In 1970, Andrew Alexander was producing a late-night comedy show at a Toronto club featuring emerging talents like Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. Later that year, while working at the Ivanhoe Theater in Chicago, he saw The Second City—a live comedy show inspired by audience participation and improvisation—and immediately felt a connection to the work.
Learning that an earlier expansion into Toronto had failed, Alexander structured a deal with The Second City’s owners, borrowed $7,000 and took over the Canadian rights—and debts—re-launching in Toronto in 1974. Second City Television (later SCTV) followed two years later and, in 1985, Alexander became co-owner of the Chicago outpost.
More than 40 years later, The Second City’s programming continues to engage audiences with biting political and social satire and silly comedy and cultivates the largest school of improv and sketch comedy in the world. Not bad for a self-described vagabond who “flunked out of college.”
Describe those early years with The Second City.
It was hand-to-mouth in those early years. That first cast was pretty illustrious: Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, Martin Short—that, for me, was a special group of people.
What’s behind the company’s success in Chicago and Toronto?
Both cities have strong foundations in the theatre community. Actors get a chance to learn their craft. It’s not New York or Hollywood, so you’re not under the same scrutiny.
How do you spot an emerging star?
We’re ensemble based, so it’s not a star system. Overall, a lot has to do with when they leave The Second City; small parts in movies or TV, and luck plays an important part. Steve Carell had a small part in [the 2004 film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy] and killed it, and that launched his career.
Where do you find emerging talent?
We have [training centres] in Toronto, Chicago and Hollywood, with 33,000 enrollments per year. We find talent there and put them into one of our 12 national touring companies. From there, they go on to one of our stages in Toronto or Chicago. There are a lot of our people in the industry—directors, writers, producers and show runners working on major sitcoms; a lot of our talent not only go on to star in TV and movies, they also work behind the scenes.
How do you develop material?
After the regular part of the show, there’s a 20- to 30-minute improvisation session. The improvisation is a tool to build material. That session develops new material for the next show—you’re always in process.
Our education programs are important and something we continually focus on. We launched the Harold Ramis Film School in Chicago last year, which is focused mainly on students who are interested in film, story and narrative. There is no other school in North America that [focuses entirely] on film comedy.
What do you love most about your role?
Seeing a bunch of new young talent on opening night is still a highlight for me.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of how my staff and actors and the city of Chicago pulled together when we had a significant fire in Chicago in 2015. The insurance company said it would take four months to get back up and running. We did it in three weeks.
Where do you get your business savvy?
By making a ton of mistakes. I wasn’t a great student; I learned through making mistakes and surviving. If you can make 49 per cent mistakes and be right 51 per cent of the time, you’re probably going to be okay.