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Funny People

Illustration Graham Roumieu

Chicago

“Every time I’ve done something serious, I’ve gotten laughs,” says funnyman Fred Willard, strolling the red carpet during the 50th anniversary of famed Chicago comedy cabaret Second City. “So why not try to be funny?”

Being funny comes naturally to Willard, as it does to the scores of alumni here to perform classic scenes for a couple hundred lucky ticket holders during a one-night-only show. But the man who ad-libbed his way through movies such as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind is still nervous about returning to the hallowed ground where improvisation-based sketch comedy was essentially invented.

“It’s like walking a tightrope,” Willard says of the freewheeling improv method that’s turned Second City into a de facto farm team for Saturday Night Live (alums include Bill Murray, Chris Farley and Tina Fey). “If you make it across, you’re wonderful. But if you get out there and the wind blows, people will say, ‘He used to be so good.’”

Throughout the weekend festival—which features panels, performances and film screenings, the small Second City theater complex is brimming with boldface-name comedians. There’s ’60s icon David Steinberg lingering in the alumni lounge near a buffet of chilled seafood. And Steve Carell, star of The Office, wearing a puffy ski jacket and kibitzing with talk show host Bonnie Hunt.

The warm and nostalgic mood is not unlike that of a college homecoming—that is, if a single university graduated the funniest people on the planet. Indeed, there’s a reason Second City is called “the Harvard of Comedy.”

Kicking back in the cramped lobby less than an hour before show time, Harold Ramis—the actor/writer/director responsible for such landmark laugh-fests as Stripes and Groundhog Day—appears relaxed. If he’s worried about five decades’ worth of yuk-artists shaking off the dust onstage, he isn’t showing it.

“It’s not without any fear,” says Ramis. “But these are people who are not stopped by their fear. That’s what defines the successful Second City actor. Everyone’s afraid to improvise. But we do it anyway.” —ROD O’CONNOR

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