Bernie Sahlins, co-founder of The Second City, the world-renowned comedy club and improv school, passed away at the age of 90 on June 16. Since then, tributes and accolades have been pouring out of the comedy and entertainment community for a man who nurtured the artform and its artists.
“It is hard to overstate Sahlins’ influence on the growth and innovation of sketch comedy, and on any entertainment that involves performers making things up based on suggestions from the audience,” theater critic Chris Jones writes. Yet, when he founded Second City with Howard Alk and Paul Sills in 1959, they were reportedly just looking to “found a coffee house where we idlers… could loll around and put the world in its proper place.”
Not only did he shape comedy as an artform, he molded unknown talents who would go on to become legends. “If you were to make a list of comedic superstars influenced by Sahlins,” Roger Wright reflects, “you’d get bored half way through because the list is virtually endless. You’d quit and start doing something else. Perhaps you’d start doing old Saturday Night Live bits.” Nevertheless, the list might include people like Bill Murray, John Belushi, John Candy, Gilda Radner, Alan Arkin, Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
Robert Klein, who left Second City in 1965 to star in TV series and movies, avows, “Bernie was absolutely crucial in the formative years of Second City, as important a figure as it’s ever had.”
“Bernie saved my life,” Alan Arkin has said. “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.”