Think of some of the best comedic actors over the past half century.
You might come up with names like Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray, and Joan Rivers. What’s the common thread? All of these comedy icons are alumni of The Second City improv group, which has two schools in Chicago and a branch in Toronto.
For his new book “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success,” Shane Snow went to the original Second City location on Chicago’s North Side and figured out that the school has produced such consistently funny people for so long because it lets them behave fearlessly as they learn the craft. The rapid feedback they get from fellow students and coaches pointing out why jokes failed helps them improve their comedic acting skills at an accelerated rate.
The fast-paced improv format allows actors to redirect the action, change scenes, and cut off jokes that aren’t working. Performers typically take audience suggestions for topics or backstories for characters, then act out the first thing that comes to mind. Amid all the zaniness that ensues, casts can slip in scenes they have been considering for their show and gauge audience reactions. And though sometimes the material is dreadful, it doesn’t matter. They can fail without failing.
The Second City process is about getting performers comfortable with negative feedback so that they can seperate their egos from criticism.
Snow writes that the performers achieve accelerated growth because “(1) it gives them rapid feedback; (2) it depersonalizes the feedback; and (3) it lowers the stakes and pressure, so students take risks that force them to improve.”
In 1996, the researchers Avraham N. Kluger and Angelo DeNisi found that experts in a given field much preferred negative feedback to positive, since the former is actionable. But they also found that harsh negative feedback actually hinders the output of novices who have not built up confidence that comes with experience.
The Second City breaks down its students natural fear of criticism by easing them into it. It “has students continuously parlay up to harder audiences and harsher feedback as they grow more comfortable. This forces them to both toughen up and push creative boundaries,” Snow writes.
In a traditional acting class, a group may spend an entire semester fine-tuning a single performance, and if it’s not as well-received as they would have hoped, there’s nothing they can do about it.
“Funny is right at the line. Just a little bit uncomfortable. Just at the place where it could fail. And just like a muscle, you have to fail a little bit in order to improve,” a Second City teacher identified only as Anne told Snow.
Steve Carrell may be one of the funniest people in Hollywood, but as a Second City student he once told a joke so offensive an entire audience stormed out of the theatre.
For an example of what a great Second City performance looks like after hours of missed jokes, here’s an old tape of Tina Fey performing with Rachel Dratch:
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