How Second City Shaped Comedy

A breeding ground for world-class comedians

In 1963, the Second City travelled North to Toronto after laying down its improv roots in the Windy City and simultaneously beginning a comedy revolution in North America. Founded by Bernard Sahlins and Paul Sills, what is now one of the most prolific comedy organizations in the world started as a student meetup at a bar in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

Toronto’s history with Second City is a wholesome one, beginning with a successful show at Royal Alexandra Theatre. The event is mainly attributed to the work of Second City’s co-founder Bernard Sahlins, who passed away in June 2013. According to the Toronto Star, Sahlins pushed for Toronto to hone its own Second City club after their first grassroots show was viewed as such a success by critics.

In the summer of 1973, 10 years after the success at the Royal Alexandra, a Second City nightclub was opened in Toronto on Adelaide street, officially pulling Toronto in to what is now viewed as an improvisational sketch comedy revolution. Auditions for the club recruited names such as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jayne Eastwood, and Gerry Salsberg.

“Toronto struck me as a younger Chicago,” Sahlins told the Toronto Star’s Martin Knelman during a recollection of Toronto’s birth into the enterprise “more innocent, sweeter, safer.”

Of course, those who are familiar with Second City’s history with Toronto know that the club ended up being closed its doors about six months later due to bankruptcy. The club was then moved to Lombard Street, and with a second chance discovered Canadian talents such as Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Andrea Martin. With an explosive lineup of talent, Second City’s second time around became an incredible success, naturally leading to its expansion into television with most of the original cast that debuted at the new Lombard Street location, also known as the Old Firehall. At the same time, Radner and Aykroyd introduced Canadian faces to a little comedy show known at the time as Saturday Night Live, alongside Canadian producer Lorne Michaels. Five years later Mike Meyers made his debut at Second City Toronto, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Now, after over 30 years of being here, Toronto is home to the only Second City location in Canada, making it a hive for improv comedy and theatre. Now located at 51 Mercer Street, the Second City theatre pops with local and international talent — the perfect place to spend a Saturday night in the city. But it’s not just the theatre only that makes Second City’s experience so unique, though it certainly is a main contributor; it’s the organization’s second location on Blue Jays Way that serves as strictly a training center for those looking to dive into the realms of comedy and sketch.

The Second City Training Center is a spark in Toronto that offers a community for those looking to expand their horizons. Not limited to comedy, the center also offers classes in public speaking, music, writing, storytelling, and much more. It’s a reflection of everything that Second City was born from — community, creativity, passion, and an unapologetic love for art.

If we count that initial Hyde Park meetup as the operation’s initial founding, Second City will turn 63 years old this year and will have been spreading its roots in Toronto for 45 of those years. It’s no secret that Toronto has been and continues to be significantly impacted by gentrification over the past decade, with historical staples such Honest Ed’s closing its doors after decades of being apart of the city’s heart. Now more than ever we need to hang on to those grassroots organizations that molded Toronto’s culture into what it is today. Lucky for us, people need comedy, and this has been proven time and time again by the sold out shows at the John Candy Box Theatre as well as the over 7,000 students that enroll annually in their training program.

And, as they say time and time again in show biz, the show must go on.

If you’re new to Second City and looking to checkout a show, visit their website or take a look at what classes they have to offer here.