Comedy pioneer Bernie Sahlins passed away Sunday in his Chicago home at the age of 90. Sahlins, who co-founded Chicago’s Second City theater in 1959, had a vast influence on the careers of the dozens and dozens of brilliant comedic minds that passed through the theater’s doors during his tenure there and upon the American comedy landscape as a whole. Sahlins spent three decades at Second City before selling the theater to Andrew Alexander in 1984 and stepping down as artistic director in 1988. During his time at Second City, Sahlins hired a long list of iconic performers that includes Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Fred Willard, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Shelley Long, Harold Ramis, and Martin Short, among countless others.
Sahlins’s influence in the comedy world is so large that it’s difficult to comprehend. He served as a developer and producer on SCTV, one of the most influential TV sketch shows of all time, and his work with Second City led to Chicago becoming one of the country’s preeminent comedy cities, now boasting a thriving stand-up scene and other influential theaters like iO and Annoyance – all of which came about in the decades that followed the founding of Second City. The theater also had an indelible impact upon Saturday Night Live, with producers from the show making it a habit of scouting for cast members there. SNL poached from the theater so much that Second City producer Joyce Sloane tells the Chicago Sun-Times that Sahlins once half-jokingly instructed her to lock Lorne Michaels out of the building.
Bernie Sahlins clashed with improv guru Del Close over whether improvisation could be viewed as an art form in and of itself. Sahlins felt improv should serve as a method of developing scripted ideas, whereas Close felt it could stand on its own, which led him to co-found his own Chicago theater, the ImprovOlympic. Sahlins famously told Close on his deathbed, “Del, for tonight it is an art form.” Despite Sahlins’s opinions on the form, improv hubs like iO and UCB owe a lot to his work at Second City – as does the rest of the comedy world.