When Second City player John Sabine was a child in Dallas, he spent from four to five Halloweens dressing up as the rubber-faced Jim Carrey.
“I had the same haircut,” he said in a telephone interview from Chicago. “I had the chipped tooth.”
“I probably was the class clown,” he conceded. “I always thought I was funnier than I really was. I was voted the most likely to become a comedian in high school.”
Today Sabine is a member of the seminal Second City touring company, slated to perform a holiday show on Saturday at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The program is filled with sketches, songs and improv games culled from the theater’s 50-year history, all with a satiric nod toward the holidays. Audiences can also expect some riffs on more topical subjects, such as the government shutdown and gay marriage.
Midwifed in 1959 as a small Chicago cabaret theater, Second City railed against a conformist culture at a time when mother-in-law jokes were the rule. It evolved from The Compass Players (home to Mike Nichols and Elaine May), a cabaret revue started by University of Chicago students. The troupe chose the self-mocking name from the title of a derisive article about Chicago by A.J. Liebling that appeared in The New Yorker. Its revues feature both semi-improvised and scripted scenes with new material developed during improv sessions after the second act, where the performers react to audience suggestions.
Over the years, it became known as “The Harvard of Comedy,” launching the careers of a galaxy of stars, among them Alan Arkin, Robert Klein, David Steinberg and Fred Willard. With the 1970s debut of “Saturday Night Live” and alums like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, the theater became internationally known as the incubus for an ever-expanding class of comic superstars.
Second City’s sister theater in Canada developed its own sketch comedy series, SCTV, hailed as one of the greatest comedy series of all time and featuring an all-star cast that included Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty and Rick Moranis.
Like any adult who savors the music of his or her youth, Sabine’s favorite cast occurred when he was in junior high school, during the heyday of Chris Farley, Dana Carvey and later Will Ferrell.
“I think Amy Poehler is the funniest person on earth, and I didn’t realize she was with them,” he added. “Right now, I watch the ‘Colbert Report’ every day, as well as ‘Parks and Rec’ and ‘The Office,’” Sabine said.
Today he reads scripts still bearing the names of Second City veterans such as Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
“That means they wrote it,” he said.
After graduating from California’s Santa Clara University with a degree in theater and dance, Sabine headed to Chicago to attend Second City’s Comedy Studies Program. He’s been making audiences laugh ever since. The thinking-on-your-feet lightning timing and group support so critical to improv drew him in.
“When I moved to Chicago, I couldn’t believe a place like this existed,” he said. “It felt like a wonderland.”
“It’s a collaborative” process, he continued. “It’s not stand-up, where you’re standing by yourself. You’re with your friends and you’re creating something together.”
Those friendships got him through the seemingly interminable series of auditions required to join the touring ensemble.
“It’s competitive, but it’s not, because it’s all your friends,” he explained. “Everyone’s in the same boat. At the end of the day, you become like a family; a tribe. You go to auditions together and then you go out to breakfast.”
As for the future, Sabine is humble, not awaiting an “SNL” scout to rocket him to stardom.
“I would like to get paid for making comedy with my friends,” he said. “Right now, I’m very happy at Second City. I’m hoping to either write or act in something I’m proud of. That’s very vague, but I think it’s a good rubric.
“At the end of the day, it’s playing make-believe as adults.”