Bernard “Bernie” Sahlins, the co-founder and former owner of Second City and a crucial and essential innovator in the field of American comedy, died peacefully Sunday at his home, his wife, Jane Nicholl Sahlins, said. He was 90.
It is hard to overstate Sahlins’ influence on the growth and innovation of sketch comedy, and on any entertainment that involves performers making things up based on suggestions from the audience. He also was famous for spotting big talents, quickly and early.
“Bernie’s track record for discovering future Hollywood megastars was unmatched,” said Tim Kazurinsky, one of Sahlin’s numerous discoveries — a long list that also included the likes of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner and James and John Belushi. “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.”
“Bernie was a mischievous imp,” said George Wendt, another comic actor who got his start in Chicago under Sahlins, “with the mind of Bertrand Russell.”
Along with Howard Alk and Paul Sills, Sahlins created a 120-seat Chicago cabaret named The Second City in 1959. The name came from a snotty New Yorker article penned by A.J. Liebling; the Old Town space had once belonged to a Chinese laundry. The opening cast was Eugene Troobnick, Severn Darden, Mina Kolb, Howard Alk, Barbara Harris, Roger Bowen and Andrew Duncan; the institution would go to revolutionize American comedy.
Of the founding trio, Sahlins was the only one with any real head for business and thus most responsible for building The Second City into a for-profit powerhouse, before selling the operation to current owner Andrew Alexander in 1984. “Bernie Sahlins made no small plans and his legacy will be felt for generations to come,” Alexander said, calling Sahlins “a true theatrical impresario” and “a giant in the industry.”
Sahlins was born in Chicago in 1922. By 1959, he already was an old hand in the business of comedy theater, even if Chicago had yet little or no identity as a theatrical center. With Sills, he had co-founded The Compass Players, an illustrious 1950s group with roots on the campus of the University of Chicago, from which Sahlins was a 1943 graduate. (His younger brother, Marshall Sahlins, is a prominent anthropology professor at the university.)
If any single group could have been said to have invented improvisation — in its current context, at least — Compass Players was that group. And if any single individual could have been said to have invented topical sketch comedy — the form upon which “Saturday Night Live” and many other such TV shows are based — Sahlins was that individual.
Sahlins was also a producer of legitimate, dramatic theater, staging shows in the Studebaker Theatre in the 1950s. He was a co-founder and business director of the Playwrights Theatre Club, which was composed of an especially talented ensemble, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Joyce Piven and Ed Asner. It did not last (many of its members became part of Second City). But while some of the groups with which the young Sahlins was associated came and went over the years, The Second City abided, with Sahlins’ hand on the tiller for decades. He also was co-creator of SCTV, the Canadian TV comedy series that grew out of Second City in Toronto and that retains its cult following.
Known for a somewhat caustic sense of humor and a habit of jumping around on the stage while directing, Sahlins had a famous rivalry with the late improv guru Del Close. Whereas Close believed in the purity of improvisation as an art form, Sahlins always famously insisted that it was best used as a tool to create original material that later would become part of a script.
“Improv never was a presentational form,” Sahlins said in an interview with the Tribune in 2005. “To do it night after night in a theater setting is impossible.”
Close disagreed passionately and the pair had a famous reconciliation on that point while Close was on his deathbed — Sahlins willingly conceded that improv was an art form, for that day only. Close will be remembered for his teaching and his love of process. Sahlins better understood the commercial and populist potential of his art form, just as long as process was allowed to be turned, before it curdled, into smart, exportable product.
After the sale of Second City to Alexander, Sahlins remained a force on the arts scene, leading international workshops on the creation of sketch comedy, consulting for various governments (including that of Lithuania) and directing everywhere from the Court Theatre in Hyde Park to Romania to the Disney Company. He wrote a memoir, “Days and Nights at Second City.” He published adaptations of the plays of Beaumarchais and Moliere. With his wife, he was a co-founder of Chicago’s International Theatre Festival in 1986. Although now defunct, the festival was crucial in developing the taste of Chicagoans for work from abroad. Sahlins continued to write, consult and direct, even into his late 80s. He was hatching new enterprises — such as a series of staged readings of verse dramas for the Poetry Foundation — until shortly before his death.
He was hardly burnishing his legacy. That was not necessary. As Sheldon Patinkin, one of Sahlin’s early collaborators, noted when Sahlins received an honorary degree in 2006 from Columbia College: “His legacy to theater and, in particular, to comedy in America, is secure and clearly permanent.”
Patinkin, now one of the few true pioneers of sketch and improv still working, expressed grief at Sahlin’s death: “He was my friend,” Patinkin said, “for 60 years.”
In 2007, Sahlins addressed the Association of Arts Administration Educators. His speech began as follows: “As the British say about cricket: Art is not a matter of life and death … it’s much more important than that. We come and we go, but the music of Ariel’s island sings forever.”
Funeral services for Sahlins will be private. A memorial service is to follow on a date to be announced.