Famous names like Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert are just a few of the notable former members of Chicago improv group The Second City. This summer, Ben Leit ’22 is studying comedy in a program hosted by the same group, in collaboration with Columbia College Chicago.
Until now, Leit has said he enjoys learning to be “structurally and technically funny”. Four courses make up the program: Creation of Scenes by Improvisation, Writing of Comedy Scenes, History and Analysis of Modern Comedy, and Physical and Vocal Training in Comedy. The improv class is the most important – a “four hour class where they basically put you on stage for 10 minutes at a time and say make us laugh,” Leit said. “It’s really difficult.”
There are 14 students in the program, all of whom live in Chicago apartments while taking classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. Some are enrolled in colleges and universities, while others have already graduated or made some other way into the professional world. “Three of us are professional actors,” Leit noted. “One of the guys is 29 and just wanted to have some tools under his belt.”
At the end of the summer, students will put on a show sharing the skills acquired during the program. The show, Leit said, will likely be a mix of “a few traditional sketching things” (think SNL) and “a few improvisational things” that will work from the audience’s suggestions. “We’re working on a lot of visual comedy right now, which is like not saying a word and making the audience laugh as quickly as possible,” he said. “A weird way to convey this is to just have an empty stage light up, turn off the lights, then have everyone [on stage] looking at the audience… they will react to that.
Although Leit has no formal acting experience, he certainly did not go to Chicago without any acting training. He mentioned theater teachers Craig Latrell and Mark Cryer as being extremely influential in helping him develop important skills such as work ethic, memorization, and acting skills, among others. Both have also “been really supportive in terms of wanting me to branch out and get that experience,” he said. “And it’s not their job to do that.”
The transition from theater to comedy was enlightening for Leit, and he described how it made him reconsider his take on college theater in general. “There’s this tendency in college theaters to be very serious – like oh, I saw a college show… it’s very avant-garde and a little esoteric. For me, it’s a bit of a dangerous state of mind. If you take something too seriously, you are unaware of yourself.