Feature

Bernard Sahlins, 1922–2013

The comic impresario who founded Second City

Bernard Sahlins’s Second City comedy theater in Chicago helped turn improvisational sketch comedy into an art form, and introduced generations of comedians to the world, from Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd to Tina Fey and Steve Carell. The cigar-chomping Sahlins, known for his caustic wit, once greeted a six-person cast after a performance with characteristic praise: “Five of you were terrific!”

Sahlins began his career as a producer of “legitimate, dramatic theater,” said the Chicago Tribune. He co-founded the Playwrights Theatre Club in the 1950s, which featured actors such as Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May. But he and many of those actors also performed with the Compass Players, where they essentially “invented improvisation—in its current context, at least.” Nichols and May took their act to New York, but Sahlins stayed in Chicago to open a 120-seat cabaret theater in 1959 called The Second City, named after a “snotty New Yorker article” about Chicago. “The institution would go on to revolutionize American comedy.”

Sahlins intended Second City to be a kind of “coffee house,” he said, where “idlers could loll around and put the world in its proper place,” said the Chicago Sun-Times. But the satirical, wildly creative comedy on its stage soon turned it into a Chicago institution. In the 1970s, the theater attracted a “younger, shaggier” crowd of comics, including a “Wheaton-bred bulldog named John Belushi.” His anarchic, physical style of comedy brought Second City bigger audiences and national attention. When Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, the venue “became a poaching ground for TV types”—making superstars out of Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and many other alums.

Sahlins had a “businessman’s ruthlessness” and an obstinacy that led him to fall out with many creative contemporaries, said AVClub.com. One of his biggest feuds was with “legendary Chicago improv guru” Del Close, over the nature of improvisation itself. Close considered improv an art form, whereas Sahlins viewed it as a tool to create something “scripted and repeatable.” The pair reconciled on Close’s deathbed, when Sahlins agreed that Close was right—with the “tacit understanding” that after Close died, Sahlins “would go back to saying he’d been nuts.”

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