Second City gets a second chance

Comedy franchise enjoying spate of projects

TORONTO — It’s the second time around for the Second City in this town.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the popular comedy revue franchise was one of the hottest tickets in Hogtown, only to fall on such hard times four years ago that the company contemplated closing its doors.

But now Second City is back, with three consecutive hit revues, a CBC-TV series on the air and further projects in development.

“It’s about as busy as things have ever been,” says CEO Andrew Alexander. “And, frankly, compared to what it was like a few years ago, it’s a giant relief.”

From the minute Second City set up shop in Toronto at the Old Fire Hall in 1973, it almost seemed as if the troupe could do no wrong. Hit show followed hit show, and the roster of performers included such embryonic stars as Dan Aykroyd, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Gilda Radner and John Candy.

The successful SCTV series spun off from the Toronto companies, providing international visibility as well as added income.

But then things began to change. The move in 1997 to a larger venue proved a major mistake. The room was too big, the crowds didn’t materialize, and the shows began to grow listless.

During summer 2003, when the SARS epidemic emptied the city of tourists, Alexander contemplated pulling the plug on the Toronto operation.Instead, he chose to hang around while shaking things up a bit. He moved the company across the street to a smaller space, successfully recapturing the intimate actor-audience interaction that had made the Old Fire Hall such a hit.

From the minute the troupe reopened in October 2005, things started looking up. But it really began cooking last summer, when the first of three consecutive smash shows, “Bird Flu Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” debuted to strong notices and packed houses.

Its successor, “Tip of the Melting Iceberg,” did equally well, and the recently opened “Facebook of Revelations” got rave reviews from Toronto crix, and is SRO most evenings.

In tandem with the revitalization of Second City’s legit arm, CBC TV is presenting a weekly series this summer called “The Second City’s Next Comedy Legend,” which is the troupe’s entry into the overcrowded world of reality talent shows.

“We realized that when it came to TV, reality shows were here to stay, so why fight them?” Alexander says. “But we also knew that, with our name on it, we had to be offering something different.”

So while the search for a comic star may not seem much different on the surface from the “American Idol” hunt for a supernova vocalist, the show’s details have sufficient fresh comic spin.

Second City has a host, but it’s WWE wrestling diva Trish Stratus. Yes, there’s a panel of judges (Flaherty, Elvira Kurt and Mick Napier), but they’re all skilled comedians themselves.

Finally, a recent quartet of Second City veterans (Matt Baram, Paul Bates, Anand Rajaram and Naomi Snieckus) are along for the ride as “comic mentors” — guiding, correcting or sometimes just harassing the young wannabes.

The series has been receiving positive audience response, and there’s a chance it may travel further.

Alexander is also juggling possible deals for comedy series with a variety of networks and producers. But he’s smart enough to know that it all begins with the mainstage shows that have been Second City’s bread and butter since it opened in Chicago in 1959.

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