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Happy 60th Birthday, Second City!

The Second City in Chicago turned 60 this week. Though I was never on the Main Stage or even in the touring company, Second City has always had a special place in my heart. I taught at the training center, worked in the business theater and have done plenty of shows there. And the best part of my time there has been all of the friends I have made, going all the way back to when I first started taking classes there back in the ’80s.

Although Second City has expanded and changed a lot recently, especially in the last five years, it’s still an amazing institution. So in honor of Second City’s 60th birthday, here are my top eight memories from Second City.

  1. Improv Nerd with Rachel Dratch in The Main Stage
    I recorded this live version of Improv Nerd in front of a sold out crowd in the Main Stage. I joked at the top of the show that “I always dreamed of being on Main Stage; I just didn’t think it would only last an hour.” Rachel gave an honest and hilarious interview, and it was so easy and such a joy to improvise a scene with her again. When Rachel was on the Main Stage in ’90s, she was beloved, and after that show, you could see why.
  2. “God Show”
    I loved being part of “God Show,” a beautiful and funny story that Tim O’Malley wrote about his life. It had the feel of a Second City revue. It was directed by Norm Holly, and I loved working with him and the talented cast, which included Michael Gellman, who was returning to performing. I did two runs of the shows on Tuesday nights at the ETC and we sold out immediately and always got standing ovations.One of the high points of the show for me was the number of characters I got to play. I had always been someone who had resisted playing characters, and it was fun to not only challenge myself to do them, but also to succeed. And I loved playing one of my favorite improv teachers, Martin DeMaat, in the show.
  3. The People
    It doesn’t matter if you are an alumni of the Training Center or a teacher there or you worked in the box office – there is something about working in that building that connects people forever. It was such a fun place to work. Some of the best times I had were when I would be talking to people near the front bar or chatting with Joyce Sloan in her office about the Cubs or politics. When two or more people gather who have worked at Second City, it’s very rare that it’s not brought up and/or gossiped about.
  4. Teaching at The Training Center
    I first started teaching improv at the Annoyance and iO and didn’t start teaching at Second City until I was in my mid-30s. It was really exciting to be teaching there because they had just built new classrooms and the faculty included some of the most respected teachers in the country at the time. I got a lot of help and mentoring there, which made me a better teacher, and most importantly, I felt like I was part of a community. I saw Nick Johne the other day, and he reminded me of a very found memory when Michael Gellman, Nick and I would go eat at Boston Market together on the day we taught and talk about improv.
  5. The Community
    The one complaint I hear people say about the place is that “it used to be a like a family,” and today it’s more corporate. I think there is something to that, but I think the sense of community is still there. I have attended several memorial services over the last decade at The Second City, and I have to say, it’s such a touching thing to witness people coming together, and I always leave proud to be part of the community.
  6. Business Theater
    The early to mid-’90s was a hard time in my life when all of my friends were getting hired to be part of Second City’s touring company or were getting cast in the resident companies. I was jealous and scared. Then Dave Koechner put in a good word in for me, and I got hired to be part of Second City’s Business Theater, where I did shows and taught improv workshops for corporations. Joe Keefe, Scott Altman and Mark Belden took me under me under their wing and showed me the ropes and taught me a lot. I was raw and very unprofessional, and a bit arrogant at the time, and I made a lot of mistakes, but they had patience and faith in me. I was fortunate to do a lot of fun projects, and I had the opportunity to travel and make some good money, which was especially nice for an improviser who had been doing shows for free.
  7. “Living in a Dwarf’s House” and “World’s Greatest Dad”
    I have been lucky enough to put up two one-person shows at Second City — 18 years apart. The first was “Living in a Dwarf’s House,” and the second was “World’s Greatest Dad(?),” which I just put up this year for two separate runs in Judy’s Beat Lounge. Both shows did extremely well critically and had great audiences. So why don’t I do one every year?
  8. Second City’s 50th Anniversary Party
    Ten years ago when Second City was celebrating their half-century anniversary, they had a big party and all the famous alumni came in. I was teaching there at the time and did not want to go the party because I felt slighted by Second City and because I felt shame that I wasn’t famous. Again, Koechner helped me out. He invited me and my then-girlfriend, Lauren, and a bunch of other people out to dinner beforehand and made me go the party. The non-famous people out-numbered the famous people there, and everyone I saw was so happy to see me. I am so glad I went.

My Favorite Things of 2017

This past year was a big year for me personally and professionally, and when I was not running around trying to catch Betsy as she learned how to walk, I actually had some time to watch some TV shows and movies, read some non-improv-related books, catch some live shows and perform myself.

That being said, here are some of favorite things in entertainment of 2017, in no particular order.

My Favorite TV Show – Veep (HBO)

You cannot find a better comedy on TV right now than Veep, and with the state of politics in this country, this is definitely the show is to watch. Yes, it can be dark and cynical, but you’ll love the characters, as awful as they can be to each other. This show is so well written, acted, and directed, and it has a great cast. It’s hard for any actor or improviser not to watch this show and wish they were in it. I do.

Also, I cannot think of a better example of an ensemble comedy on television. Julia Louis Dreyfus is outstanding, and after watching almost six seasons, it is no surprise to me that each year she wins an Emmy for her performance. Selena Meyer in 2020! She couldn’t do any worse.

My Favorite Movie — Lady Bird

This was not a particular great year for movies but one that sticks out for me from 2017 is Lady Bird. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this coming-of-age film explores the relationship between a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Watching Lady Bird deal with her parents, as painful as it is, makes this movie so relatable to all of us who grew up with complicated relationships with our parents. It is such an original script and has everything I love in coming-of-age movies: disappointment, sadness, awkwardness and humor.

My Favorite Improv Group — Moonsharks

I love supporting the indy improv scene in Chicago. Groups like Sand and shows like The Shit Hole are inspiring and take me back to the excitement I felt when I was starting out. This year, the group that blew me away was Moonsharks. I caught them by accident when I went to watch a group I was coaching perform. They played grounded and they emotionally reacted to each other in the scene. They edited the scenes with seamless transformations. When they needed to be silly, or to vary the energy, they did it with abandon and everyone jumped in. They had incredible chemistry — the type you get only by enjoying playing with each other for a long time.

My Favorite Improv Nerd Episode – Rachel Dratch

In April, I was so lucky to get to interview Rachel Dratch as part of the Chicago Improv Festival. We played to a sold-out crowd of over 300 people at The Second City Main Stage. Ever have one of those shows where everything goes right and you feel like it’s a dream? This was one of them. Rachel was so honest and open in the interview and improvising with her was so easy, like I had remembered when we performed together in a couple of groups back in the ’90s.

I joked at the top of show that my goal when I started out in improv in my 20s was to be on Main Stage. I just didn’t think it would take 30 years to get there and only last an hour.

And it was worth it. Listen for yourself.

 

My Favorite Book — The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse

I read a shitload of self-help and improv books, but one book I read for pure enjoyment was Rich Cohen’s superb book on the Cubs: The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse. What makes Cohen one of my favorite writers is he can take a subject like the history of a losing franchise and weave in his own personal story of being a life-long suffering Cubs fan. He writes in such a honest way that you can feel his heartbreak growing up doomed as Cubs fan, as I did, and his joy when they finally win the World Series in 2016. Other books by Cohen that I also love are Lake Effect and Sweet and Low.

My Favorite You Tube Video That I Show Betsy — Little Snowflake (Super Simple Songs)

Betsy is over this video, called “Little Snowflake” by Super Simple Songs, but her Dad is not. She has moved on to Frozen and Aladdin, but that doesn’t stop me from showing it to her on my iPhone. I love it because it has a very simple, yet catchy song that gets stuck in your head. The kid who sings the song kills me, especially when he pronounce the word “little” as “lee-del.”

But why I like this little 3-minute video so much is the sad and lonely quality of the snowman. I can relate to him; I am the snowman. It ends with a touch of hope, and unlike most videos for toddlers, this one doesn’t hit you over the head. It lets your imagination decide what really happens. I dare you to watch this 10 times and not get this tune stuck in your head for forever.

My Favorite Performance – Storytelling at Louder Than a Mom

I am hard on my performances. I am a self-hating perfectionist who has used performing to validate myself my whole life. Doesn’t matter if it’s an improv show or solo piece. I rarely feel good about my performances. Except this one.

I had wanted to tell this story for a while, but I had so much shame I could not bring myself to put it up on stage. I had fear of what my family would think. But I did it anyway, and I told the story about how my family try to prevent me from speaking at my Dad’s funeral.

I had gotten a lot of help from Lauren and my friend, Gary Rudoren, but I was still terrified. Ten minutes before I went up I was convinced it was not funny. I was wrong. The audience was with me from the first a couple of seconds until the end. It was one of my best performances ever. You be the judge.

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Don’t Quit Before the Miracle

There is a saying I’ve heard that goes: “Don’t quit before the miracle.” But when you’re in the arts and creating shows, how do you know how long you have to wait?

I have been doing the podcast Improv Nerd for over five years. I’ve had some really big name guests. I’ve toured with the show all across the country at improv festivals and theaters. But the audiences have always been unpredictable. Sometimes we’ve had as few as two wayward improv students, and sometimes we’ve had some really nice crowds of about 80 people.

They’ve never been huge. Until last Sunday.

Our guest was Rachel Dratch and it was part of the Chicago Improv Festival. We originally had the show booked in Judy’s Beat Lounge at the Second City. It sold out in a matter of hours, so we moved it to a larger venue at Second City’s e.t.c. Theater. Then that show sold out, too, and finally they moved it to the Second City Main Stage. And for the first time in more than five years, I was actually performing the show in front of more than 300 people.

Plus, not only did it sell out, the show itself was incredible. Rachel was as honest and open in the interview as you could hope for. But the best part for me was getting to improvising with her again. We had been in a couple groups together back in the ’90s in Chicago, and performing with her again was so easy, just like improv should be.

I joked at the top of show that my goal when I started out in improv in my 20s was to be on Main Stage. I just didn’t think it would take 30 years to get there and only last an hour.

But you know what? I did it. Who would have thought when I started doing this silly little podcast that I would end up on Main Stage doing it for one night? I certainly didn’t. And the thing that is so cool is I did it with something I created.

I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to quit doing this podcast. And to be perfectly honest here, I am not certain of its future. I have put a lot of time into it, so much so that my wife Lauren is getting annoyed at me and wants me to move on to other things. I have sunk of a lot of my own money into it. I have bitched and moaned that I think I should be farther along with it at this point. It should be more popular and I should be living off it. That has not come true, yet. But what is true is that I have not quit on myself.

The thing that sucks is you never know when something is going to catch on. We’re trained to think that if something doesn’t catch on in a couple of weeks we should abandon it immediately and assume we are doing something wrong.

I’ve often been a quitter in my life – whether it was in little league, in school, or in my improv career. But finally with this show, I’ve stuck with it. I just kept trudging down the road, even when I didn’t want to, so when a big opportunity finally arose, I was prepared. I had done the live show close to 200 times by the time this one came along. I have a staff of six people who make the show run like a Swiss watch. All of us were ready for our big moment and it showed.

When I first started doing the podcast I felt entitled. I thought, “I am Jimmy Carrane and I am getting these great guests. Why isn’t this an instant hit?” I was not ready. I look back and I am glad that this big show came when it did.

The hardest part of not giving up is you never know when the miracle is going to come. I think they call that faith. So whatever you do, if you believe in yourself or your own project, keep going. Don’t give up before the miracle happens.

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