Inside the Second City’s Comedy Studies Program

C.J. Toledano is a familiar face in the Chicago comedy community. He’s a stand-up comedian, and has a natural ease that sets him apart from many other stand-ups his age. At 25, he’s already written for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and is currently a consulting writer for the O.N.N. He takes his craft seriously, and is hard working, imaginative, and focused. But that wasn’t always the case. “I was a punk,” Toledano recalls of his college years, and his academic record can verify that. His GPA was a rocky 1.8, and he had dropped out of film school only to enroll in a university right next to his old High School (“It was known as the ‘13th grade,” he dismally remembers). Still, he had comedy. “I had been driving around Pittsburgh doing stand-up as an 18-year-old kid, winning college contests and emceeing for D-list celebrities at comedy clubs, so I thought I knew everything.” It was around this time that he applied to a program in Chicago called Comedy Studies. “When I got to Comedy Studies,” says Toledano, “I found out I knew next to nothing about anything.” Over the course of a semester, Toledanos’ experience in Comedy Studies helped shape his talents and instill the skills needed to become a successful comedian.

There are many others out there like C.J. To a college student seriously interested in comedy, learning more about it and getting hands-on experience is often difficult. Outside of a few major metropolitan areas, one would have to learn what they could second hand, and hopefully find a short-form comedy group on campus to play with. Like C.J., they would have to slum it in whatever small venues they could find. Before Comedy Studies was founded in 2007, there was no real destination for college comedy nerds. This need did not go unnoticed. “The Second City Training Center had long had the goal of being ‘the Julliard of Comedy,” says Anne Libera, Director of the Comedy Studies program, “Andrew [Alexander, owner of The Second City] challenged us to see if we could make that an actuality.” Eventually, Anne teamed up with Chicago’s Columbia College, “offering the Chicago comedy version of a “semester abroad” — students would be immersed in all aspects of the study of comedy and improvisation taking classes at [The] Second City.” Comedy Studies was born.

Students who go through the program receive an intensive training. “Essentially if you look at an entire course catalog of any comedy training center such as Second City, iO, UCB, etc. and then you say, “Oh, wow. I wish I could take all of these,” well with Comedy Studies that’s exactly what you got to do,” says Toledano. Students can look forward to becoming more well-rounded comedians as a result of this education. “In creating the program, we wanted to provide more than improvisation training; we wanted to offer coursework that would support comedians of all types,” says Libera, “It seemed clear that a large element of that success was a kind of comedy ‘cross training’.” The curriculum reflects this goal, offering coursework in improvisation, sketch, clowning, acting, and other essential disciplines of comedy. Toledano, interested primarily in stand-up, found this approach beneficial. “From improv, I learned to be inspired,” he says, “from sketch, I learned how to commit. I just applied all of that to my sensibility and that’s how I would sum myself up as a comedian today.”

In addition to the coursework, students can rely on a knowledgeable staff to help make them better performers and comedians. “The faculty was amazing,” says Toledano, “They pushed me to take it seriously and instilled discipline in me. They made me realize that nothing was going to happen unless I made it happen for myself.” Not only are the staff experts in their respective fields, they put a great importance on the needs of each student. “The faculty works closely together to make sure that each class complements the others and to monitor our students’ progress as individuals and as an ensemble,” says Libera. This includes an encouragement to explore the comedy scene in Chicago. “[W]e make a big point of requiring little in the way of books to buy and tell the students that they are required to use that money to go out and see as much comedy and improvisation as they can,” Libera continued, “We even create a guide recommending the best shows at local institutions.” “[Chicago] has an amazing improv, sketch, and stand-up scene,” says Toledano, “[It’s] also easy to get around, affordable, and has great getaways when you’re not up for doing something comedy related.”

Comedy Studies provides a gratifying experience for any interested student, but it’s not an easy one. “Across the board, [students] make the comment that Comedy Studies isn’t like “real school,” says Libera, “it’s harder, we expect more of them, and pay more attention to their development.” Students should be able to translate their passion for comedy into love for learning, practice, and exploration. “[W]e scrutinize the applications pretty heavily to make sure that the students we do accept can handle the workload,” says Libera of the admission process. “On the other hand, I’ll often take a risk on a certain kind of student with terrible grades (C.J. being a perfect example…) because they demonstrate a work ethic or passion outside of academics. For the most part, those students shine here.” If you’re the kind of student who is willing to put in the work, Comedy Studies can be a rewarding experience. “If you have any sort of urge to do comedy, do it now. In my experience, you have to completely obsess and submerge yourself in it,” says Toledano, adding, “[T]his is probably the only sane way you can convince your parents to let you do that.”

Stephen Winchell is a writer and performer in Chicago. You can see him every month in the bizarre variety show, The Telethon.

Inside the Second City’s Comedy Studies Program