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Jeffrey Sweet Brings Second City Secrets to Wilmette

Award-winning playwright Jeffrey Sweet reveals the secrets of Second City in “You Only Shoot the Ones You Love” at the Wilmette Theatre on September 21.

At Second City, the thrills start in the lobby before the show. You can thank the Cossacks for that. 

Wait. What?    

More on that later. 

Back to Second City’s lobby, where you will never be bored waiting for the theater doors to open. You wish these walls could talk. Instead, they tease with their impossibly voluminous collection of photos of improv illuminati, the royalty of riffing, who got their start where you stand.   

In just a fraction of the frames: Stephen Colbert, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Jim and John Belushi, Steve Carell, Dan Castellaneta, Tim Meadows, Bonnie Hunt, David Pasquesi, Jackie Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Jane Lynch, Susan Messing, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, to name a few.

Plus the legends who started it all: Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Joan Rivers, Shelley Berman, Barbara Harris, Severn Darden, Mina Kolb, Del Close, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara and Alan Arkin.

How did it all happen?

On September 21 at the Wilmette Theatre, award-winning playwright Jeffrey Sweet reveals the secrets to Second City’s success in his one-man show, You Only Shoot the Ones You Love. The play tells the story of Second City and why it should be a source of pride to every Chicagoan and particularly to Chicago’s Jewish community (and what the Cossacks had to do with it. For a sneak preview, read on).   

Sweet is an Evanston native and ’67 grad of EvanstonTownship High School. He is the author ofSomething Wonderful Right Away. The book, considered the definitive history of Second City’s early years, was called a “classic” by the Chicago Tribune. iO founder Charna Halpern cites Sweet’s book as a major influence and Mick Napier says it inspired him to create the Annoyance Theatre. Sweet’s plays are produced around the world. His awards include the Joseph Jefferson Award, a Writers Guild Award, the American Theatre Critics Association Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and a Kennedy Center-American Express prize (to name a few.) 

He generously gave up most of a morning for a 75-minute interview, coincidentally, the same length as You Only Shoot The Ones You Love. That experience makes it easy to vouch for Sweet's ability to make 75 minutes fly and to understand why luminaries such as Edward Albee attended the play’s New York premier. Following is an edited version of the phone conversation with Jeffrey Sweet, the man who has been called a “comedy guru.”    

Q: What first drew you to theater and improv?

A: I skipped a grade, so I was the youngest kid in my class and that made me feel alienated from a lot of the other kids. Also, I was a bookish kid and would regularly get creamed by the athletes.    

My parents were involved in the arts. My mom was a violinist. My dad, who is no longer with us, was a writer. So these values were around the house. They took me to the theater very early and sent me to acting classes in Chicago when I was quite young. This was a place where I could tell stories, where people applauded what I did and where nobody jumped on me. So I thought, well, this is pretty good.  

I did a lot of acting in high school  I did a little bit of professional acting, but it terrified my parents. For children of the depression, the idea of a child trying to make a living as an actor was lunacy. They thought it was swell for me to be interested, but they were hoping that I would become a lawyer or a college professor. 

But I kept acting and started writing. I wrote some little plays in high school and eventually, a full length musical which the school put on. I majored in film at NYU (New York University). My idea was that if I majored in film, I could get my hands on the equipment and make some films and still be able to do theater. The idea was to split my time between the two. But I’ve done mostly theater, although I’ve also done a lot of television. The television has tended to finance my theater over the years.

Q: What topics especially interest you?

A:  I’m eclectic. I get bored easily, so I jump from topic to topic. I’ve written straight-out farce and I’ve written tragedy. I like stuff that has to do with people interacting with history and social forces. I enjoy historical topics and finding odd stories that nobody knows about in the corners of history. But I’m just as likely to write something silly about a wedding that goes wrong.  

I also love musicals and have written the book to a few of them and lyrics. I write whatever the next good story I want to tell is and write it in the form that I think will best serve it. I don’t tend to be pigeonholed much.  

The play of mine that people seem to know most is The Value of Names [about an actor blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee].    

Q: I read that Shelley Berman played the lead role.

A: Yes, he played it in Chicago. A lot of interesting people have played it over the years; Hector Elizondo, Ed Asner. Jack Klugman played it in six theaters. It was the last major part he undertook before he decided not to do any more stage work. It was a treat to work with him.

Q: What was he like?

A: Very funny. Filled with stories. I remember at one point, there was a line in the play referring to Clifford Odets. Clifford Odets cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee and we had a young actress in the show who said, “I’m not familiar with this” and then turned to me, “What’s the story behind this?” 

And I said, “Well, Odets went to Washington and he cooperated with the Committee. And it damaged his standing among the community of actors and writers in the theater.” 

And then Jack said, “I remember him the day he came back from Washington.” And it turned out that Jack was in a production of Golden Boy, a revival that Odets was directing. So we went from young actress who didn’t know the story, to me and I knew the story because of my research, to Jack who had been there.

Q: That’s amazing. One degree of separation. Did I see that Howard Morris also was involved with the play?

A: Howard Morris was obsessed with the play. He wanted to do it in Los Angeles and finally he and Ed Asner put it on for an evening. Howard was hoping to do it as a continuing run. Apparently, the evening went very well, although I wasn’t there that night because I was working on something in New York.   And then his doctor said that if he was determined to take on a run in the theater, then he hoped his will was ready.

Q: He wasn’t well?

A: He died within a couple of years, but his doctor said he really didn’t have the stamina to do that part on a regular run, so Howard reluctantly let go of the part after apparently doing it really well one evening.  

Q:  I’ve loved Howard Morris ever since seeing him as Uncle Goopy in the Sid Caesar sketch, “This is Your Story.” I can’t imagine him without stamina.

A: He was a lot of fun. I had lunch with him a couple of times in Los Angeles and I had to occasionally pinch myself that I was sitting opposite Uncle Goopy.

Q: Was he like Uncle Goopy in person?

A: No.  He was super confident. He was also a TV director. I didn’t see it, but I gather that he could get a little mean as a director. So he wasn’t Uncle Goopy. He was a rather fierce fellow.

Q: You have said that the theme of You Only Shoot the Ones You Love is “two parallel searches for home.” Please tell us more about that.

A: Well, on the one hand, on a personal level, I grew up in Evanston at a time when there wasn’t a lot of theater going on in Chicago. I wanted to be where the theater was. So when I was seventeen, I fled Chicago to go to New York. I was instantly in the world that I wanted to be part of and started getting to know people who were writing and putting on the plays. 

I had a filmmaking class with Martin Scorsese at NYU and a songwriting class with Paul Simon. I was studying musical theater with a man named Lehman Engel who was the leading teacher of musical theater at the time and had conducted half the original cast albums in my LP collection. I was having a swell time. 

But I started noticing that there were a bunch of films and plays coming out that I had a particular connection to, like Mike Nichols did The Graduate and Elaine May did A New Leaf. And there was this guy, Jules Feiffer who was writing plays and the plays were directed by Alan Arkin and I had long ago lost my heart to Barbara Harris. I started trying to find out where these people came from because these people seemed to speak to me pretty directly and it turned out they came from Chicago, this place that I had fled. 

So I decided that I wanted to read a book about where they had come from and where they had come from was Second City and it turned out that nobody had written a book.  So since nobody had written it, it seemed like the next logical thing was, oh, I should write it.  So that brought me back to Chicago.  And doing that book got me involved in the Chicago theater scene, which has remained my home ever since.    

I live in New York, but if somebody asks me what’s home, it’s Chicago and Evanston that feel like home.   I feel like I’m a Chicagoan in exile. I’m here because I can make a living here which, alas, I can’t in Chicago.   But I come back all the time because I love the theater in Chicago and have so many friends there.  It feels a little bit like I was kicked out of Eden.

Not that I’m unhappy. I’m not unhappy at all, in fact. But I’m always delighted to have an excuse to go back. More adventurous stuff tends to come out of Chicago than out of New York because it’s way cheaper to build stuff in Chicago and the audiences seem to have a particular delight in watching new things being built and in discovering new people. 

On the one level, that was a search for home. I found it after I left it.

On another level, it’s about the immigrant experience. A huge number of the people who came out of Second City and did the political satire that exploded in the 1950s (and we’re still feeling the effects of that explosion), Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Tom Lehrer, Jules Feiffer, Philip Roth, Mel Brooks, Elaine May… If you trace their origins, almost all of them come from Jewish families that fled Russia and Eastern Europe. In fact, my grandmother ran away from the Cossacks.

So the Cossacks chased all of our relatives out of Russia and they came here. Then something happened in the 1950s that made all these children and grandchildren of refugees from the Cossacks suddenly start mocking authority. 

What happened was the McCarthy Era. All these people who had grown up on stories of Cossacks chasing their ancestors on horseback with sabers looked at Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon and Karl Mundt and the rest of those S.O.B.s and said, “Looks like Cossacks to me!”   

Q: Wow, I never made that connection.  That makes so much sense.

A: We have that heritage to thank for the beginning of the satiric tradition in this country which of course, now has expanded beyond Jews. Stephen Colbert isn’t Jewish, although he is a great satirist, but he is from Second City, which automatically makes him Jewish.      

So on a larger, more political and historical level, it’s another search for home. This is a culture that has enriched American culture, that basically invented American musical comedy. For that matter, much of the major accomplishments in American theater are traceable to these people who were chased out of Europe and Russia because of oppression.  So that’s also part of this story.   

There are a lot of funny stories in it, too, but what makes the piece range beyond an evening of funny stories and anecdotes is that it’s placed within this context of a larger story. So it goes back to my interest in people who were caught up in history and facing difficult choices within the context of history.  

But I’m also doing this because as some of the great early figures of improvisation are leaving us (we lost Paul Sills and Del Close and some of the others are getting pretty old), a lot of the people who claim to be in improvisational theater don’t know where the stuff came from or why it
happened. 

They think it’s just about standing up and saying funny things and they don’t know that this exploded out of a real social need, out of a reaction to injustice and that outrageous humor came about because people were outraged. 

Q:  I didn’t know this whole history.

A: And aside from it being interesting history, it’s just fun.

Q: It really is. 

A: And the characters are outrageous characters. I tell stories of Del Close because I saw him at close range a lot and he had this tendency to do interesting stuff while I was around.

Q: I’ve heard things, including from people who took classes with him. You can never hear enough Del Close stories.

A: I saw him in workshop and had meals with him and lots of conversation. I saw him in a lot of different circumstances, so he’s certainly a major a figure in this piece, although he wasn’t Jewish. He’s sort of the mad WASP from Manhattan, Kansas who is embraced by the community and ends up being as crazy if not crazier than any of them. If it weren’t for the fact that he wasn’t Jewish, he would have been a mad rabbi. 

Q: What inspired you to write You Only Shoot the Ones You Love when you did?

A: A couple of years ago, Second City had its fiftieth anniversary and I went and it was great fun. But as I was coming home, I read an article about the event in the New York Times and the Times somehow managed to write an article about Second City without mentioning Paul Sills. Kind of dopey, since Sills created Second City.

They also reviewed a book by somebody else about Second City and that reviewer managed to review the book without mentioning Paul Sills. I thought, well, this is kind of crummy. And then I got an email from one of the more celebrated alumni of the movement. I’m not free to say his name, but somebody pretty far up in the movement, and he said, “Did you see this? Did you see how they didn’t give Paul his credit? You must do something about this!” 

And I thought, “Why is it up to me? You’re more famous than I am. Why don’t you write a letter to the Times and set them straight?” 

Even before I got that message from him, I had in fact sent a letter, but the Times didn’t run it. I thought, “Well, people should know about this.” And I thought, “Okay, how do I do this so it isn’t a lecture? So that it’s actually fun?” And then I figured out a way into it in which I could tell stories that were funny and still give Paul his due. 

I worked on it in Chicago at the Lifeline Theater last summer. Then I took it to New York and opened it in the Fringe Festival and the New York Times came and there you go. My desire to get the story into the New York Times worked. The New York Times liked the show, gave me a good review and lot of the people from the improv world as well as a lot of people from the general theater world came that I’d been admiring for years. 

It was very funny to be on stage and to look out there and see Edward Albee and Arthur Kopit and Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry and Richard Kind and Keir Dullea and Sheldon Harnick and all these people showing up to see me perform. David Henry Hwang. I’ve been going to see his stuff for years and all of a sudden, there he is out in my audience, coming up afterwards telling me how much he enjoyed it. So it was a great sense of turnabout to be on stage in front of people who have enriched my life for years.  

Q: That to me defines the Chicago spirit. Chicagoans don’t wait for somebody else to make something happen, you just make it happen.

A: Yes. That’s one of the things I’ve also been revolting against for a long time. The passivity that you see in a lot of people who work in the theater, as if they’re waiting for somebody else to give them permission to do work. 

As people asked me to do the show, I continued to do it. I think it’s particularly exciting and relevant to Chicagoans and also particularly exciting and relevant to the Jewish community that settled in Chicago because this is one of the great accomplishments of that community. This is something that ended up affecting world culture. It would be very difficult to imagine American theater, film or television or even world theater, film or television without the influence of this improvisational movement. 

This is a story that belongs largely to Chicago’s Jewish community. This was the primary audience for Second City and for the Compass before that and most of the key people in those companies. Not all of them, but most of the key people indeed come from that world. It’s a Jewish sensibility in the humor.

It also means that I’ve come to a more conscious recognition of my heritage and my culture. I’m not particularly religious so I can’t claim to be a religious Jew, but I certainly am a cultural one. 

Q: How did you decide to bring You Only Shoot to Wilmette?

A:  I read daily what’s going on in Chicago theater and who’s performing what and where. An old friend of mine named Barbara Robinson was doing a show at the Wilmette Theatre and I also know that the Annoyance Theater has done a lot of special projects there. 

Q: What is it about the marriage of Chicago and comedy that works so well?

A: Chicago has a sense of itself as a city with real neighborhoods and a real central ethos and it’s also an affordable, livable city where you can start building stuff fairly cheaply without incurring huge expenses.

Los Angeles, for instance, does not have a really cohesive community. It’s a patchwork of separate suburbs and people will frequently go for years without going into neighborhoods that aren’t home. So you don’t have a sense of being part of a vibrant, ongoing community. Theater and comedy always are an expression of community.    

Q: In Something Wonderful Right Away, you write about (early Second City alum) Mina Kolb’s impressions of growing up in Wilmette. She did not have fond memories and thought Wilmette was rather stuffy. Has the North Shore changed since then?

A: That sort of WASP culture has been dying for years.  She was talking about a very sheltered, very cloistered world. There are still very WASPy enclaves of country club culture and I think she found that world somewhat oppressive. I remember the women’s club culture of Evanston. This is before feminism really took hold, where everything was flower shows and good deeds. I’m not saying that this stuff doesn’t still exist, but there used to be a lot fewer outlets for women who wanted to get out of the house and do something interesting. It was expressed by that kind of culture which was kind of repressive.

Q:  Your book changed my view of improv. I realized I hadn’t really understood improv. I thought stand-up was a more personal form of comedy and improv more of a sport. After reading your book, I can see that improv is as personal as stand-up.

A: Absolutely. Actually, the book is going to come out in a new edition from Northwestern University Press and I will finally be allowed to use the interview that I did with Viola Spolin. Her estate has finally given me permission. [Note: Viola Spolin invented the improv games that became the foundation of Second City. She is also Paul Sills’ mother.]  

She at the last minute withdrew permission to use the interview in the book for reasons that were never entirely clear to me. Her daughter-in-law, Carol Sills, read an article that I wrote about Viola in Dramatics, a magazine for theater-mad high school kids and she said, “Use the interview.” Viola’s picture was on the front of the magazine, so twenty years after she died, Viola became a cover girl. Her family was very pleased about that and that may have changed their mind to use the interview. So I’m going to put it in finally.   

Q: Are there any improv games or techniques you would recommend applying to life?

A: It’s a cliché to say it, but the general improvisational attitude is “Yes, and …”  Yes, I’ve heard what you’ve said, I accept it as a reality and I’m going to add to that. A lot of people work out of confrontation, out of resisting the will of others as opposed to collaborating with others to find something that they couldn’t have found on their own. 

I find that if you do a lot of improvisational work, it will blend into your personal life and make it easier to get along with other people and get productive results. I find myself spontaneously, even sometimes with strangers, getting into bits or riffs or jokes or conceits. This is "spontaneously collaborating”.

Last night, I went to see a friend of mine perform at a nightclub and I found myself sitting at a table with my friend’s manager and three people from his staff. The waiter came and the guy at the table said, “I’m paying for these people.  That guy, he’s on his own.” And I said, “I haven’t passed the audition.” And he said, “When are you going to get your act up?” And he started playing the game. We did a few minutes building the joke (and he still didn’t pick up my check!)

But it was a way of breaking the ice and making it possible to have a conversation. Otherwise, I would have sat at a table listening to three people do their business and been bored. Instead, we had a pleasant and interesting evening together.  

Q:   Instead of embarking on months of tedious debates, is there an improv exercise President Obama and Mitt Romney could do to tell us everything we need to know?

A: I don’t think they would do an improv game because improv is based on “yes, and …” and debating is based on “no”.

Q: Maybe improv is one of those things that everybody should learn.

A: I do think so. I think it should be a basic part of a grade school education. It didn’t seem to do me too much harm.

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