Actors are always delighted when they're working, but Cecily Strong thinks her gig beats them all.
"There's nothing better than having a job where you're laughing every day, and you're making your co-workers laugh and other people laugh," she says.
She's one of five cast members of the Second City's Laugh Out Loud Tour, which comes to the Temple of Music and Art for two performances this weekend. Hosted by the Arizona Theatre Company, with whom the famed Second City seems to be building a tight relationship, the group returns for the third consecutive year with yet another brand-new show.
This one sounds like a trip down memory lane—one that rolls through 50 years of the Land of Hilarious.
Laugh Out Loud sounds like it could be called The Best of Second City, Vol. 1. There's no way that one show could contain all of the primo sketches Second City has developed over five decades.
Director Sabrina Harper explains how this show was put together.
"We always start with a premise, usually provided by our producers, and take off from there. For this show, it's trying to find some of the best sketches created over the years—ones which are still fresh and workable."
Trying to identify these sketches takes a lot of work.
"Second City has an archive—stacks of scripts and DVDs from over the years. So you start there, going through all these stacks and stacks. It's like the Library of Comedy."
Harper says that she has to weigh which sketches might work best for her particular group of actors, and which will cover a range of subjects—yet still fit together to create a satisfying whole.
Harper had long wanted to do standup comedy, but when she went to college, she majored in English. "Everyone thought I would teach, but I kept saying, 'No, I want to do standup.' I did my senior internship at a comedy club. I had to fight for it, but I did it."
Sometimes people don't quite understand what they're seeing at a Second City show, expecting that the whole thing is being improvised. Although there are always several improvisational skits being born right before the audience's eyes, most of what people see are sketches that have been developed through improvisation.
"We'll identify a subject which fits the premise, and start exploring that through improvisation. We take a look at what works, and then keep on experimenting until we hit pay dirt and realize we have a sketch which works really well." Harper says. "Then we will actually script it. It's so fun to watch a scene grow from a general idea to six or so actors doing these great characters to create a full-blown piece.
"Directing this kind of work really challenges my creative capacity, and it challenges me as a human being as well."
So that's sketch comedy.
"But in all our shows, we always include improvisation. And often, it involves audience members," she says. "The Laugh Out Loud show will definitely include actual improvisation with audience members."
Cecily Strong is originally from Chicago, although she headed west to attend the California Institute of the Arts. While in Los Angeles, she worked with The Groundlings, an improv group, and decided she liked that type of performing. So she returned to Chicago, knowing that she could find plenty of opportunities to grow her skills in the style.
"You really throw yourself into this," Strong says. "You're taking classes, working with coaches, and going to see other sketch comedy at night, in places like Improv Olympic and The Annoyance, as well as Second City. It's a big commitment."
Strong's first real gig for Second City was a four-month stretch on a cruise ship. Second City contracts with Norwegian Cruise Lines to provide onboard entertainment.
"My ship went from New York to Florida and the Bahamas," she remembers. "We did adult sketch shows, family-friendly improv shows and a murder-mystery show. We got a little seasick when we were chasing Hurricane Earl. There's nothing like trying to be funny when you're seasick."
There are a few reasons Strong prefers doing sketch comedy to straight theater.
"For one thing, I really love the character work. That's really my strength, and I'd have to wait for years until I was much older to actually get cast in those roles in straight theater.
"The other thing is that we get to do the scenes that really work for a certain combination of actors. We can always ask: What works best for this group? In a sense, everything we do is custom-made."
This company is slated to also include Warren Phynix Johnson, Kevin Sciretta, Cate Freedman and John Hartman. The musical director is Tilliski Ramey.
Second City has grown into a huge entity over its 52 years. Besides the "mother ship," as it is referred to, in Chicago—which includes three stages, a professional training program and community classes—there's a presence in Toronto and Hollywood. In addition to the cruise-ship tours, Second City has three companies touring the United States, such as this Laugh Out Loud Tour. There is also a division called Second City Theatricals, in which a full-length show is created for a specific city or group. ATC's The Second City Does Arizona, or Close but No Saguaro, part of its mainstage season two years ago, was commissioned by ATC for its audiences in Tucson and Phoenix. Of course, Second City continues to nurture first-rate comedic talent like Fred Willard, Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Other famous alums include John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray.
Both actor Strong and director Harper are passionate about their work. Harper says sketch comedy is like a living, breathing thing—always challenging and surprising. Strong says there's a lot of laughter and joy involved.
Yep. Nice work if you can get it.