The man who improved improv

June 3, 2008
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Half my lifetime ago, I journeyed across the country from East Coast to West and found myself on my own for a few days in Los Angeles. Looking for some cheap entertainment, I picked up a $6 ticket to see something called "Sills & Company."

As a self-directed student of comedy, I knew that Paul Sills was one of the founders of Chicago’s famed Second City.

The "and Company" were, according to the brief listing in the free paper I picked up, Sills' friends, former students and Second City alumni.

"Should be interesting," I thought. It was more than that.

On cheap bleachers in what I remember as a community center gymnasium (I could be wrong), Sills oversaw an evening of gimmick-free improvisation featuring a jaw-dropping lineup including Paul Dooley (the father in "Breaking Away"), Valerie Harper (TV's "Rhoda"), Tony Award-winner Severn Darden, Richard Libertini (hilarious in "The In-Laws" and “All of Me”), Avery Schreiber (of the comedy duo Burns and Schreiber) and Mina Kolb (now best known for playing Jeff's mother on "Curb Your Enthusiasm).

As a movie and TV geek, I recognized every one of them. And I was awed watching them create something out of nothing. Their work was hilarious but it wasn't about cheap punch lines. Characters came to life. Joy happened.

And between sets, the group of established professionals dutifully, worshipfully, took notes from Sills and a woman who I later learned was Viola Spolin, Sills' mother and the creator of many of the games and exercises that have become the fundation of theatrical improvisation. That these pros still cared about the opinions of their mentors stuck with me.

I still think about that evening. And I thought about it moments ago when I learned that, on Monday, Paul Sills passed away.

And while I don't want this blog to turn into the arts obit page, I can't help but note the man who helped shape Second City, which in turn shaped modern comedy. And one of the people who helped shape my love and respect for acting.

Today, my thoughts are with The Second City family and the universe of people that Sills influenced.
  • What an amazing line up you were able to witness that evening! In a book I have on the history of Second City, I'm amazed looking at the photos of the early years, with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Robert Klein, Alan Arkin, Fred Willard, Peter Boyle and then the next generation, with Joe Flaherty, Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Bill Murray, you name it. Anyone of note in American comedy did their time at Second City.

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  1. I think the poster was being sarcastic and only posting or making fun of what is usually posted on here about anything being built in BR or d'town for that matter.

  2. Great news IRL fans: TURBO the IMS sanctioned movie about slugs running the Indy 500 has caught the Securities and Exchange Commission because Dreamworks had to take a $132MILLION write down...because the movie was such a flop. See, the Indy/IMS magic soiled another pair of drawers. Bwahahahahahaha! How's CARTOWN doing? HAHAHAHA...Indy is for losers.

  3. So disappointed in WIBC. This is the last straw to lose a good local morning program. I used to be able to rely on WIBC to give me good local information, news, weather and traffic on my 45 minute commute.Two incidents when I needed local, accurate information regarding severe weather were the first signs I could not now rely on WIBC. I work weekend 12 hour nights for a downtown hospital. This past winter when we had the worst snowfall in my 50 years of life, I came home on a Sunday morning, went to sleep (because I was to go back in Sunday night for another 12 hour shift), and woke up around 1 p.m. to a house with no electricity. I keep an old battery powered radio around and turned on WIBC to see what was going on with the winter storm and the roads and the power outage. Sigh. Only policital stuff. Not even a break in to update on the winter storm warning. The second weather incident occurred when I was driving home during a severe thunderstorm a few months ago. I had already gotten a call from my husband that a tornado warning was just southwest of where I had been. I turned to WIBC to find out what direction the storm was headed so I could figure out a route home, only to find Rush on the air, and again, no breaking away from this stupidity to give me information. Thank God for my phone, which gave me the warning that I was driving in an area where a tornado was seen. Thanks for nothing WIBC. Good luck to you, Steve! We need more of you and not the politics of hatred that WIBC wants to shove at us. Good thing I have Satellite radio.

  4. I read the retail roundup article and tried Burritos and Beers tonight. I'm glad I did, for the food was great. Fresh authentic Mexican food. Great seasoning on the carne asada. A must try!!! Thanks for sharing.

  5. John, unfortunately CTRWD wants to put the tank(s) right next to a nature preserve and at the southern entrance to Carmel off of Keystone. Not exactly the kind of message you want to send to residents and visitors (come see our tanks as you enter our city and we build stuff in nature preserves...