RIP Bernard “Bernie” Sahlins, The Second City’s co-founder (1922-2013)

“The TBS Just For Laughs Chicago festival wrapped up its fifth annual celebration of comedy in “the second city” over the weekend, but there probably wouldn’t have been reason for such a fest in Chicago without The Second City‘s co-founder, Bernie Sahlins, who died at his home on Sunday. Sahlins was 90.

A Chicago native, Sahlins studied at the University of Chicago and founded The Second City in 1959 with Howard Alk and Paul Sills, naming the theater and its program after a nickname given to Chicago in a New Yorker article. He produced and directed shows at the theater until 1984, and also helped create and produce the sketch TV series, SCTV.

Sahlins told PBS during The Second City’s 50th anniversary in 2009: “First thing we look for is intelligence and a wide range of reference. They have to assume their audience is at least as bright as they are, if not brighter. They have to know literature, politics, know the world around them. Then comes acting ability. Actually being funny is mostly telling the truth about things.”

Through The Second City, Sahlins made Chicago the first city for sketch comedy for decades to come. He helped create SCTV, to be sure; but also discovered and nutured the talents who helped launch SNL and kept it funny through today. His influence has rippled throughout TV and film comedies.

“Bernie’s track record for discovering future Hollywood megastars was unmatched,” Tim Kazurinsky told The Chicago Tribune. “He probably was responsible for the greatest revolution in American comedy. You really can’t exaggerate his contribution. I was a kid who came from the slums of Sydney; walking into Second City changed my life forever. And that was true of pretty much everyone who ever walked into that place. And everyone who worked there was part of Bernie’s family. He was best man at my wedding. For all of us, he was not so much a boss as a mentor. And I quote him every day.”

Added George Wendt: “”Bernie was a mischievous imp, with the mind of Bertrand Russell.”


The first and only time I saw Bernie Sahlins, he was directing Kazurinsky and Wendt once more in an alumni reunion show at The Second City as part of the 2010 TBS Just For Laughs Chicago festival.

“Bernie Sahlins made no small plans and his legacy will be felt for generations to come” states Andrew Alexander, CEO/Managing Partner of The Second City. “As producer and co-Founder of The Playwrights Theatre Club, The Second City, The University of Chicago’s Off-Off Campus, the International Theatre Festival of Chicago and the Lithuanian International Theatre, Bernie was a true theatrical impresario. His passion for the theatre was only equaled by his tremendous capacity for laughter. No one was quicker with a joke than Bernie and he remained an indefatigable figure in the Chicago theatre scene as a writer, director and lecturer. Although we mourn the loss of Bernie Sahlins, he will forever be remembered as a giant in the industry and a true friend and colleague to generations of Chicago theatre artists.”

Sahlins famously or infamously had a falling out with Del Close (who fell out with The Second City and later taught improv at ImprovOlympic) over the nature of improvisational comedy as an art form.

“Thanks for all you have created Bernie Sahlins!” wrote iO Chicago’s Charna Halpern. “Hopefully, Del will be there to meet you at the pearly gates so the two of you old friends can continue your long lasting argument.”

Funeral services will be private. A memorial service will be scheduled later.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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