Trial by Fire (Continued)
April 1, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
So, as I hung up the phone, I was shocked that I was hired by The Second City, and that I had to be at the theatre within the hour to do the show that night. I was sort of panicked. I had been shooting since dawn, but I had to change clothes and leave immediately to get to the theatre. Old Town didn’t have much parking available back then, and I didn’t know if I would even be able to find a parking space before the show started.
Sixteen of us were invited to perform that night, and we all found out about it at the last minute. Most of us didn’t even know one another. But we were being hired to improvise so we guessed this was part of the process. It all happened so fast, I really don’t remember much from that night. Each person who was asked to come that night had a strong personality and a distinctively interesting look. As we got to know each other, it was obvious we all had different backgrounds. Bill Murray, Betty Thomas, Alan Wittert, Dick Blasucci and R.C. Lieberman had the most improvisational experience at The Second City. Doug Steckler, Ken Smith and Patti Saladino were stand-up comedians. And there were several comedy actors like myself and Debbie Campion. Bill Murray and Betty Thomas went on to notable acting careers. Doug Steckler and Dick Blasucci went on to write for SCTV, and later, Dick became head writer of MADD TV. Ken Smith was a founding member of The Chicago Hysterical Society which launched the careers of many stand-up comedians. There were other actors there that night, but four of them left after the first night and never came back. Traditionally a cast consisted of seven members, and we all knew that we were competing for one of the seven slots.
It was a pretty exciting time at The Second City because they were opening the Canadian Second City Company in Toronto at the same time. So people like John Candy, Danny Ackroyd, and Gilda Radner were working with the Chicago Main Stage cast. Joe Flaherty who became a regular on SCTV was officially the director of the Touring Company Cast that I was part of. The Second City has always been a Mecca for comedy, and no other organization has ever developed more successful comedy talent. Fortunately, I have gotten to know and work with most of the cast members of The Second City going all the way back into the 1960’s. In a way, it is like being in a member of a fraternity. But, it was my first really big break. Up until that time, I had trouble finding an agent to represent me. Then suddenly I had several agents who wanted to sign me. When we took the stage each night, we never knew who might be sitting in the audience looking for talent. So we all regarded this opportunity as a significant one. There was always pressure and a sense of competition, but it taught all of us to be consistently good.
We eventually toured a “Best of The Second City Review”. Sometimes we would play really large theatres and concert sites. Even though none of us were stars at the time, when we were introduced, audiences would scream like we were rock stars. And the “Best of Review” was a killer show. So we all gained confidence, grew and prospered. Eventually, we got sent to Cleveland for an extended run in a night club, and we began to create our own Second City Review. The club was Pickle Bill’s, and it was located on the Cuyahoga River which spontaneously caught on fire from pollution. So, it was a natural disaster of a place to perform comedy. But the most notable thing that happened that summer was Water Gate. And our cast did lots of Water Gate scenes, and we returned to Chicago with great reviews of our original show, and we took over for the Main Stage Cast so they could have a vacation. As soon as the Main Stage Cast left town, both Time Magazine and The New York Times showed up to review our show because it contained Water Gate Scenes. Everybody at Second City was nervous about our cast getting reviewed by national critics -- but we got great reviews!
But, shortly thereafter, I got a call from the Army. After my last Saturday night performance at The Second City, I had to get on a cargo plane at O’Hare Field and fly to Fort Hood, Texas. So improvisation would have to wait.
As I mentioned, natural attrition started to take place the first night, and four people decided to leave. After the first night, we started to have rehearsals and learn about each other and the process at The Second City. Since I never took classes in improvisation at The Second City, I was pretty far behind most of the other people. But my acting and writing talents helped me remain competitive. When I was in college, my creative writing teachers thought I wrote too fast (One teacher actually told me it took Milton thirty years to write Paradise Lost.). But, once I started working with other comedy writers, I learned how to think even faster. Everyone in the cast was like Buddy and Sally on the Dick Van Dyke Show; they were like comedy writing machines that could create humor as fast as they could think. The pressure to create went up several notches as we created new bits each night in front of live audiences. I am glad I got that kind of opportunity. As I learned years later, professional writers are expected to write on demand. When you get to a certain point in your career, there is no such thing as writer’s block.