Obituary: Bernard Sahlins / A patriarch of sketch comedy

Aug. 20, 1922 - June 16, 2013


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Bernard Sahlins, a founder and former owner of the Second City, the Chicago nightclub that helped establish improvisational sketch comedy as a rudiment of American entertainment and created a resident troupe that propelled the careers of myriad funnymen and women, died on Sunday at his home in Chicago. He was 90.

He recently learned he had pancreatic cancer, his wife, Jane, said in confirming the death.

An argument can be made that Mr. Sahlins (pronounced SAHL-ins), the last survivor of the Second City's three founders and for many years a producer and director, was unequaled in his influence on American comedy in the late 20th century.

By now, the Second City may be responsible for making more people laugh than any other single entity -- in the Western Hemisphere, anyway. The Chicago alumni make up a staggering roster of talent that spans generations -- from Alan Arkin and Robert Klein to John Belushi and Bill Murray to Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

In the 1970s the Second City established a second resident theater, in Toronto, whose troupes have included Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Martin Short, and created the television show "SCTV." The Second City now operates four international touring companies and performance training schools in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles, which enroll 20,000 students annually.

Mr. Sahlins was the chief cook and bottle washer at the Second City for a quarter-century. Neither of his co-founders, the director Paul Sills and the actor Howard Alk, had any business experience when they opened the club in December 1959 in what had been a Chinese laundry. (In his 2002 memoir, "Days and Nights at the Second City," Mr. Sahlins recalled that for several weeks after the opening, people would arrive with tickets to claim their clothes.) But it was an immediate success at a time when theater in Chicago was largely confined to tryouts of Broadway-bound shows and when the rimshot humor of Bob Hope and Henny Youngman was still the essence of mainstream comedy.

"We were committed to mischief," Mr. Sahlins said in an interview at the Second City's 40th-anniversary celebration in 1999. "We had a golden opportunity. McCarthyism had chilled everything, and comedy was a lot of mother-in-law jokes. There wasn't any political humor. All you had to do was go out onstage and say 'Eisenhower,' and everybody had an orgasm."

From the start the shows were of a specific type: a series of sketches, some loosely connected by overlapping characters, that were written by the performers and polished under the guidance of a director during improvisatory rehearsals. Improvisations remained part of the program -- audience members were solicited for, say, song titles or favorite foods as the spur for a comic riff -- but they were plugged in to the structure of the performance.

The method was derived in part from the innovative theater games created by Viola Spolin, an influential teacher (and Mr. Sills' mother), and the ideas of David Shepherd, who had founded the Compass Players, a Chicago troupe whose own improvisatory practice was based on the European tradition of commedia dell'arte.

In addition to his business savvy -- he had been an owner of a company that manufactured tape recorders -- Mr. Sahlins contributed a sense of conventional theater. He had produced legitimate dramas in downtown Chicago, and he was always firm in the belief that improvisation was a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

"Improvisation is not a presentational form, except in small doses, or as a game," Mr. Sahlins said. "It's a tool."

This attitude led to conflicts within the company, notably with Del Close, a director, performer and mentor to many performers there, who insisted that improv was an art form all its own. Close, who died in 1999, exacted a concession from Mr. Sahlins on his deathbed -- sort of.

"For today, it's an art form," Mr. Sahlins reportedly said.

Mr. Sahlins was born on Aug. 20, 1922, in Chicago, where his father was a doctor. He took a roundabout path to the theater, studying mathematics at the University of Chicago and eventually entering the tape recorder business. (He sold his share of the company in the late 1950s.) He was involved as a producer and administrator of the Playwrights Theater Club, a predecessor of the Compass Players that included Mr. Sills and Mr. Shepherd and the young performers Mike Nichols and Elaine May. When Mr. Sills and Mr. Shepherd started Compass, Mr. Sahlins went off on his own, producing shows at the Studebaker Theater, including the Chicago premiere of "Waiting for Godot."

"I'll never forget a production we did of 'Lysistrata' with Mike and Elaine," he said in "Something Wonderful Right Away," Jeffrey Sweet's oral history of the Second City and Compass. He recalled that Claudia Cassidy, a local critic well known for her acerbic reviews, called it "the worst production in 2,000 years."

Mr. Sahlins' first marriage ended in divorce. He married Jane Nicholl in 1969. In addition to her, he is survived by a brother, Marshall, a noted anthropologist. A daughter, Lee Sherry, died last year.

Some of the astringent tactics Mr. Sahlins used to keep the Second City afloat created resentment, most notably his insistence that material developed by the troupe remained the intellectual property of the Second City and not the individual performers.

In 1984 Mr. Sahlins sold the business to Andrew Alexander, who had been running the Toronto troupe. Remaining active in Chicago theater for many years afterward, he and his wife founded the Chicago International Theater Festival in 1986, and he directed numerous shows around the city.

A proponent of the Second City's guiding principle -- Always perform at the top of your intelligence -- Mr. Sahlins said of the Second City brand of theater: "At its best, it is a comedy of behavior, not a comedy of comment."

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