a career in sketch comedy.

Apply Now

2014

The Second City All-Star Benefit

Second City alumni and friends return for one legendary night, with proceeds going to Gilda’s Club Chicago and The Second City Alumni Fund.

2014

'The Art of Falling'

In a collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Second City presents 'The Art of Falling,' a groundbreaking show that earns rave reviews.

2015

Introducing Second City Works

The business arm of the company gets a brand new name, but keeps the same mission: bringing Second City’s award-winning improv and comedy techniques to hundreds of global clients.

2015

‘Yes, And’ is published by HarperCollins Business

The book becomes an essential read for those seeking to become better leaders and more collaborative followers by employing the 7 elements of improv.

Getting to Yes, And

In addition to writing 'Yes, And,' Kelly Leonard hosts a highly successful podcast called 'Getting to Yes, And,' which features interviews with visionaries, authors, and leaders who operate at the intersection of creativity and commerce.

Listen Now

2015

Fire at The Second City

An extra-alarm fire tears through Second City Chicago, destroying offices but sparing the theaters. The following month, Second City holds a special performance to thank the Chicago Fire Department heroes.

2015

The Diversity & Inclusion Program

The Second City Outreach & Diversity program evolves into Diversity & Inclusion, continuing to uphold Second City’s ongoing commitment to expose the art of improvisation to new voices and talent.

2016

Second City visits the UK 2016

The Harold Ramis Film School celebrates its grand opening, becoming the world’s first film school dedicated to comedy.

2016

1959 Kitchen & Bar opens

Named for the year Second City opened its doors, a brand new bar and restaurant opens on the second floor of Piper’s Alley.

1959 Kitchen & Bar

With a retro vibe that pays homage to The Second City’s rich history, 1959 Kitchen & Bar is the perfect option for a pre-show dinner or cocktail. With a focus on sustainable, certified humane, organic local ingredients, the menu ranges from fun pub fare to more specialty dining options.

Reservations

2016

The Second City Training Center expands

The Second City Training Center takes over the former AMC movie theater space in Piper's Alley and opens a 25,000-square-foot expansion, doubling its size.

The Second City Training Center

Whether you're just looking to have fun or are serious about pursuing a career in comedy, we've got a class for you!

Learn More

2016

The Second City earns Chicago’s Fifth Star Award

The City of Chicago awards The Second City with the Fifth Star Award for significant contributions to the city’s arts and culture scene.

2017

The Second Science Project

The Second City announces a collaboration with the Center for Decision Research at The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago to study behavioral science through the lens of improvisation.

RewireU

RewireU is the professional development program at The Second City Training Center. Register yourself or your team today.

Learn More

2017

‘Take Off, Eh’

'Take Off, Eh' raises more than $325,000 for Spinal Cord Injury Ontario and Jake Thomas, nephew of Dave Thomas. Performers at the event include some of Canada’s biggest names in comedy and music.

2017

The Harold Ramis Film School’s first graduation

The very first class graduates from the Harold Ramis Film School.

Harold Ramis Film School

We educate writers, performers, directors, and filmmakers through the collaborative styles of comedic content creation embraced by The Second City and alumnus Harold Ramis. The advisory board is made up of industry leaders like Judd Apatow, Steve Carell, Catherine O'Hara and many more.

Apply Now

2017

The Roast of George Wendt

The celebrity roast raises more than $200,000 for Gilda’s Club Chicago and The Second City Alumni Fund.

2018

Andrew Alexander is honored with the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Governor General Julie Payette presents Alexander with Canada’s most prestigious recognition for the performing arts. “Receiving this award is a tremendous acknowledgment of the thousands of talented young actors and students who have found a home at Second City, just like I have.”

2018

Second City & DePaul University partner

The Second City and DePaul University launch a groundbreaking program designed to expand comedy education. Starting in fall 2018, DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in comedy filmmaking, the most comprehensive programs of their kind.

“Second City has been nurturing comedic talent in Chicago for nearly sixty years. Two years ago, in starting the Harold Ramis Film School, we successfully expanded our approach to attracting and developing nascent screenwriters and directors. By partnering with DePaul, we will now have the opportunity to teach an even broader range of students comedy in an accredited environment." -Second City CEO Andrew Alexander.

2019

The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group comes to Piper's Alley

2019

The Second City Turns 60

The Second City will mark its sixtieth anniversary this December with the release of a new book, 'The Second City: The Essentially Accurate History.'

More History to Come in the Near Future

60 Years
of Comedy History

It all started with children’s games. Rooted in the groundbreaking improvisational games of Viola Spolin, The Second City opened its doors on a snowy Chicago night in December of 1959, and a comedy revolution began. Co-founded by Bernie Sahlins, Howard Alk, and Spolin’s son Paul Sills, the small cabaret theater grew to become the most influential and prolific comedy empire in the world, developing an entirely unique way of creating art and fostering generation after generation of superstars.