Lessons from The Second City

In case you haven’t heard of The Second City, it is a  comedy troupe that started in Chicago (2nd Largest U.S. City behind New York for years, and my hometown)way back in 1959.

Second City was the “training ground for a host of famous alumni including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and over 500 more.

Second City’s claim to fame is IMPROVISATIONAL COMEDY, as opposed to scripted and memorized comedy.

Sound familiar?

Kind of like a certain martial art you know about?

One of Second City’s central tenets is that improvisational comedy CAN BE TAUGHT…anyone can learn how to do it.

We all see Tiny Fey or Steve Carrell and jump to the wrong conclusion, that they were born funny.

Nope, they were made funny through training.  Sure, they might have had a sense of humor to begin with, but Second City honed it into razor-sharp wit.

Second, is that Second City has developed a (gasp!) structured program to teach its students these impov skills.

Second City has an entire course catalog on various aspects of improv comedy…made up on the spot….no memorized techniques…just comedy principles.

They even have (double gasp!) prerequisite courses before taking advanced improv courses….why bother teaching advanced skills when the students don’t have a foundation, or even been exposed to one?

Here are a few examples of Course Offerings:  Movement,  Movement for the Improviser & Stage Combat


This is a fundamentals movement class in which the student
learns to express themselves physically while using their
instincts and intuitions. Basic skills like relaxation,
stretching, and improvised movement are explored in this
class. The tools obtained in this class will serve as the foundation for any performer’s physical performance.

Movement for the Improviser

Stop performing from the neck up! Working through
movement exercises will ignite your improv and sketch work
with energy and vivid physical expression. Silent scenes,
character exercises, and basic choreography will give you
access to a wider range of characters to play and bring new
life to both your independent work and work within an
ensemble. Slow down the chatter in your scenes, penetrate
the silence, and gain confidence with moving to song and
music onstage.

Stage Combat

Have you ever wanted to learn how to slap someone, deliver a
punch to the stomach, or how to fall without hurting yourself
in the process? This is the class for you! This Stage Combat
class focuses on the skills needed to protect the actor and
their instrument when engaged in stage violence. A working
knowledge of stage combat is essential to any performer’s
training and this class will give you those fundamental skills.

Prerequisite: Acting 2 or Improv Level B

The act of improvisation relies on the brain’s language centers, which makes sense because there is a “back and forth” just like a dialogue.

In contrast, the act of rote memorization — whether it be comedy, jazz music or martial arts — uses different parts of the brain other than the language centers.

This means that there are two different skills being developed here.

It also explains why people who are good at memorizing aren’t necessarily (and often aren’t) good at improvising…UNLESS they practice improvising.

What Second City excels at is linking these two skills, learning simple techniques/principles and improvising off of them.

Here is one exercise from The Second City that gets students in the improv mode:

“Yes, and…”

I noticed all the “yes, ands..” at a Second City performance years ago.  I realized they were doing it, but at the time didn’t know why.

Now I know.

First, yes.  Saying yes accepts whatever the first performer floats out there — there is no mental resistance to what the improviser has just been given.

No matter what the first performer says, the second person doesn’t contradict it or judge it.  It keeps performers from thinking, “why did you just say something so stupid?  What am I supposed to do with THAT?”

In Systema, this translates into taking whatever the attacker gives you and moving with it, along with whatever first move your body makes as a result.  It keeps you from getting mentally stuck and thinking what SHOULD you do.

There is no should.  (Do or do not).

Saying yes takes out the initial tension and fear from the encounter.  I often have my students also think to themselves, “huh? now that’s interesting…”

Next is the and…

And leads the performer into his rebuttal.  It also gives him time to formulate a quick, witty response.  He can latch on to any component of the sentence he was given and morph it into comedy.

“Yesterday my wife served me liver for breakfast.”

“Yes, and…how did your liver taste?” (in Scottish accent. me=my in this case)

The improviser had the time to focus on the word liver and make an interpretation of me into my, messing with the sentence structure.

In Systema, the and comes from accepting the attack and just moving anywhere.  It gives you time to find something, anything to work with and see what happens.

Not all Second City improv is stellar comedy.  Some jokes bomb and others are mildly amusing, but getting performers to keep throwing things out there eventually gets the big laughs.

Not all self-defense encounters in Systema class are perfect.  Class is full of “Let’s try that again” and “partly successful defenses” that are good enough to protect you but not necessarily win the fight.

That’s called learning.

Improv and spontaneous self-defense, as Systema teaches, both benefit from principles internalized and applied in specific situations, always building on success.

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