Second City Co-Founder Brought Intellect To Comedy

Comedy fans know the names – John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers – but before those famous faces graced Hollywood movies or the “Saturday Night Live” stage they were discovered by Bernie Sahlins, co-founder of The Second City.

Alumni of the Chicago comedy club spent Monday remembering Sahlins, who died Sunday at age 90, as an innovator who along with business partners Howard Alk and Paul Sills opened the theater in December 1959. It quickly gained national attention and helped establish Chicago as a vibrant comedy town.

Photo: AP Photo/’Courtesy The Second City, Thomas Englund

“Bernie was absolutely crucial in the formative years of Second City, as important a figure as it’s ever had,” said comedian and actor Robert Klein, who went on from Second City in 1965 to star on television series and in movies.

Second City caught on within months of opening, despite some early money problems and other issues. It became instrumental in the growth and development of improvisational and sketch comedy.

Sahlins had an eye for talent, and he hired and nurtured the early careers of numerous future stars.

“Bernie saved my life,” actor Alan Arkin is quoted as saying in Sheldon Patinkin’s 2000 book, “The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater.” ‘‘Second City wasn’t a theater ensemble to me, it was a halfway house … Bernie not only gave me a job, he took me in. I became his family, he became my family – the first family that I even had and loved.”

Patinkin, who serves as Second City’s artistic consultant, said his longtime friend played a critical role not just in establishing the theater but also in recruiting the talent.

“He was great at it,” Patinkin said. “Look at the list of our alumni, many of them were found by Bernie. Bernie was really good at picking out the right ones.”

In his 2002 memoir, “Days and Nights at the Second City,” Sahlins seemed aware of that influence.

“For somehow this tiny venture quickly became an important phenomenon in the recent history of theatre, heralded for its contribution to popular entertainment,” he wrote. “One reason is, I believe, that we never thought of ourselves as popular entertainers.”

Instead, colleagues remembered Sahlins as an intellectual who graduated from the University of Chicago and brought those edgy smarts with him to Second City.

“You had to work from the top of your intelligence,” said comedian David Steinberg, who was with Second City in 1964 and has worked on television shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Mad About You.” ‘‘That was the rule that Second City broke in comedy: don’t talk down to an audience ever; talk to the smartest person in the audience.”

Michael McCarthy interned under Sahlins in 1981 and has written for “Saturday Night Live,” ‘‘Sesame Street” and Comedy Central. He said Sahlins would talk endlessly about the mission of comedy and tell him to “always, always, always ask yourself, ‘What are you trying to say, and is it funny?’“

Ramis, former cast member turned director-writer-actor-producer, told The Associated Press in 2009 that Sahlins brought a higher-brow style to comedy.

“It was OK to be smart,” Ramis said. “It was OK to be intellectual.”

And George Wendt, famous for “Cheers” before his time at Second City, told AP in 2009 that Sahlins demoted him to the touring company from the main stage.

“He thought I was playing it too safe,” Wendt said. “He wanted me to loosen up.”

Klein remembered Sahlins as an intellectual, but fun boss who loved cigars.

“Not the kind who would put a lamp shade on his head at a party, but he had opinions on everything,” Klein said.

Andrew Alexander, who along with business partner Len Stuart bought The Second City from Sahlins in 1985, said Sahlins will be remembered for always urging performers to work at the top of their intellect.

“You think about that theater, and think of all the stars that came out of it … from Belushi to (Dan) Aykroyd to Alan Arkin. It’s extraordinary, the amount of talented people that came out of it,” Alexander said.

Klein said he owes a great deal to Sahlins for hiring him.

“I went to the Yale drama school and that wasn’t nearly as valuable as making $150 a week at Second City,” Klein said.