Since its beginnings in Chicago in 1959, The Second City improvisational theater troupe has attracted and nurtured some of the best-known names in comedy.
In the years where it has nurtured comedians, including Joan Rivers, Stephen Colbert and beyond, The Second City itself has changed too — from one Chicago theater to an entertainment company with media, education and theater branches, and two touring casts that take the company’s style of humor all around the country.
The latest Second City revue, “Happily Ever Laughter,” stops in Olympia on Sunday. It features a mix of classic sketches that remain relevant and new material inspired by what’s in the news — and a cast of comedians that just might yield a future Bill Murray or Tina Fey.
The Second City is known for smart, sharp-edged satire, a style that had a deep impact on “Saturday Night Live,” which began with such Second City alums as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Gilda Radner.
In a 2009 interview with Time magazine’s Christina Crapanzano, Second City co-owner and chief executive Andrew Alexander talked about what was expected of the theater’s performers: “Respect your audience. Keep the bar as high as you can. Don’t talk down to your audience, and don’t go for the obvious joke.”
While The Second City began with inspiration from the improvisational exercises of actress and teacher Viola Spolin, shows have long included sketches that were developed through improv and then formalized for performances.
“All of the sketches come from improv,” said Asher Perlman, part of the troupe that will perform in Olympia. “You pitch things and improvise them with your castmates.”
The show’s older sketches were improvised by Second City alums.
“One of my favorite scenes we do is a scene that was written by Stephen Colbert and other people,” said Perlman, formerly of Seattle. “It’s a spelling bee scene. It’s one of the scenes that I still laugh at when I watch it even though I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”
Perlman also really likes a sketch about two soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. “One of them develops a relationship with a local woman, and it results in a fully choreographed dance, which is a lot of fun,” he said.
There’s no guarantee of what you’ll see if you go to the show on Sunday night, though. The show continues to evolve, with the traveling cast returning to Chicago regularly to develop new material and rehearse.
“We try never to do the same scene twice in the same venue,” Perlman said. “It’s good for the audience and also good for us, because it gives us a chance to mix it up a lot.”
Performing a scene created by others is “kind of an interesting balancing act,” Perlman said.
“One of the scenes we do was written by Jason Sudeikis; he’s a ‘Saturday Night Live’ guy,” Perlman said. “When we were learning it, we watched a DVD of how the original performance was, and then rehearsed it, trying to stay as close to it as we could. We stay fairly true to the original with minor adjustments to make it work best for us.”
Perlman was an actor before joining The Second City. “I definitely consider myself a comedian and an improviser, but I try to keep the theatrical aspect of the show alive, too,” he said.
The theatrical elements set The Second City’s shows apart from other sketch comedy, with sketches referring back to earlier sketches throughout.
“It can feel more like a play,” he said. “There are overarching themes and an opening and a closing that bring things together.”
“The improvisations are a break from the rest of the show.”
The Second City: Happily Ever Laughter
What: The legendary sketch comedy and improv company stops in Olympia with a show that includes classic material as well as new elements.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
Tickets: $19-$42 for adults; $17-$38 for students, seniors and military; $9.50-$21 for youths
More information: 360-753-8586 or washingtoncenter.org