The Second City: Teaching the art of funny to Chicago kids

Chicago kids are so lucky. The Second City Training Center is considered the best in the world, and these kids have it in their very own backyards. (Insert angrily shaken cane right about here.) I spoke with Jeff Gandy, Youth & Education Programs Manager at The Second City Chicago, about the camps and classes for your budding comedian (or comedienne), and how maybe – just maybe – improv could make you a better parent.

Tell me a little bit about what you do.

I run the youth program here at the Second City Training Center; we have classes for ages 4-18, we offer a really wide range. There’s improvisation, of course, that’s pretty much the backbone of our program. It always leads to the question of “What can a 4-year-old do in improv?”

That was actually my next question.

To me, they’re actually the best improvisers. It has such a sense of play to it, and 4-year-olds are just so wonderful at playing. I’ve worked with both ends of the spectrum – 4-year-olds and then adults – and the play concept that you have to work so hard to get adults into, you don’t have to do that with 4- and 5-year-olds. I do this exercise with object work – where you pantomime the prop – and you have to explain this concept to adults. To 4- or 5-year-olds you just say “There’s a pretend ball over there, go grab it and bring it to me,” and I never have to explain it again. With the younger students it’s a guided play, and then you have to help them focus on the group work. That’s not really a natural instinct.

Like herding cats.

Yeah, but once they get into it and understand it, they have fun. And with the older students, we have sketch comedy – which is another big part of Second City – where you learn to take improvised work and turn it into a script. That’s when they really start to understand these comedic formulas that are used in comedy over and over like “fish out of water,” like in “Sister Act,” and they start to learn those tricks of the trade.

Do any of these kids surprise you?

These kids surprise me in everything. It’s so common for me – and for every teacher here – to watch some kids perform and sit there and think, “Man, I wish that were my idea.” [laughs] And then a lot of times you see ideas that are almost there; it’s so good, but it just needs a little bit more from experienced eyes. You just have to help them shape it. I think the thing is, a lot of students are afraid of writing – the first question is “What do I write about?” But if you just take a scene and then come up with “how do we change this up with some extreme?” it makes it so much easier to write. And then you come up with a script and you do it again, and then you put down the script, take those concepts, and perform it again, and find funnier stuff, then add that to the script.

So nothing’s permanent.

Exactly! It’s not permanent until you want it to be permanent. And you have a teacher and classmates and they mention a line or moment that they found funny that [you] didn’t realize happened. And then you add that to your script. Eventually you build this scene that’s funny, because it’s been developed as a group. And that’s the exact same way we build a show.

You guys teach stand-up to tweens and teens. Do you have ground rules you have to set before letting them loose?

Yes and no. They’re definitely going to push boundaries; and that’s okay, that’s our company. Second City kind of came about by pushing some boundaries. But we do tell them, “You need to play to the top of your intelligence.” Anyone can tell these lowbrow jokes. Anyone. But if you play to the top of your intelligence, then you can appeal to a wider audience.

That’s really good parenting advice, too; have them play to the top of their intelligence.

Yeah, and you also have to see where they are in their development; in stand-up, you tell a story with beginning, middle and end. That’s really hard to do. People always try to jump to the funny part. We try to get them to tell something humorous that they saw, that they witnessed. Beginning, middle and end. And then when they get a little older, we have them shift it to [they’re] the ones in the story; beginning, middle and end. And then switching to observational humor, like the “What’s the deal with … ” that Jerry Seinfeld made famous, and then when they get a little older, they can shift to the character humor and one-liners. We tell them that it’s okay; you’re not going to be funny every single time. Mess up, keep messing up, and you’ll get something good.

Speaking of age-appropriate humor, you also teach clowning. Isn’t that almost redundant with this age group?

Well, it’s definitely active. It’s very physical, which helps get that energy out. But it’s more controlled than you realize; it helps them focus. Clowning very much so relies on interacting with the audience. You’re teaching them to create a character and take on a character. Clowning is hard work; it’s very hard work. You have to be the clown and be silly, but approach it from a serious side. You’re teaching those young kids a lot of discipline to be silly, if that makes sense.

Do any of these kids end up returning and working their way through the training center?

Oh, yeah! In fact, we’ve had one girl who began in her teens – went through the youth program, the youth ensemble, teen ensemble, and then went through the grownup program, graduated from the conservatory, and was in our touring company – and I got to have her teach in the camp. And it was kind of fun, when I got to introduce her I said “She used to be where you’re standing.” I thought it was cool that she was able to teach the camp, it was like a complete circle.

Now, a lot of parents pretty much know when they have a kid who’s the class clown or starlet – but I imagine there’s other types of kids who’re perfect for these youth camps and classes, too.

Yes! Something that I was nervous about when I first came to Second City – and I know other people are when I even say the name – is they say, “Oh, I can’t take classes because I’m not funny.” We would never tell anyone “Be funny.” We wouldn’t say to Tina Fey, “Say something funny right now,” because that would be awful. And she might not be able to say something. That’s not how it works. So my thing is – you don’t have to be funny. We help you figure out your funny. We help you learn your funny. And it’s in there – you just have to find it. We’re not going to put someone on the spot; we’re going to take care of you. Nurture it, help it come out of you. Everyone is funny – life is funny.

So it might be perfect for a really creative kid who might need to come out of her shell a little bit.

It can be perfect for a kid who’s shy, because what we help them with is support. We’re all about the ensemble, and the ensemble embraces everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what you are. And we encourage you to fall down to make those mistakes, because that’s how you find your voice. The big thing that I always mention to parents is that improvisation focuses on saying “yes,” to going with someone’s idea and saying “I hear what you’re saying, I’m embracing this reality, and I’m going to make it better.” Now, wouldn’t you love it if everyone you worked with did that?

…Yeah.

So, you’re teaching kids these great skills, that when they get into the workplace it’ll be so valuable. Even as a parent, being able to listen to their children and accept it –

And adapt in real time.

Exactly.

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