Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sheldon Patinkin: The Second City: Backstage At The World's Greatest Comedy Theater

For a book detailing the antics of some of the funniest, wildest, most daring comics of the last 40 years, The Second City is at times astonishingly dry. Granted, it's history and not a spin-off: There's no more reason to expect it to match the theater company's fast-paced, inventive wit than there is to expect a randomly selected copy of Fahrenheit 451 to be on fire. But the book's slick, pop-art visual vibe and endlessly creative biographical subjects seem at odds with its accountant's soul. Longtime Second City director Sheldon Patinkin looks back on the troupe's history with a producer's eye, focused on such logistical concerns as staging, seating, service, and staffing—the nuts and bolts of creating a comedy empire, rather than the comedy itself. His recitative begins nearly a decade before Second City's 1959 opening, tracing its founders' previous projects and experience, then proceeding through a blow-by-blow account of the group's financial and critical boom and bust years, its side projects and many failed attempts to expand the franchise to other cities, and its constantly evolving cast. While he peppers the book with anecdotes and even occasional script segments, much of his story is maddeningly literal: The earliest chapters in particular could practically be replaced with charts citing cast members by name, with their pre- and post-Second City jobs strung out next to them. Even the chapter-opening segments on concurrent trends and events, which attempt to provide some cultural context, amount to blunt, undigested lists of factoids. The book's flavor mostly comes from the random quotes and stories presented in sidebars by past cast and crew members. Frequent "Spotlight" segments present mini-biographies of famous Second City alumni, including Dan Aykroyd, John and Jim Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Martin Short, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Alan Arkin, Shelley Long, George Wendt, John Candy, Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers, and many, many more. (Ironically, many of these bios focus primarily on their subjects' post-Second City fame, as though the troupe had more to brag about in their absence than in their presence.) The performers do have their chance to shine as individuals on the two CDs included with the $45 book; the set's 32 skits and songs run the gamut from absurdism to political satire to familiar vehicles that were later transported intact to Saturday Night Live. The discs are marred by unpredictable audio quality and Robert Klein's chummy, unctuous, pandering introductions, but their all-star cast, barbed humor, energy, and immediacy go much farther than the book's text in bringing across the qualities that have made Second City special.

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