This book was a gift from my son, to expand my knowledge of his world, the world of comedy.
Sahlins is a lively memoirist! His writing is energetic and descriptive. He begins by discussing the cultural importance of theatre, then the importance of acting. He values theatre as a way to connect with great minds, and documents changes in American (and global) society from the time he participated in founding The Second City (1959) until he sold his interest in it (1985).
What WAS The Second City anyway? It offered “theatrical review” in a cabaret setting (drinks served), a series of unconnected sketches about a topic. Sahlins is quite clear that “improv” (spontaneous theater) is something else entirely. Review sketches are scripted and carefully rehearsed. Second City offered cultural critique with lots of laughs. It was satirical, irreverent and subversive.
My favorite anecdote is as follows:
“A notable visitor was Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest, who attended one night with Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa climbing companion. Despite the fact that Tenzing spoke no English, he hugely enjoyed the show. I watched him from time to time, puzzled at his delighted reactions. Afterward he fell into a voluble conversation with the interpreter. It seems that Tenzing had constructed, from our unconnected scenes, a complete story, something like King Lear, about an old king and his two daughters, featuring an unsuitable marriage but with a happy ending.”
I love this! Art is universal, but that doesn’t mean it always survives translation.
More seriously, Sahlins writes about a massive cultural shift America experienced in the Sixties. Before that time, “Most working writers, actors, and producers were past their youth. Their target audience was certainly not the very young.” But that changed! “Youth took over…sex, drugs, rock and roll. Their songs moved out of the drive-ins and reached everywhere, even into geriatric centers. Their watchwords…attitudes…anti-war message…love-ins…Woodstock…marijuana took center stage.” “…before we realized it, we were swept up in the rush to an adolescent world.” Sahlins regretted that Second City became more “commercial” as this change progresses.
Does this explain the question we sometimes ask… “Where are the adults”? If someone teaches a course in post WWII America, they should include this book.