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The Second City Does New Jersey

By Gary Wien

This article was originally designed to be read in the October 2014 issue of
New Jersey Stage magazine. To read it in its original format, click here

The legendary improvisation group The Second City is coming to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for shows on November 7th and 8th with a show that's somewhat different from their standard touring production. New Jersey Stage spoke with Kelly Leonard, Executive Vice President of Second City about the show and his upcoming book Yes, and

The Second City Does New Jersey: Paved and Confused is a show tailored to the Garden State. With our history of reality TV shows, mobsters, and industry I guess we made it pretty easy for you.
I don't think it's a stretch to think we could mine some comedy out of New Jersey. I went to school in Ithaca, NY for a year and I think about 50% of the school was from New Jersey, so I certainly picked up on some themes. You have a rich political history, both good and bad. There's the sports, the industry, the mob… I mean there's a million things and it's just a lot of characters and that's great fodder for comedy.

Does this show follow the setup of both scripted performance and improv?
Yes, it'll be a combination; mostly scripted with some improvisational stuff inside there. We're customizing a handful of scenes specifically for Newark and the state and we're also drawing on some of the classic Second City archives for additional material. We'll let the cast make up some stuff for the audience as well. It's a nice blend of everything that we do.

Do you have any sketches based on shows like The Housewives of New Jersey or Boardwalk Empire?
There's definitely that kind of stuff. Whether it's a line in a song or a scene or a full-out scene, we've got more material than we're going to use. What we do during the rehearsal process is figure out the stuff that hits the best. We'll wind up doing the funniest of the material, but it could change up until that night.

It's so sad that we give you more material than you need...
We happen to live in a city here in Chicago which is the same. We're very used to it.

Is there a standard Second City touring troupe?
There are 3 Second City touring companies that tour across the country. We've selected one of them to work on this show. It really is the next generation of great talent. This would be the same set up that Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Tina Fey had. They were all in the touring company and cut their teeth out on the road. The goal is to hopefully graduate to our residence stages and then on to fame and fortune. New Jersey is going to see the next generation of comedy's best and brightest!

So, basically everyone gets their feet wet with the touring company?
Yeah, it's a terrific system that was set up years and years ago. Thousands of people audition to get one or two slots a year. What they're doing is performing some of our classic sketches, getting an idea for stuff that works, and writing their own material and improvising with people who are just as good as you. Usually you're with the touring company for a couple of years. When you're traveling around in a van performing at performing arts centers, schools, and for businesses, you just get good. You do so many dates and even when you're not on stage you're exchanging ideas and bits with your fellow cast mates. It's a dynamic way to get very, very good at this specific type of work.

Does the show have its own scenery or props?
Second City is very nimble. We are normally 6 chairs and that's what we're focused on. There aren't elaborate sets or costumes. We kind of travel with a duffel bag. That's the Second City style and method that's made us successful for 55 years.

What do you think it is about improv that's kept it interesting for 55 years?
Well, improvisation is an incredibly powerful tool for basically creating something out of nothing. I often say that improv is like yoga for your social skills. In improvisation, you're doing practice to do deep lifting to stay in the moment. You have to say 'yes, and' and can't say no to an idea. It's really a laboratory for innovation and creativity.

Unlike a lot of theatre companies, we train up our talent. We have our talent perform and then we let them go, we don't try to hold on to them. That leaves room for the next generation of folks to come through. I think many businesses would look at it this way: if you're training all of this talent and you're spending all this money on them and they're yours, wouldn't you want to keep them? And while that's a perfectly natural instinct, I think the fact that it wasn't our setup here has allowed this work to be fresh for all of the new generations. It's a magical system that was already here when I walked through these doors 26 years ago. And so for us, we're sort of care-taking the next part of this arc of history at Second City. Our job is not to screw with the things that work, but to also recognize that it's an artistic endeavor and you've got to take risks, you've got to fail, and you've got to try new things. And we're doing that. We do that all of the time, but the core things and the stuff is what's made us so successful.

Tell me about your book, Yes, and. Is it about improv, Second City, or a little of both?
It's a little of both. It's a book I co-wrote with Tom Yorton that is coming out in February with Harper Collins. It's basically the 7 principals of improvisation and talks about how they play out at Second City and have they've played out when we've worked with other businesses and how they can play out in your own life.

"Yes, and" is the sticky center of improvisation. The idea is that if you say 'no' at the start of any brainstorming session, it'll go nowhere. You can't build anything original or new if you say no. You have to start with 'yes, and' and not just affirm but contribute. One of the things we do often when we go into businesses is task people with going one day where you can't say no. It's really, really hard. But what you recognize when you eliminate that from your vocabulary is that you just might allow one of those crazy ideas that could be a gem to find its way through where before it never would have gotten there. It's the heart and soul of improvisation and I think it's key to what's made us successful.

The book also has backstage stories on a lot of the famous alumni and some of the work we've done with groups like Major League Baseball. Hopefully, it's going to be interesting to people who want to get an idea into what we do here, but also we feel improvisation is a cutting-edge methodology that - if you look around the world today - more people are recognizing is important.

For more by this author, click here

John Mulaney & Pete Davidson To Perform At Count Basie Center For The Arts
(RED BANK, NJ) -- Comedian John Mulaney and Pete Davidson will perfom at Count Basie Center for The Arts on Sunday, February 17 at 10:00pm. Tickets are $49.
Russell Peters To Perform Two Shows at NJPAC
(NEWARK, NJ) -- Emmy and Peabody Award-winning comedian Russell Peters will leave no cultural stereotype unturned when he brings his brand-new Deported World Tour to NJPAC’s Prudential Hall on Saturday, February 16.  Due to popular demand, there will be two performances: one at 7:00pm and another at 9:30pm.  Tickets range from $49 to $99.
Johnny Peers and the Muttville Comix To Perform at MPAC
(MORRISTOWN, NJ) -- Sit! Stay! Get ready to howl! Johnny Peers and his personality-plus canines are coming to Mayo Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 3 at 1:30pm and 4:30pm. Johnny Peers and the Muttville Comix is a slapstick comedy act like no other. Johnny leads over a dozen dogs through challenging and hilarious tricks as Johnny plays the straight man role in this wonderful show. This event is for the dog lover in all of us stars mostly animals rescued from shelters or pounds.Tickets are $12-$15.
Ladies Night Out Comedy Tour To Come To NJPAC on March 9th
(NEWARK, NJ) -- Calling all ladies! Ladies Night Out Comedy Tour makes a stop at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, March 9, 2019 at 8:00pm. NeNe Leakes (Real Housewives of Atlanta) hosts this outrageous stand-up comedy event featuring Adele Givens (the big-screen Beauty Shop), Sherri Shepherd (former longtime host on The View), Loni Love (co-host of Fox’s Emmy-winning The Real), and Janelle James (of HBO’s current Crashing).
State Theatre New Jersey presents Ron White
(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- State Theatre New Jersey presents comedian Ron White on Thursday, January 17, 2019 at 8:00pm. Also known as Ron “Tater Salad” White first rose to fame as the cigar-smoking, scotch-drinking funnyman from the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” phenomenon, and has long since established himself as a star in his own right. Tickets range from $45-$85.

A Look At 2 Guys From Jersey
In issue 50, New Jersey Stage gave readers the opportunity to learn more about the writers who contribute to the magazine and the daily site. We’d like to give you the opportunity to learn more about the two shows that are featured in our magazine each month.  One is a podcast called 2 Guys From Jersey that runs a new episode every Wednesday. It involves Dr. D, Rocky, and Erin (a recent addition to the team) trying to settle trivial bar arguments that have plagued mankind for centuries.
"Legal Immigrant" Alan Cumming Brings His Cabaret To State Theatre New Jersey
It was the fall of 2008. Barack Obama had just been elected president. And Scottish-born actor Alan Cumming was sworn in as a citizen of the United States.
“Hysterical!” Gallagher LIVE! at The Strand Lakewood
Gallagher is joking with patrons in the lobby of Lakewood, NJ’s historic Strand Theater this Thursday, May 24, 2018 evening. In his audacious style, he’s grabbing cameras out of the hands of patrons who want to take great selfies with him, while also taking the time to sign T-shirts for stand-up comedy fans waiting for him at the merch table.
So You Want To Be A Comedian?
“I feel I have the kind of life where people think I’m making things up all of the time, but weirdness is kind of attracted to me,” said Jess Alaimo, a comedian from Monmouth County.  “So, I just go with whatever happens to me.”
The United States of Russia
Rutgers alum, Ben Rosenfeld released his third comedy album in January.  Entitled, The United States of Russia, the album was released by Comedy Dynamics and continues the Russia born, American raised comedian’s style of mixing tales of his immigrant parents and outsider childhood with topics ranging from millennials, terrorism, politics, and adjusting to life as a newlywed.  We caught up with Ben to talk about the album.

Event calendar
Thursday, Jan 17, 2019


Open Mic Night! @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 7:30pm


"Apple Season" by E.M. Lewis @ New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch - 8:00pm


AMERICAN GIRL LIVE @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 7:00pm

View all events

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