Trial By Fire
March 26, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
In 1972, The Second City had been auditioning improvisational actors for months because the Main Stage Cast had featured the same cast for several years. I had only seen The Second City live on stage once before in my entire life, but I heard about the auditions, and I made a phone call to the theatre, and I was given an audition on the final Friday afternoon of the auditions. One of my major papers for my Masters of Theatre at Northwestern was about Comedia del Arte, which was an Italian form of Improvisational Comedy that influenced playwrights like Moliere and Shakespeare so I had a vague idea of how improvisation worked, but I had no formal training as an improviser. In the rare book library at Northwestern I came across a book by Flaminio Scala who took the time to write down all the plot outlines of the major Italian Comedia groups. As I read the outlines, it was obvious that they were the basis of every television comedy sit com. And to this day, improvisers post “Show Running Orders” in the wings. I was warned the audition would be four hours long. So, it was going to be a trial by fire.
The only other exposure I had to The Second City was listening to Nichols and May on the radio. My Mother was a ceramic artist, and I spent many Sunday afternoons working with my Father pouring molds for my Mother’s business. We had an old radio in the studio that stood almost four foot tall, and we would listen to Mike Nichols and Elaine May perform comedy bits that they created at The Compass Players (The forerunner of The Second City.). The bits were always wonderful. They carried on wonderful conversations that were very funny, and using words alone, created quirky characters and made a radio listening audience use their imaginations to visualize these characters for themselves. That is the great thing about improvisation and radio. You don’t need to have scenery, sets, props, costumes or scripts. All you need is words. Exposition sets the scene. The actors define the characters with their choice of words, and their conflicts evolve as they explore their mutual interests, likes and dislikes. Conflict creates both comedy and drama, but eventually there is always a resolution that leaves the audience laughing and wanting more. Nichols and May were brilliant and very intellectual. They could even make audiences laugh about philosophy and crack jokes about Bernard Baruch, one of the most famous philosophers of the day.
The afternoon I auditioned, I didn’t realize I was going to be auditioning against actors from all over the country. To this day, I am not sure what made me call The Second City when I did, and I’m not sure what I said to convince them to allow me to audition. But, I am sure my life would have been very different if I had not made that call. I wish I could say I was brilliant that day; there were actors like Bill Murray who learned by watching his brother Brian Doyle Murray on stage at The Second City. So my odds seemed very long indeed. But, I had done a lot of stage comedies and musicals, and I was used to performing comedy on big stages in front of very large audiences. And I always got laughs. And this might seem silly, but I think my ability to do physical comedy was what made the difference. As part of my graduate studies at Northwestern, I took a silent film class. As an actor, I became a great reactor to other actors and I seldom spoke. I was good at upstaging other actors when they turned away from me. After shows members of the audience would come up to me and say: “You are so cute to watch when you are up on the stage.”
I also was very good at doing characters with accents. Since I grew up in Cicero, no one’s native language was English so everyone spoke with accents. One of my best parts of the audition was walking through a revolving door as six different characters in a row and doing a comedy monologue. After I did that part of the audition, Del Close, the Director of The Second City at that time said to me: “I think you are going to be my next character man.” I also remember doing a medieval scene with Chicago actor and playwright John Green, and he fed me some of the best straight man lines of my career. Essentially we had an argument about whether a body of water was a stream or a very long narrow lake.
When I went home that night, I didn’t think I had much of a chance. It was not until later that I learned that I was working with the finalists for the cast. So, I chalked it up as a learning experience. I waited for a phone call, but it didn’t come. Since I was going to shoot a video on the following Monday, I worked on my lines all weekend. I left for the shoot very early Monday morning and shot all day. When I walked in the door of my apartment that night, the phone was ringing, and I reached it just in time. The stage manager at The Second City said I was picked to be a new cast member -- and he wanted me to come to the theatre immediately and do the show that night in front of a live audience.