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No comedy theater has had a larger impact on the greater humor zeitgeist than The Second City. Founded in Chicago in 1959 by a group of University of Chicago students inspired by the teachings of the incomparable Viola Spolin, The Second City offered shelter and stage time to fledgling performers who would go on to become comedy’s brightest stars in both film and television. 

You may have heard of a few of them– names like John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy, Joan Rivers, Harold Ramis, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mike Myers (Toronto), and Chris Farley might ring a bell.

But for every Bill Murray that makes the leap from stage to screen to Caddyshack themed restaurant franchise owner, there are dozens of immensely talented performers who leave the midwestern comedy petri dish only to make it halfway to superstardom. 

Today, we're honoring some of the great names in comedy who we believe have not received the fair shake they deserved outside of the Windy City. You may recognize some of them but compared to their contemporaries on stage and on camera, these artists have not been given enough wattage to shine as bright as they should. So take a shot of Malort, cut yourself a slice of deepdish, and pay off one of your thirteen red light camera tickets. We’re going back to Chicago.

Scott Adsit

Wikimedia Commons: Rad Jose (Radly J Phoenix)

Just look at him. How has he not been cast as a handsome Larry David in anything?

First on the list is none other than Pete Hornberger himself. Scott Adsit was one of the biggest names in Chicago comedy throughout the ‘90s, and he is our tall, bald, and handsome first pick for underrated artists. 

Adsit was born in Northbrook Illinois, just a short drive from Chicago & studied at Columbia College Chicago where theater legend and former The Second City artistic director Sheldon Patinkin encouraged him to bring his talents to the Temple of Satire. Adsit joined The Second City in 1987 and made his resident stage debut in 1993. 

He went on to write and perform in some of The Second City’s most iconic and influential revues, including Piñata Full Of Bees, also starring Adam McKay, Rachel Dratch, and Jon Glaser, and Paradigm Lost, for which Scott received a Jeff Award (basically the Chicago Tony Awards). 

Scott moved to Los Angeles in 1998 at the urging of his friend and fellow Columbia College alumnus Dino Stamatopolous, aka Starburns. There he worked on some of the best shows of the early aughts, landing roles on Mr. Show and Tenacious D before being recruited by his friend and The Second City co-star Tina Fey to work with her on the monumentally successful 30 Rock. Most readers who know Scott will know him for his performance as Pete Hornberger, the jaded, nebbishy, but well-meaning producer and congressman’s son, Olympic archer, and fourth guitarist of Loverboy.

He also worked on the Claymation Adult Swim show Moral Orel, a darkly satirical Leave it to Beaver style show where Adsit voiced the main character’s cynical, alcoholic, and closeted bisexual father, Clay Puppington. You have to be a special kind of dead inside to smoke a cigarette and a pipe at the same time.

Since the conclusion of 30 Rock, Adsit’s biggest role has been Baymax in Big Hero 6 and the subsequent TV series, but we’d like to see more of Scott and his beautiful bald head in front of the camera.

Jerry C. Minor

The Second City

No Sox hat?

Jerry’s story with The Second City is unique– he is one of very few performers to grace the revues of three different The Second City locations, hitting the stage in Detroit, Chicago, and Toronto. Born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Flint, Michigan, Minor got his start in comedy performing stand up in Detroit before joining The Second City Detroit’s very first mainstage troupe. Jerry moved to Chicago in 1995 and performed in two revues before moving on to a single show in Toronto. 

Jerry appeared in 12 episodes of Mr. Show before hitting the big break every The Second City performer dreams of– In 2000, he was hired as a cast member and writer for Saturday Night Live’s 26th season. 

However, he was sadly underutilized and lasted just one season before Lorne Michaels cut him for budgetary reasons. What little we saw of him was often alongside his fellow The Second City alumnus Horatio Sanz, although we did get to see him in a yelling match with Tracy Morgan on Good Morning Bronx. A bonus takeaway from this sketch is that J-Lo does not age.

Since his short stint on SNL, Minor has landed supporting roles in TV shows headed by other The Second City stars – he has appeared on The Office, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Key & Peele. He has also seen regular work on shows like Arrested Development, Community, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and had a starring role in Brickleberry.

Despite his long list of credits, Jerry C. Minor has had very few chances to be the star of the show, and is sadly one of the many talented actors known mainly as “That guy in that thing.” If we ran Hollywood, you would all know him as one half of the comedy R&B duo “L. Witherspoon & Chucky” alongside the also underrated Craig Robinson.

Paul Dinello

Wikimedia Commons: David Shankbone

He does open his eyes - from time to time.

The most underrated TV comedy from the late 1990s to early 2000s is Strangers With Candy. The most underrated writer, creator and cast member of that show is Paul Dinello, a name not as recognizable as his prominent partners, Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert. 

Paul Dinello was born and raised in Oak Park Illinois, a suburb of Chicago and hometown to the late great Betty White. After attending DePaul University, Paul joined The Second City’s touring company in the late ‘80s where he met his future Strangers cast members, Colbert and Sedaris.

It was not love at first sight. At the trio’s own admission, they did not get along initially, especially Dinello and Colbert. Paul found Stephen to be distant, cold, and condescending, which is understandable considering Stephen Colbert called the man with whom he would collaborate for the next three decades “an illiterate thug”.

But the funny thing about comedy is that often if three people share a sense of humor, their differences will become less and less important with time. 

Sedaris, Dinello, and Colbert climbed the ranks of The Second City together, all three of them escaping the notoriously taxing touring company and landing on the resident stages. In 1995, they made their first great leap to onscreen work with Exit 57, a twelve episode HBO sketch series that received critical acclaim despite lasting only one season. 

If you’ve never seen a show at The Second City Chicago before, it’s basically like watching this only you’re surrounded by people from Schaumburg.

Three years after the conclusion of Exit 57, the trio got another shot at their own television show, creating Strangers With Candy, a warped, amoral riff on after school specials focused around Sedaris’ character, Jerri Blank, a 46 year-old junkie burnout returning to Flatpoint High School after dropping out as a teenager. 

Stephen Colbert played Chuck Noblet, the history teacher and the sponsor of the school’s newspaper. Dinello played Geoffrey Jellineck, the sensitive, fragile, and self-important art teacher who is engaged in a secret affair with Chuck Noblet. The devotedly irreverent comedy ran for three seasons before cancellation, but a sequel film written by Dinello was released in 2005.

Since Strangers with Candy, Sedaris and Colbert have both enjoyed long, fruitful careers on camera. Dinello, on the other hand, has mostly stayed behind the scenes with Stephen Colbert, working as a writer and supervising producer on both The Colbert Report and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Not bad for an illiterate thug.

We would like to see more of Dinello, even if we’ll never see Geoffrey Jellineck again. This might be the best advice I’ve ever heard from a teacher.

Stephnie Weir

MADtv

She's the one flailing.

Hailing from Odessa, Texas, Weir made a splash in the Chicago comedy scene in the mid 90’s and quickly rose to The Second City Mainstage where she appeared in shows such as Promise Keepers, Losers Weepers, Psychopath not Taken, and Second City 4.0, the theater’s 40th anniversary show directed by the prolific Mick Napier. She also enjoyed a successful theater career outside of The Second City, performing at the Goodman Theater during her time in the Windy City.

Her first break on the small screen would prove to be her biggest, spending five and a half seasons with MADtv. She was a standout star in a loaded cast, regularly appearing as the hyperactive and occasionally satanic Dot Goddard.

Since her time at MADtv, Weir has mainly been in supporting TV and film roles, but she and husband Bob Dassie also form the spectacular comedy duo WeirDass, and you can enjoy their series “Eleven Year Itch” online:

Both Weir and Dassie made their mark on the art of improv. Their signature form, also called WeirDass, is still taught at The Second City, The Annoyance, and The Upright Citizen’s Brigade. But mainstream audiences didn’t get as much of Weir as they deserved. Bring back MADtv!

Rachel Dratch

Wikimedia Commons: David Shankbone

The most un-wacky photo of her in existence.

Likely the most controversial entry on the list, Rachel Dratch rounds out the five as the most famous but not famous enough The Second City alumn. 

Dratch was another The Second City superstar in the ‘90s, appearing on the Chicago mainstage four times and winning two Jeff Awards for her work. She was hugely influential on the Chicago comedy scene, and artists such as actor/screenwriter Kay Cannon have named her as an inspiration for her success in historically male dominated creative spaces. 

Her and longtime collaborator Tina Fey began their acclaimed two-woman show Dratch and Fey at The Second City, a show that they would continue to perform during their immensely successful careers at Saturday Night Live. Here's some comedy history shot in 144p:

Rachel Dratch spent seven years on the cast of SNL from 1999-2006, and has returned to the show numerous times since her initial departure, adding up to a whopping 145 appearances on the biggest stage in comedy. So why then does Debby Downer belong on a list of the greatest snubs in Second City history? Two words, one name. Jenna DeCarlo. 

When Tina Fey first pitched her massive hit 30 Rock, it was different. Very different. Fey was still Liz Lemon, she still worked at show called “The Girlie Show”, but instead of Jenna Maroney, the blond, bombastic bombshell and graduate of the Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks, the star of the fictitious SNL equivalent was Jenna DeCarlo, a more grounded and empathetic partner to Liz, no doubt based on their time in “Dratch and Fey”. You can see her take on the character here:

According to Rachel Dratch, the first draft of the show focused more on the sketches than the personalities of performers. Dratch was going to play wildly different characters in each episode, and the on-camera aspects of TGS were going to be the focal point of 30 Rock

However, NBC decreed the pilot needed retooling, so the decision was made to focus less on the sketch aspects of the show and more on the characters. That meant recasting the role of Jenna to a “sitcom actress”, for which Jane Krakowski was chosen, and the rest is history.

To be clear, there is no bad blood between Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch over the decision. Dratch still appeared in bit parts throughout the show’s run, and she does not harbor any resentment over the recasting. That being said, audiences were robbed of the chance to see high production Dratch focused sketches on a weekly basis, and for that reason she makes the list.

Tina Fey had 30 Rock. Amy Poehler had Parks and Recreation. Please, television producers, finally give us a Rachel Dratch Vehicle.

More To Come

Despite the long slow death of live theater in America, The Second City survives to this day as one of the last bastions of high-quality improv and sketch comedy. Many of the most talented comedic performers from the Midwest and beyond still flock to the self-dubbed Temple of Satire. Keep an eye out for these young stars:

Amber Ruffin: Mainstage alumn with her own Emmy-nominated talk show streaming on Peacock. Also the first black woman to work on the writing staff of a major late-night network talk show as an inaugural member of Seth Meyers’ writing team.

Sam Richardson: Two-time mainstage performer and co-creator of The Detroiters with fellow Second City performer Tim Robinson. Regularly appears on I Think You Should Leave, and recently guest starred on Ted Lasso.

Tim Baltz: Touring company and “e.t.c. stage” veteran, which won him a Jeff Award in 2011. Star and creator of the show Shrink, currently starring in The Righteous Gemstones on HBO.

Ashley Nicole Black: Former comedy writing teacher at The Second City Training Program, current Emmy-winning television writer for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Also writes for The Amber Ruffin Show.

Not featured is hack fraud Keegan Kelly, Second City Mainstage Auditioner and author of this article. Subscribe to his substack here.

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