Usually right before you start taking improv classes, you decide you would be awesome on “Saturday Night Live.” The track record of famous alums is why Second City draws more outsiders to the craft than any other theater. Hey, if it was good enough for Belushi, Farley, Carell, Fey, Colbert, Myers, Murray, Aykroyd, ad infinitum…
As I write this, Second City is hosting their 50th anniversary celebration. Chicago is teeming with celebrities. But when I look at the photos of the SC alums partying it up, I focus most on the people who didn’t hit it big. Once upon a time, they were on stage with those pre-stars. But things bounced differently for them.
If you are seeking fame through improv, you might as well hope to become an astronaut through improv.
Just because you’re the funniest one in your class, on your team or in the city, you’re not entitled to Hollywood success. Some of the funniest people I’ve ever seen can’t seem to catch a break. That’s because the formula to fame only has a little to do with your actual skill.
I went to see a talk given by Terry Jones of “Monty Python” a few months ago. A woman in the audience raised her hand and said, “I love what you have done and I would love to make TV and movies. How can I make that happen?” Jones smiled and said, “Be lucky.”
Luck has an unbelievable role in your ability to get famous. Sometimes, it’s how you look or how tall you are. Sometimes, it’s your skin color or your smile. Sometimes, it’s because you remind a casting director of someone else. But Hollywood is not merit-based. If it were, you and I could generate a long list of actors who don’t belong in the mansions they own.
As a part of the Second City 50th anniversary, the Chicago Tribune asked the 17 members of a beginning Second City improv class if they thought they were funny enough to be on “Saturday Night Live.” Five said yes. Someone alert Lorne Michaels.
When I got started at Second City, it was because of a brief passage in the John Belushi biography “Wired.” There was some magical place where he learned his craft. As I learned more about the theater, my head started spinning with how many famous actors they’d turned out. And yeah, I wanted to follow in their footsteps.
But my improv training has taught me to focus in the moment. If you make it to SNL someday, great. The odds say you won’t. But that’s not happening right now. Right now you owe it to your fellow actors to be committed and focused on the scene you’re in. You must soak up those classes. You must challenge yourself on stage. You must work on your craft.
The latest Chicago improv player to be hired by SNL is Michael Patrick O’Brien. (When he was here, we called him “Pat” or “P.O.B.”) I believe Pat is a genius. When he performed, he was utterly fearless. His shows were dangerous. And they were unconventional and weird. I loved watching him play. But since he’s been hired as a writer, I’ve been watching SNL, hoping for a whirlwind of his ideas, and I can tell his voice is being muted to some degree.
In the 1970s, SNL was looking for its identity. When they found it, every subsequent cast has been trying to emulate that formula. John Belushi begat Chris Farley, who begat Horatio Sanz, who begat Bobby Moynihan. When Lorne is casting, he’s looking for a chubby guy who can bring energy. So if you’re an energetic 120-pound stick figure, you don’t fit the mold. SNL is constantly trying to live up to its past. And that means they’re not really looking at their present, or toward the future.
I really wish the show would let writers like Pat do whatever they want. Let them explore new comedic ground. Let them toy with the show’s format. Let them break the fourth wall or try super-short scenes or super-long scenes. But the show is the show. It’s five-minute sketches, even if they should only be two minutes. It’s commercial breaks. It’s technical limitations. It’s a cast the writers don’t choose. It’s catchphrases. It’s mandatory recurring characters. It’s obligatory stabs at political satire. It’s guest hosts like Nancy Kerrigan or January Jones who couldn’t pull off a joke if their life depended on it.
When you read about writers and performers who leave SNL, most aren’t terribly complimentary about their time there. It’s because funny people are funny because of their unique point of view and how they express it. If you force them to change how they’re funny to fit a formula, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot.
You probably started improv because you wanted to follow your hero’s path. But you’re not that person. Your path will be different, even if you share some of the same stops along the way. So as you start this journey, listen to yourself. If you have an idea for a show, put it up. Make that video. Write that book. Collaborate with your friends and find your identity.
If you somehow get hired for Second City Mainstage and SNL, great. If not, celebrate the fact that you don’t have to ram your unique vision through someone else’s machine. Focus on what is right in front of you and the next step will become clear.
When Columbus jumped in a boat, he was headed for the Indies. The Indies didn’t happen. But what he discovered was pretty amazing.