The McDonald’s of Comedy?

Kim Clark, who’s headed up the Second City Training Center writing program for the last few years, was already in a funk last week when producer Kelly Leonard called him in to talk. It was coming up on the anniversary of legendary center director Martin de Maat’s death, and “I had been depressed all week thinking about that,” Clark says. When Leonard announced, “This is going to be a difficult meeting. We’re parting ways,” Clark was taken by surprise. “I stared at the carpet for five minutes. He said, ‘Would you like to sign an agreement saying anything you say in this room will be kept in this room?’ And I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t.’ He said, ‘I’ll write you a letter of recommendation.’ I said, ‘Kelly, I don’t need a letter of recommendation. I came in with my integrity, I’m leaving with my integrity.'”

Clark sees his dismissal as one of many changes at the training center in the year since de Maat’s death. He and three staffers from the center’s improv division–the center offers separate programs in writing and improv–had been appointed to fill the vacuum de Maat had left. Anne Libera (Leonard’s wife), Norm Holly, Michael Gellman, and Clark were to have equal authority and rotate as artistic director, with Libera assuming the title for the first year. But, says Clark, it quickly became clear that Leonard would be taking a larger role in training center affairs than he had during de Maat’s tenure, when “the stage and the training center were completely separate.” The beginning of the end came last fall, Clark says, when Leonard “called me in and said, ‘I want to change the writing program.’ I wrote him a long E-mail. I said, ‘No. You do the producing, I do the writing. Let me do my job, please. Please don’t hire any teachers.'”

The teaching staff for the writing program (ten people in Chicago) became a major bone of contention, Clark says. The program (which registered 155 students last term, 14 percent of the total training center enrollment) is divided into five levels, each completed in an eight-week session. When Clark was recruited by de Maat to run the program in 1999, it had a good foundation, he says, but only about 18 students and two levels of training. Clark played a key role in establishing three more levels, and within a year had a dozen classes going. “Now that the writing program has a healthy cash flow,” Clark says, “I think Kelly wants to hire people he knows–take the rank-and-file teachers out and put in prestigious movie writers. I’m concerned with the integrity of the program. Being a good writer is one thing. Being a good teacher is a completely separate thing. Being both is a miracle. I said it’s nice to think of bringing in, you know, the writer of George of the Jungle. But I have to meet him. I don’t know if he’s a teacher. I don’t know if he has skill nurturing young talent.”

Clark says his resistance to the bureaucracy being imposed on the center was another issue. He says he spoke up in meetings against proposed rules that would micromanage things like hiring and teaching and institutionalize an already pervasive insularity. “They were starching the passion right out of it. Second City is a bar. We sell drinks for a living. It’s not a college. Get a grip.” After a policy meeting where it was suggested that teachers who criticize Second City should be put on probation, Clark says he realized that it is now one of the most conservative places he’s ever worked. “I’m like, You can’t do that. This is a place of social change and political satire. That’s so Disneyesque.” Clark says he got five calls about jobs the day he was fired and has no regrets. “There’s been a fear for a long time that Second City is the McDonald’s of comedy. I wonder if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point. I don’t want to stay for that.”

While he declined to comment on the dismissal other than to say Clark “did yeoman’s work on the writing program” and “we’re looking to make it even better,” Leonard agreed that he hopes to “augment the staff with folks who have experience in the business” and to “integrate all the different programs in the training center.” According to him, “The walls are coming down. The training center is talking to the corporate division, which is talking to the touring company, which is talking to the theater. We’re looking to get people who work well on a team.” Leonard says the training center is in better shape than ever, citing the recent addition of 5,000 square feet of classroom space, a decision to turn Donny’s Skybox Studio (which has been a rental venue) into a theater for student and faculty productions only, and plans to branch into classes on directing and short filmmaking. “Rather than getting bureaucratic, we’ve gotten organized,” to provide support that didn’t exist “in that happy hippie Second City,” he says. Second City announced Monday that Jason Brett, head of its film and television division, will take over the writing program.

They’ll Need a Telescope

As of press time, today was the last day at work for eight Chicago staff members of, victims of a layoff that affected 111 employees nationwide. The local editorial department was wiped out, with four people let go and one reassigned. The layoffs came in response to flagging revenues and higher than expected losses for the on-line entertainment database, owned by Ticketmaster, which until now used local offices to cover movies, theater, music, sports, and other events and attractions in more than 100 cities. Official word from Citysearch’s Los Angeles headquarters is that it’ll still cover the local scene, from approximately 17 regional hubs–one of which is Chicago. Sources say in-depth coverage will be impossible and the long-term outlook is dubious.

Byrne Piven, 1929-2002

Chicago lost actor, director, and theater patriarch Byrne Piven Tuesday to lung cancer. Piven and his wife, Joyce, founded the Evanston-based Piven Theatre Workshop, which has taught the art of story theater to generations of young actors, including John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn, and Piven’s own children, Jeremy and Shira.

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