Listing the notable talents who learned their craft at Chicago’s improvisational theater The Second City is de rigueur for any article that covers the troupe’s illustrious past, so that’s what I’ll do right here. The early casts included Alan Arkin, both Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Del Close (who essentially founded the rigorous form of improv that has blossomed in the last 15 years or so), Joan Rivers, Fred Willard, Peter Boyle, and Robert Klein. In the early to mid-1970s a healthy chunk of the people who would dominate American comedy for the next few decades passed through its doors, including Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle-Murray and his little brother Bill, Shelley Long, Dan Aykroyd, and virtually the entire cast of SCTV, which isn’t very surprising, considering that the name stands for “Second City Television.”
John Belushi was the closest thing American comedy had to a rock star in the 1970s, and his untimely death in 1982 from a cocaine overdose only cemented his outsized legend. By the time he hit Saturday Night Live, Belushi had honed his ungainly and manic brilliance through years of training on stages like that of Second City. Joe Flaherty, while never as big a star as Belushi, was and is similarly a consummate pro, doing a ridiculous number of celebrity impersonations on SCTV as well as enhancing projects as diverse as Johnny Dangerously, Heavy Metal, Detroit Rock City, Used Cars, 1941, Stripes, and, best of all, Freaks and Geeks.
The comedy blog Splitsider recently posted a delicious clip, from Second City’s own archives, that dates from 1971, and it just has to be one of the very earliest records we have of John Belushi plying his craft. Deriving from Second City’s 41st revue from 1971, titled No, No Wilmette, the sketch is called simply “Jail” and it’s a pleasure to watch Belushi’s patient and skillful underplaying. It’s not every sketch that features the hasty preparation for a suicide, as this one does, which might serve as an index to the “revolutionary/countercultural” identity of the Second City players at that time.