I have until recently approached comedy from the perspective of the enthusiastic enthusiast, I never considered myself a professional and at most I felt I was a comedy nerd with respect for the craft and an obsession with the structure. Yes, in the past I had helped around the writing table of a comedy burlesque troupe, but it was in a supportive role to a bunch of people who were infinitely funnier than I. (I think my biggest contribution in several years of involvement was to come up with the idea of Ed Wood performing Rocket Man in the style of William Shatner... trust me, it worked on stage.) Aside from that, my experience in comedy was confined to watching it lovingly from the audience.
As I reached the venerable point in my life known as “middle age” I started working on this project with my friend Jason and felt the need do all these things I wanted to do. I was meeting all these amazing and funny people who were creating and I wanted a taste of that sugar! That said, I’m not so vain to believe I can simply stand up on a stage and start telling jokes (though the fact Rodney Dangerfield didn’t begin pursuing his career in comedy until he was 40 makes me think I may at least be able to squeek out a tight five before I’m 50).
This led me to some reflection, what are my strengths and where are my weaknesses? What do I love and where can I improve? One of my earliest exposures to comedy was secret Saturday Night Live sessions as my father was away on business and my mother was working night shifts. A later formative component was SCTV and in my high school years Kids in the Hall showed me a different kind of punk rock comedy, the kind that was sharp and sly not just rage. The common denominator here was one magical place, The Second City.
The Second City is a linchpin in modern comedy history. It has served as the home and inspiration for many comedy greats (or in some cases the nemesis and impetus for comedy greats to strike out on their own and forge their own path). The Second City got its start when Bernard Sahlins and Paul Sills took the teachings of Paul’s mother Viola Spolin to create a commedia dell’arte show. Over time they grew teaching classes based on Viola’s theatre games, opening locations in Toronto and Hollywood involving the likes of Del Close, Alan Alda, John Candy, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, Tina Fey and many many more. They gave birth to SNL and SCTV, they inspired The Colbert Report and Strangers With Candy, they reside at the heart of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. They were a formative part of some of the funniest pieces of comedy stretching for generations. This is of course, at best, a broad stroke overview of the institution’s history and some of its famous alumni. There are a host of different books out there that can dive much deeper into the details but this is what made me think this is where I wanted to be.
Earlier I mentioned strengths and weaknesses and what I loved and what I felt I could improve. I don’t know much from my strengths but what I love is laughing. Now my weaknesses and areas I can improve are thinking on my toes, being in the moment and mindfulness. These are all things that are important to the world of comedy and improv in particular, which with the aid of The Second City’s classes, I thought maybe I could learn to be better prepared to roll with the punches of being the civilian in the room full of comics, comedy writers and comedic actors. So, with all that in mind, I opened up The Second City website selecting the Toronto location and started perusing the classes.
The Second City offers a host of classes for all types of students from kids learning the foundations to seniors wanting to try something new. Browsing their classes page it has a host of different options even for adults. There are stand-up, improv and writing classes. Classes for acting, classes for public speaking and classes for working in film and television. There are options to study pretty much any aspect of the world of comedy and acting you want to be a part of even improv classes to help with stress and mental health!
All things considered, there’s no place to start like the beginning so I opened up the Improv levels A to E and checked for available classes. Improv level A to E is a series of classes that each open up a different set of skills. Improv Level A starts with basic improv structure, it’s teaching you the language of improv and the skills that you need to work in a scene. Level B is the beginning of scene work while Level C is focusing on character. Level A to E are a linear progression which other classes may require one or more of these fundamentals levels to be completed before considering you for entry. So, it was with some excitement and trepidation I decided to yes and classes in improvisation.
Next week I’ll discuss the Level A program and my experiences with my teacher amazing Ed Sahely. For a teaser though I can say as I close in on my last days of Level A I’m sad to see it end but I look forward to Level B classes in the new year but more on that to follow.
Matthew Ardill & Jason Deline
Partners in crime we collaborate to create the Comedy Album Book Club, a deep dive into comedy history.