Revolving Door Policy

Some call Second City one big happy dysfunctional family, but really the venerable comedy factory is more like the village in The Prisoner: no matter how hard you try to escape the confines of 1616 N. Wells, it draws you back in. Not even losing your job helps. Del Close was fired from the company in the early 60s, invited back in the early 70s, fired again in the early 80s, and then hired again in 1989 to direct a comedy revue. That show, The Gods Must Be Lazy, was so poorly received that he probably would have been let go again had he not been an independent contractor.

But even for Second City, the return in a single month of three alums–Jeff Michalski, Ali Farahnakian, and Jerry Minor, in three separate shows–seems unusual.

Minor, a native of Flint, Michigan, who’s performed with Second City Detroit, Second City E.T.C., and Second City Toronto, left the company on good terms, lured away to join the cast of HBO’s Mr. Show. Since then he’s worked on a handful of television shows, including The Martin Short Show, The Daily Show, and Saturday Night Live. So it was no surprise when Second City producer Kelly Leonard invited him to move his successful two-person stage show, Jerry Minor Is a Black Man, from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York to Donny’s Skybox Studio Theatre, on the third floor of Piper’s Alley.

Farahnakian and Michalski, on the other hand, were less fondly remembered. Farahnakian was fired twice, the first time in 1996, for inciting a crowd of promgoers whose school had paid for a special performance, specifically asking that none of the performers use the F word. “Ali got onstage,” Leonard remembers, “and told the audience, ‘I can’t use the F word, but you can.'” In less than a minute he had the whole room chanting “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“The first thing I did when I heard about it was laugh,” Leonard continues. “But we had to return the money, and we lost that gig forever.”

Farahnakian was hired again in late 1998 to perform with the E.T.C. company, then fired in 1999 for missing a performance. He discusses his difficulties at Second City in a one-man show, Word of Mouth, which opened in May 2000 at Upright Citizens Brigade. Leonard heard about the show and offered Farahnakian a stage in Chicago. “Are you serious?” was Farahnakian’s stunned reply. When Leonard assured him he was, Farahnakian briefly contemplated changing the name of his show to “The Prodigal Son of a Bitch Returns.”

That name could as easily have been applied to I Polack, the five-man show written by Michalski, who has an even more troubled history with Second City than Farahnakian. Nevertheless I Polack, written with Kevin L. Burrows, premieres August 4 at Donny’s Skybox.

Born and raised around North and Elston, Michalski has the defiant air of a guy who spent his childhood hanging out on the streets, “playing in factories and toxic waste dumps.” His father was a Chicago cop–“He was a maniac,” Michalski recalls–and he seemed destined to spend his life butting heads with authority figures. At 13 he was “thrown out” of the Catholic Church “when the priest wouldn’t give me absolution for missing mass on Sunday.” It was all the same to Michalski, who preferred hanging out with his friends.

A washout at Lane Tech, Michalski enlisted in the navy in 1971 to avoid being drafted. After he was discharged he returned to Chicago and tried his hand at comedy, taking classes in improv at the Players Workshop. Unlike most improv students he stuck with it, going on to work with a series of well-regarded troupes–the Saint Vitus Dancers, the Comedy Rangers–before landing a spot in the Second City touring company in 1980.

Improv’s antiauthoritarian roots appealed to Michalski. “I love how Paul Sills used to cast his shows,” he says: “Whoever walked in the room.” But even in the world of improv there was plenty to rebel against. “There were two companies back then. There was the red company, which got to go on all the nice long trips to places like San Francisco, and then there was our company, the B [blue] company, which didn’t.”

Advancement was much slower in the blue company, especially for Michalski, who had a “rocky relationship” with Second City’s then owner, Bernie Sahlins. But he stayed, supplementing his income by doing stand-up at Zanies, the Comedy Cottage, and the Comedy Womb in Lyons.

In 1983, when Practical Theater pulled out of the space Second City owned next door, Sahlins asked the blue company to put together a show to run there, and Second City E.T.C. was born. Director Don DePollo became ill during rehearsals for that first show, Cows on Ice, and unofficial assistant director Michalski took over. “We were ordered not to bring in any critics,” he says. But Sahlins went out of town, and Joyce Sloane, then Second City’s producer, saw an opportunity. She called Michalski, who took it upon himself to invite the press. Cows on Ice garnered critical praise in the dailies and the Reader.

“Bernie wanted to fire us,” Michalski remembers, “But Joyce talked him out of it. She said, ‘Look at the nice reviews.'” It also helped that the shows started selling out.

After two more E.T.C. shows, Michalski was sent to open a Second City branch in Los Angeles. “We started strong. We got good reviews,” he says. But the show faltered when Second City tried to “go Hollywood,” hiring a name star (SCTV alum Andrea Martin) and trying to generate ideas for network sitcoms. “We crashed and burned.” The franchise closed down, and after working for Second City for nearly ten years Michalski found himself stranded with his wife, fellow Second City alum Jane Morris, and their kids. “No one even offered me a plane ticket back to Chicago.”

Trying to make the best of the situation, Michalski and a handful of other improvisers opened the small Upfront Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. “I called Severn Darden and asked if he would play with us. Our first night we had three members of Second City’s first company–Darden, Mina Kolb, and Roger Bowen–performing.” Upfront closed three years ago, but Michalski continues to host a Second City alumni night at the Santa Monica Pier.

I Polack grew out of monologues about his childhood that he used to give. It explores his rebellious streak through the lens of his Polish ancestry. “The Poles rejected authority from the get-go. And even when they were occupied, they learned how to live and maintain their identity. My contention is that we need that inner Polack to survive what’s happening in the world. You need that skepticism of authority.”

Certainly it’s essential if you want to be a perpetual prodigal son of a bitch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.