Compass Cabaret 55: How Chicago Became National Comedy Central

Written by:
Nancy S. Bishop
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“Second City” didn’t spring full grown from that stage in Chicago’s Old Town in the 1960s. Sketch comedy and improvisational theater has a long and storied history in Chicago, starting with a group of University of Chicago students who began performing at a bar in Hyde Park in the early ‘50s.

The new documentary, “Compass Cabaret 55”, is the story of the pioneers who invented a new form of comedy performance that led to “Second City” and “Saturday Night Live” and nurtured the careers of stars like Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Jane Lynch, Elaine May and the late Mike Nichols and John Belushi. The film was shown this month at the Gene Siskel Film Center. You can watch a trailer here.


The film, directed by Mark Siska, tells the story of the birth and growth of a new kind of comedy in Chicago with clips of early performances by the “Compass Players,” who first performed in Hyde Park and later moved to the north side. Interviews with many of the performers, directors and advisers are featured, including Shelley Berman, Ed Asner, Suzanne Shepherd, Mark Gordon, Sheldon Patinkin, Jeffrey Sweet, David Shepherd (cofounder of the Compass Players) and Bernie Sahlins (founder of Second City).

The story begins in 1955 with “the explosion of comedy and social satire,” according to playwright Sweet, author of “Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players” (2004). It was a reaction to the Eisenhower-era political lethargy, but mainly to McCarthyism. “It wasn’t an accident,” Sweet says, “it was a reaction to the new Cossacks.”

The founders of the “Compass Players”—Paul Sills and David Shepherd—wanted to produce “theater for real people.” Sills thought most theater of the time was three acts of verbiage for an elite audience. They wanted to produce theater that was related to the lives of actual people. Their creative source was theater games, developed by Viola Spolin, Sills’ mother, who used them working with kids in settlement houses. Theater games generated improvisation, sketch comedy and, later, improvising on suggestions from audience members.

The 90-minute film is populated with talking heads (interesting and entertaining talking heads) and spotlights an important period in Chicago’s and America’s cultural history. It’s unfortunate that there’s no archival or amateur footage from the early days of “Compass Players” because watching the film makes you yearn to see those early performances and the roots of today’s improv.

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