Second to none
Second City comedy troupe set to perform legendary company’s greatest scenes Tuesday at the Alex
By Carl Kozlowski 03/14/2013
Kate Lambert never thought about performing comedy until her family moved to the Chicago suburbs when she was about to enter eighth grade. Then one night, everything changed when her parents took her to see a night of improvisational and sketch comedy at The Second City theater in the heart of the Windy City.
Second City had already been in existence for decades, having revolutionized modern American comedy since opening its doors in 1959. In the years since, it had served as the top springboard to comedy stardom with the National Lampoon and “Saturday Night Live” and beyond, giving the world the talents of hundreds of mirth masters ranging from Alan Arkin, John Belushi and Stephen Colbert to Steve Carell, Tina Fey and superstar writer-director Adam McKay.
When she had a roommate back out in New York City after college, Lambert decided to stay in Chicago and study at The Second City Conservatory, as well as its Music Improv Program. That effort paid off when she was hired for the institution’s prestigious TourCo, taking the first big step on her own hopeful ride to fame and fortune — a ride that brings her to the Alex Theatre on Tuesday night for a special show called “Second City: Laughing Matters,” performing the theater group’s most famous scenes.
“Something that pushed me was when I read this interview that Matt Damon did where he said you can’t wait for the work you want to do to come around, you have to create it,” says Lambert. “So I tried to be as proactive as possible. I was constantly performing and writing in shows, doing improv and writing and acting in online shorts. I was then hired in 2010 to work for The Second City on Norwegian Cruise Lines, and after that, I was hired for the Touring Company.”
The Second City TourCos were started in the mid-1960s and have since grown to include three permanent ensembles crisscrossing the country. Extra troupes are sometimes added during the particularly busy seasons in the spring and fall, with the grand total of performances topping out at more than 300 each year, including regular Monday night shows on The Second City Mainstage.
While the majority of these “Best-Of” shows are plucked from the best scenes of Mainstage history, the young performers get to develop their writing skills on the road, particularly with material aimed at college crowds. They also write holiday-specific material, since Mainstage shows rarely have a need for it.
Among those who developed their artistic skills in a TourCo without ever hitting the Mainstage are three of comedy’s top actresses: Emmy winner Jane Lynch of “Glee,” Amy Poehler of “Parks and Recreation,” and timeless TV favorite Julia Louis-Dreyfus of everything from “Seinfeld” to “Veep.” Clearly, working for Second City teaches actors how to score laughs. But do the TourCo members ever learn when they’ve taken their comedic jousting too far?
“Our aim is to provide a comedy that makes people think and to generate discussion, so we’re not likely to back away from making a socially relevant or political argument,” says Joseph Ruffner, associate producer of The Second City Touring Co. “We always want to win over and keep the audience — and there are enough targets on both sides of the aisle that we happily will call out either. A big part of working on the road is learning that the lines are blurry, and sometimes you have to step right up to it in order to know exactly where it is. And sometimes, you jump. The audience will always let you know if you’ve gone too far.”
That thought is seconded by Kellen Alexander, a member of the troupe performing at the Alex. A native of the Cleveland suburb of Strongsberry, Ohio, he will celebrate one year with TourCo in April. In his time with the troupe, Alexander has noticed that audiences sometimes criticize the shows from completely unexpected angles, such as when a Pacific Northwest audience booed them for having “tired jokes about lesbians,” even though they’ll greatly enjoy the overall shows.
“Often times, some people don’t have the patience to actually think about the material critically, and when they hear the word ‘Jesus’ or ‘conservative,’ they just freak out, stop listening and decide to get offended without thinking about what is actually being said,” says Alexander. “Personally, I think being able to find the humor and laugh at one’s faith or political views is a sign that you believe strongly enough in your views that they can’t be shaken by a couple of jokes.”
Above all else, of course, is the simple desire to make audiences from any and all of the 50 states and both sides of the political fence laugh. And Lambert is making certain she savors every moment.
“It is really rewarding to go someplace and have people take time out of their lives to come and see you perform so that they can have fun and laugh,” says Lambert. “No matter how many shows we do, that is always a big thrill for me. And with the improv we do in shows, it makes every performance we do different and special. We have this unique experience with the people that were at that specific show on a certain night. So, I guess technically, we have inside jokes with thousands of people all around the country, which is a pretty cool thing to have.”
“Second City: Laughing Matters” will be performed at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets are $ 30 through Friday and $40 after Friday. Call (818) 243-2539 (ALEX) or visit alextheatre.org.