The stage of UP Comedy Club at Second City
The stage of UP Comedy Club at Second City Credit: Johnny Knight

This has been a helluva week for Second City news. On Wednesday, Financial Times first published reports of an imminent sale of the comedy behemoth to private equity firm ZMC, owned by Strauss Zelnick. Zelnick is the CEO of Take-Two Interactive Software, home of the Grand Theft Auto game franchise. On Thursday, those rumors were confirmed by ZMC; they declined to name the purchase price, but FT said that “the company was expected to fetch about $50 [million].” 

Coincidentally, Wednesday was also when the newly formed Association of International Comedy Educators, a union for the “arts educators and facilitators” who teach at Second City, announced that they had filed cards with the National Labor Relations Board seeking recognition as a bargaining unit from Second City. Under the local umbrella of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Chicago chapter of AICE represents 160 instructors at Second City. (The branches in Hollywood and Toronto will be represented through Communications Workers of America and CWA Canada, respectively.) Performers in Second City productions work under Actors’ Equity contracts, but the instructors in the various training programs (which encompass courses in improvisation, writing, directing, filmmaking, and music, among many other disciplines) have never had union representation.

On June 5 of last year, during the international Black Lives Matter protests about the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, longtime Second City owner, CEO, and executive producer Andrew Alexander announced that he was stepping down. The announcement came after a series of social media posts and other public criticism about systemic racism at the institution. In his resignation, Alexander acknowledged, “I succumbed to (what I now realize was) my unconscious biases, the biases of the theater community, and the biases of the city in which The Second City is embedded,” adding, “While diversifying the theater artistically, I failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive. I am so deeply and inexpressibly sorry.”

Subsequently, Anthony LeBlanc was named as interim executive director—a post he held until late November, when Jon Carr, a veteran of the Atlanta theater and improv scene, was named to the position permanently. Both LeBlanc and Carr are Black. 

Between those two announcements, however, came word in early October that the company was on the market for only the second time since its founding in 1959. In that announcement, Second City president Steve Johnston touted a growth plan that “leverages Second City’s unique position in the comedy ecosystem . . . to capture market share in the short to medium term, as well as accelerate a transition toward digital delivery of programming, which is already off to a great start.”

Undeniably, Second City, like all for-profit theater and live entertainment companies, has taken huge financial hits during the COVID-19 shutdown, and has had to pivot to digital classes and other offerings as a revenue stream.

It’s premature to predict what the new ownership might mean for the company and the brand going forward. ZMC isn’t a venture capital firm investing in a plucky start-up; it’s a private equity firm buying into an established (if currently beleaguered) brand, and there are some reasons to be leery of that model. (Think Bain Capital—or, closer to home now, Alden Capital, the new owners of the Tribune.) However, Jordan Turkewitz, co-chief investment officer and managing partner at ZMC, said in the official announcement, “Over its sixty-year history, The Second City has been home to some of the most beloved names in comedy, and we plan on building the next generation of comedy talent by investing in people and creativity.” 

Taylor Walters-Chapman
Taylor Walters-ChapmanCredit: Courtesy the artist

No one from Second City or ZMC responded to requests for comment from the Reader. But the members of the newly formed union were happy to share their thoughts. Within moments of the announcement, several Second City instructors expressed their solidarity and joy in the new labor organization and changed their profile pictures on social media to the logo for AICE.

AICE spokesperson Taylor Walters-Chapman, who has taught at Second City in Chicago for four years, says that the decision to unionize predated both Alexander’s resignation and the announcement that the company was for sale, and that the union organizers had no idea that the sales announcement would hit the same day as the AICE news. 

“We have been organizing since around last spring in an official capacity,” says Walters-Chapman. “Everyone was informed of exactly their rights, what we could ask for, were we totally crazy to be wanting to do this? And obviously, we’re not.” 

She adds, “Basically what we’ve worked on is getting these four main things that we want to ask for. Which is, one—having voices heard on important decisions, having the teachers have a voice in that. We’re obviously a really large part of the operation at Second City and therefore, I think it’s not unheard-of to want a seat at the table.

“Secondly, we want to make sure that we have a consistent educational experience for our students. There’s a real lack of consistency across the board when it comes to, say, lesson plans, etcetera. We just want to make sure that that is streamlined a little bit.

“Third thing is we want to make sure that we are addressing diversity and inclusion. Second City has made some efforts in the last year to do that, but we think that in order for that to occur, there needs to be a little bit more participation company-wide with workshopping and development to really make sure that messaging gets across, so the workplace as well as our classrooms are safe spaces and we’re holding the employer accountable, and not just promising something and then not following through.

“Lastly, just making sure that we’re able to negotiate for fair and reliable compensation. Clear job descriptions, really. So those are the four main things that we are really looking to start a discussion about.”

Jack Bronis has been teaching at Second City for 22 years, and he identifies another element that helped make the argument for unionization. (He says that the serious discussions around the topic began in December of 2019.) 

“For many years, the faculty just felt there wasn’t a lot of transparency in terms of decisions being made and we rarely had a decision that was made with the faculty having any input,” says Bronis.

He adds, “Some of it had to do, for example, with people creating programs that were then taken away from them, with no compensation for that.”

However, even though the Second City instructors all had to shift to the online model, Bronis says that wasn’t a major factor in the unionization drive. “I think Second City, to its credit, with a relatively skeleton crew, sort of nimbly changed into virtual. So no, I don’t think that the virtual aspect of it had a lot to do with our deciding to unionize.”

He acknowledges, “Enrollment is way down. So we’re sort of going into this with eyes wide open, knowing that things may not be the same for a long time, if ever.”

Walters-Chapman notes that, now that the cards have been filed with NLRB, it’s a waiting game, particularly with the imminent new ownership. “We have served our intention to Second City and begun our registration process, and so they can either say, ‘Hey, we think that’s great,’ speed through, and get the negotiations started, or they might take a step back and say, ‘We need to think about how to strategize.'”  v