The towering giants of 80s comedy—Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray—seem to have emerged as fully-formed geniuses on the soundstages of Saturday Night Live and in major comedy films and TV shows. Likewise more recent names like Bob Odenkirk, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Amy Sedaris, and Stephen Colbert. But the fact is, like most artists, these stars got their start on humbler stages—those of the Second City improv theater, the longest running troupe of its kind in the U.S. and Canada. Operating in Chicago, L.A., and Toronto, Second City began with a small group of University of Chicago actors, including the late Mike Nichols and his comedy partner Elaine May. The first theater opened in 1959, and during the sixties Second City nurtured actors and comics like Alan Arkin, Del Close, Joan Rivers, and Peter Boyle.
Among the mind-boggling wealth of talent Second City produced, one comedian stands out both because of his legendary physical comedy and his untimely and tragic death. And though these descriptions apply equally to Second City alum Chris Farley, today we’re focusing in on John Belushi, who joined Second City in 1971, four years before the debut of Saturday Night Live and his subsequent turns in The Blues Brothers and Animal House. In the clip at the top, see Belushi play “the humiliated son of a father who died a less-than-respectable death.” Joining him onstage are Joe Flaherty—best known for his work on Second City’s SCTV—and Harold Ramis, Jim Fisher, Judy Morgan, and Eugenie Ross-Leming. Just above, the same cast surrounds Belushi as he does his Truman Capote impression.
Both performances date from 1972, and though the video and audio quality leave much to be desired, they’re well worth watching, especially Belushi’s Capote. Remembered more perhaps for his bizarre comedic violence, it’s easy to forget the over two-dozen characters Belushi impersonated while on SNL, including Henry Kissinger, Tip O’Neil, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, and William Shatner. Particularly poignant now, as we look back on the career of Joe Cocker, who died yesterday, is Belushi’s famous impression of the spirited British singer, above. When Cocker saw it, he “became hysterical,” saying, “You can’t not laugh at this.” It’s a fitting tribute to Belushi, a true fan of Cocker’s art, and to Cocker, who had the humility and good humor to appreciate a good joke at his expense.
You can watch a longer video of old Second City performances on this page. It runs about 40 minutes.