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Second City: First Family of Comedy (2006)

by on 2012/09/20


“A lot of it was dross, but there was gold too.”

* * *

Isn’t it always the way? When you want to get something over with, it proves unusually complex. Such has been the sifting through my notes on this Second City documentary, The First Family of Comedy, produced by the CBC, and heavily infused with Canadian content.

Clearly aired in three hour-long blocks, taken as a whole there’s a fair bit of unevenness and repetition, repetition, repetition.

The first episode tracks the original 1950s troupe from the University of Chicago, performing Shakespeare, through their adoption of the “Second City” moniker, hosting at a Beatnik cafe, to touring the world, splintering, and settling in Toronto.

Next, we learn about SCTV, motivated by the Seventies’ unsuccessful dinner theatre, and the simultaneous threat of Saturday Night Live in New York.

Finally, we follow the careers of two latter-day alumni — Canadian Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) and American Tina Fey — and the evolution of Second City into a franchise of improv services.

Threaded throughout the history, we learn the basics common to most of the players. They tend to coexist between the worlds of writing and acting. Half their material is recycled from successful shows gone by, while the rest is improvised, and sometimes based on audience suggestions. They prefer characters and situations to standard jokes and punchlines. They break taboos, yet rarely swear or use profanity. Inexperience often makes them daring enough to succeed. And so on.

The list of disciples surprised me. I wouldn’t have thought of many as “comedians”, though some claim the Second City lessons have other applications. Familiar faces included: Alan Arkin (Gattaca), Ed Asner (Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays), Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein), Jayne Eastwood, Patrick McKenna (Duct Tape Forever), Colin Mochrie (Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town), Joan Rivers, Ryan Stiles, and Fred Willard (This Is Spinal Tap) . . . as well as most cast members of SCTV and a few SNLers, appearing in new interviews or in archival footage.

Some, like John Belushi and John Candy (Canadian Bacon) appear prior to their deaths. Others, like Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone), appear in vintage clips. Conspicuous by his absence was one of my favourites, Eugene Levy. He’s still alive! Was he too busy making yet another in the series of American Pies?

Each episode’s tone is further influenced by the person hosting it. Dave Thomas (Strange Brew) in the first takes a cheesy, groaner approach. Scott Thompson (Brain Candy) in between them is much more edgy and provocative. Joe Flaherty (The Wrong Guy) in the third is all about straight-ahead to business.

This inconsistency of styles doesn’t lend itself well to one sitting. I’d strongly recommend watching them in separate viewings, unless you’re starved for Second City, and don’t mind details being repeated.

And now, because I’m running out of space, still have two points to make, and think it’s “funnier” not to bother with a segue, I’m going to shoehorn them in before I go.

I was struck — pleasantly so — by this CBC documentary including references and images related to competitors. Granted they’re a public network, but the effect was rather striking, compared to other productions — I’m looking at you, Terry — with more narcissistic histories.

I also found it funny that the original venue would have been closed down due to a fire code violation, given they later occupied a firehall. Not “ha ha” funny, admittedly, but certainly ironic.

So, yeah, that’s it. In short, there’s some good stuff in First Family of Comedy, though you do have to sit — and sift — to get to it.

Now, get out of here. Don’t make me improvise a better ending.

* * *

Not Rated

Approx 128 minutes total (three episodes, 43 minutes each)

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