Toronto’s Second City Theatre is located on a quiet side street near King and Spadina. It’s housed in a rectangular building with a grey stucco façade and a muted red marquee. The theatre’s narrow lobby, flanked by the box office and the bar, is slightly cramped and the hallway leading into the theatre is small. The décor of the theatre itself is understated: black tables and chairs arranged, cabaret style, along the upper and lower levels of the room and a simple stage set into the back wall.
In this rather unassuming space, only the photos lining the hallways — photos of Canadian comic greats like Catherine O’Hara, Colin Mochrie, Mike Myers and Eugene Levy — proclaim the theatre’s place in the history of one of the most iconic comedy enterprises of all time.
On a Wednesday afternoon in October, I walk past these photos on my way to meet
Ashley Comeau and Jason DeRosse, two of the six performers in Second City Toronto’s latest revue, We’ve Definitely (Probably) Got This. In a few short hours, the actors will be onstage and — if the performance of We’ve Definitely (Probably) Got This that I saw is any indication — the theatre will resound with the raucous laughter of the audience.
At the moment, however, the theatre space is empty and quiet. Comeau and DeRosse take a seat across from me at a table near the stage that becomes their workspace each night.
“I feel like we’re in couples’ therapy,” Comeau says, pointing to my notepad as she sits down next to DeRosse.
“I would accept that everything is my fault,” her co-star replies.
When I meet up with the actors We Definitely (Probably) Got This, a scripted sketch show that also features a smattering of improv, is already several weeks into its five-month run. Only a few months ago, however, the show consisted of little more than nascent ideas swirling around in the heads of its cast, ideas that would be fleshed out during several intensive months of improv, previews, and script-writing.
“We write through improvisation here at Second City Toronto,” Comeau explains. “So you tell [the performers] what you want the premise of your scene to be and what role you want them to play, or sometimes you design [scenes] together… Then you improvise it and you’re just constantly working to get it better.”
Because the writing process at Second City is rooted in improvisation, the scripts of the company’s shows essentially come to life on stage. During the 30-minute improv sets that follow each scripted revue, the cast tests ideas for upcoming shows on the audience. Successful material becomes the basis for a new script, which, during previews before the show, is once again put to the test in front of a live audience.
This method of script writing is, according to DeRosse, a thoroughly rigorous undertaking.
“Four months of the year, during the writing process … you have no life,” he says. “It’s very daunting. You have to take yourself out of everything else.”
But for the lucky few who manage to get hired, working at Second City is worth the sacrifice. Because so many successful comedians are alumni of Second City, the company has garnered a reputation as a starting point in the comedy world, a stepping-stone for bigger gigs like Saturday Night Live. According to DeRosse, however, landing a job at Second City is a significant achievement in its own right, especially in Canada.
“This was my dream that I chased for a long time,” he says. “This isn’t a stepping-stone, it’s a huge step for me. [Second City] is a training ground, which is great cause we get to be on stage every night, performing comedy and getting paid for it, which I don’t think you get anywhere else in Canada… But as a stepping-stone just to catapult you onto SNL, Toronto isn’t going to do that for sure. It’s going to be hard work.”
Comeau and DeRosse have reason to be especially proud of being a part of the Second City cast this season. We’ve Definitely (Probably) Got This is Second City Toronto’s 70th revue. It’s a big milestone for the theatre, which has come a long way since it was founded in 1973, the Canadian offshoot of what was then a budding sketch company in Chicago. Thanks to the success of its main stage, the theatre now runs a training centre in Toronto and sends travelling casts across Canada.
Second City Toronto is marking the occasion of its 70th revue with a show that points to its rich history. To a greater extent than other recent shows, We’ve Definitely (Probably) Got This follows in the Second City tradition of pushing the envelope with sharp — and occasionally dark — satire. The theatre’s latest revue skewers everything from Stephen Harper and the Toronto Sun to Weight Watchers and precocious toddlers. The sketches sometimes veer into risky territory, but Comeau claims that relevant, honest sketches are at the heart of Second City’s brand of comedy.
“People are chewing each other’s faces off in Florida,” she says. “This is a dark time. Second City has always been a theatre that … tries to hold up a mirror to people. Not that everybody in the audience is a cannibal, but on the flip side, we all have our dirty little secrets… It’s fun to be able to talk about it openly and to get people to laugh about it.”
As members of Second City Toronto’s latest main-stage cast, Comeau and DeRosse have inherited more than a daring mandate to illuminate social and political absurdities through comedy. The actors are also following in the footsteps of an impressive roster of Canadian comics who got their start at Second City and went on to achieve great success in the entertainment industry. The prospect of living up to the legacy of these performers, whose presence at Second City is enshrined in those photos along the theatre’s halls, might seem like a daunting one. But Comeau asserts that the current cast does not feel overburdened by the theatre’s iconic history.
“We’re always going to do our best,” Comeau says. “Whether my best is the same as Gilda Radner’s best or not, who knows? But if I’m thinking about trying to be somebody else, it’s really going to interfere with why I was hired, which is to be my voice.”
One day, after they have made their mark on Second City Toronto, Comeau and DeRosse will graduate from the company; as the actors explain, cast members tend to spend only a few years at the company because the work schedule is so demanding. When that day comes, photos of Comeau and DeRosse will appear on the theatre’s walls, alongside those of previous alumni. Until then, the actors are determined to make the most of their time at Second City.
“I just appreciate that I’m here because it’s such a rich history,” DeRosse says. “It’s our job to go out there and kill it.”