As the Telecommunications Act of 1996 continues to push news and entertainment towards the notion of “big media,” its effect is starting to penetrate institutions that were previously thought safe from corporate agenda. Becoming more susceptible to the pressures of media convergence are independent organizations that were founded on the initial premise of anti-establishment.
Second City, a comedy theatre based out of Chicago, has achieved legendary status by humorously ridiculing the status quo and making citizens laugh at controversial subjects that are either ignored or misconstrued by pop culture. Whether it’s satirizing two couples on their first date or attacking the leader of the free world, Second City takes the mundane or boring and makes it funny through the art of Improv.
Recently, Second City signed a contract with Sony Corporation giving Sony licensing and creative rights to any material created through improvisation or written sketches in a given Second City performance. If Sony wishes to use the Second City material, the actors or writers involved in the original sketch will receive a small stipend and the actors are guaranteed only consideration for performance roles if the material is developed for TV or film.
While network convergence was inevitable, with its history of whoring its creative content in favor of an advertising agency’s satisfaction, the fact that a company known for its independence from mainstream sentiment has sided with corporate America is an unfortunate sign for the arts community.
Second City, and similar improv theatres like The Groundlings and Improv Olympic, are used as farm systems for the comedy industry. For over 40 years, these places have home grown such performers such as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman to comedy powerhouses like “Saturday Night Live,” “National Lampoon” and “Mad TV.” The system worked because the theatres were given complete creative freedom in their content. With the allowed space for innovation, performers and writers attained new levels of intellectually valuable and unprecedented comedy. Once handpicked by network TV, the performers naturally had to creatively give a little to financially get a little. These performers achieve the pinnacle of their industry by sacrificing part of the artistic merit of their work, but the process is a success due to TV’s lack of progression in original programming. A Second City performer utilized at 75 percent of his or her ability is much more than anything a group of stuffy network executives could conjure up.
However, with Sony’s new partnership with Second City, (and the possibility that the aforementioned comedy theatres could follow suit) the creative process of comedy is in serious danger. Instead of previously untouched content being repackaged for the mass public, (giving America at least a re-hashed version of fresh comedy) comedy theatres are now burdened by the influence of corporate America from the very beginning of the creative process.
This invasion of artistic freedom creates an atmosphere that is no longer truly free of mainstream views. Comedy is based off the principle of satirizing the status quo and if values of the status quo are ingrained in the comedic process, there is no artistic room for satire.
Dan Bakkedahl, a former member of Second City’s main stage, recently quit amid the growing frustrations of Sony’s influence. With several thousand improv performers vying for one of the six main stage slots, leaving the theatre for reasons other than a “Saturday Night Live” job offer is almost unprecedented. Bakkedahl’s exit should at least be an eye opener to Second City management and at least provide grounds for reconsideration of their relationship with corporations.
Second City has a history of being eight moves ahead of the competition and this may prove to be no exception. As media companies continue to merge and form bigger and more powerful corporations, why should comedy theatres such as Second City sit and watch its craft be mutilated when it has the opportunity to voice its opinion in the process? It could be argued that Second City is merely changing with the times and is making the necessary decisions to stay on top, but the fact that agreements such as these are continuing to water down artistic expression points to the bleak future of mainstream entertainment.
Rick is a junior majoring in Journalism and Radio/TV/Film. He is still undecided on the benefits of “The Man.” He can be reached at [email protected]