Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater

by Sheldon Patinkin



200pp/$45.00/October 2000

The Second City

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The Second City opened in Chicago in 1959 and quickly became a cultural icon, eventually spreading to several other cities and television, with mixed results.  The Second City:  Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater is an unabashed paean to the comedy group and the actors who have worked there.  The Second City is a forty-year old improvisation theater which has provided some of the biggest names in comedy.

While the book is a basic history of the troupe, it includes numerous sidebars spotlighting specific actors who were either important to the formation of the group (such as Severn Darden) or actors who became household names (John Belushi).  Other sidebars highlight groups or themes:  Second City actors who married each other, etc.

The book is accompanied by two CDs which include 32 scenes from Second City reviews and television over the company's history.  Each scene is introduced by Robert Klein, and many are truly classics in comedy, such as "Football Comes to the University of Chicago."  Unfortunately, particularly on the first CD, the sound quality is often poor and the words are difficult to hear.  Even on the more recent recordings there is a problem with the audience, at times, laughing over the actors' lines.

Throughout the text of the book, small circles appear indicating that a track on one of the CDs should be played.  This helps provide context for the recordings, although in truth, most of them succeed without the context, a tribute the the writing and performing talent of the actors. 

Sheldon Patinkin's writing flows smoothly, and the interpolations by Second City alumni Alan Arkin, Dan Akroyd, George Wendt, James Belushi and Harold Ramis add to the flavor of the book and give it a more intimate feel as they share some of their memories first hand.

The book ends with a listing of all the alumni from the various Second Cities until the year 2000.  While this lists the year each member appeared on stage, the list does not indicate the length of their tenures, which would have been a nice addition.

For people who have attended Second City shows, either in Chicago or elsewhere, it is interesting to read through the book and recognize scenes and realize you have seen major names performing, even through you didn't know who they were at the time.

The Second City:  Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater is an enjoyable book, made moreso by the inclusion of the CDs which allow the reader to fully experience the humor the book is describing, rather than just read the flat text of the comedy routines.

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