Photos of Jon Carr by Joe Mazza/brave lux. Parisa Jalili was not available for a photo.
There was nothing funny about 2020 at The Second City. The pandemic hit the world-famous and far-flung comedy institution like a tsunami, shutting down production of all its shows and closing its bread-and-butter classes overnight. Hundreds of employees, from producers and actors to hospitality staff and educational personnel were furloughed. Then a second tsunami hit when, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a heightened level of racial reckoning swept through cultural institutions, putting many into a state of organizational crisis. Comedy institutions like The Second City, which had grown for decades under the same ownership, were especially vulnerable. Before long, a group of current and former Black performers and employees issued an open letter saying, “…we have come to the conclusion that the erasure, racial discrimination, manipulation, pay inequity, tokenism, monetization of Black culture, and trauma-inducing experiences of Black artists at The Second City will no longer be tolerated.”
The longstanding owners of Chicago’s two most famous comedy institutions, Andrew Alexander at Second City and Charna Halpern at iO—who’d been similarly called to account—were in the twilight of long careers, yet nothing prepared them for all of this. Halpern announced that iO would close permanently in June 2020, less than a month after Floyd’s murder. (She sold the building a year later to new owners who’ve indicated plans to reopen the theater.) Alexander responded with an apology, an immediate resignation and put The Second City up for sale. Its survival, along with Chicago’s status as a comedy mecca, was at stake.
A little over a year later, The Second City is back in operation, with deep-pocketed new out-of-town owners—the private-equity group ZMC—and new leadership here in Chicago. And while the facilities in Old Town and the shows on its stage might seem pretty much the same, the organization is in the midst of profound changes. Overseeing all of this are chief operating officer Parisa Jalili and executive producer Jon Carr. Jalili had just joined The Second City as VP of sales operations from a corporate career about five months before the pandemic shutdown; she now oversees sales, marketing, creative, production, operations and HR. Carr was a seasoned comedian out of Atlanta, where he most recently led Dad’s Garage Theatre as artistic director, before he was recruited to Chicago to guide all things creative.
I met with Carr and Jalili in the offices of The Second City upstairs at their Piper’s Alley headquarters. This is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Describe the current footprint of Second City.
Parisa: Right now, in Chicago, our training center is open and we have our shows running as well. We also are still doing our corporate division of work. Our training center and the corporate side both pivoted online during COVID, rather quickly, actually, within ten days or so of the shutdown. And that’s interesting because it helped diversify our offerings as a theater. It’s one of the core reasons why we survived through the pandemic when, unfortunately, a lot of other arts institutions didn’t.
Right now, we have Chicago open. Our temporary Danforth location in Toronto just opened. We’re looking forward to our permanent home in Toronto on York Street which is under construction.
What’s it been like with audiences?
Parisa: We opened our shows, we sold out, immediately. We’re definitely getting the audiences. It’s been awesome to get people back into the theaters and laughing. Obviously, we’re following COVID protocols and such to keep it as safe as possible. And our students came back in-person, as well, starting back in May.
Jon, what was the theater you came from in Atlanta like? Was it similar to Second City, or very different?
Jon: It was similar in certain ways. It was mainly an improv theater. We also did scripted works, but it was full-length plays that we did traditionally. That theater had been around for about twenty-five years. And we’d dabble a little bit into sketch work. But a lot of the performers that came and were the mainstay performers for Dad’s Garage, eventually came and did some work for Second City. This has always been kind of the place that all of our performers wanted to get to, eventually.
Second City is an institution that was suffering from problems it could not solve. What are you doing to change things without wrecking that which made it great?
Parisa: It was kind of like the perfect storm, if you will, that gave us the gift during COVID, where we got small enough and nimble enough to be able to make changes and do it quickly. But do the meaningful changes, not just the check-the-box kind of things. My opinion is that many of the issues that were here were operational and structural problems. Second City outgrew itself. It was something smaller and it got really big, and it was never really fully integrated in a way to support work that wasn’t siloed off, and kind of competing with itself. Once we were able to restructure the business and were able to become more efficient and more collaborative, many of those issues also dissipated.
We’ve operationalized DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion], among other things that are important to us, throughout the business, which enabled us to have a strong foundation to scale up with, while keeping up the center of what we do all the time. What I disagree with, and is not really the way to approach the work, is everything being an initiative, or time-based. It has to be fluid; it has to be ingrained in the culture and the DNA of the institution and the organization for lasting change, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve taken the longer road, but the road that is longer-lasting, and really ends up creating a culture and an organization that people want to work at, and will thrive in.
We’ve done a lot of work in a very short amount of time that I’m super- proud of. We’re in a really good place. We’re in the most stable place that we’ve ever been, and the most exciting time we’ve ever been in. And with new ownership at our back that also understands the assignment and what we’re trying to achieve here, and is also putting their own resources and guidance and support behind backing this new management team, it has already transformed, and will continue to transform, where we’re going. From an operational standpoint, I’m really proud of where we are right now, and in fact, our corporate clients actually come to us and ask us how to use our professional services, how to make those changes in their businesses. It’s really nice to be looked at in that light now, in such a short amount of time.
Jon: I don’t know that it’s so much throwing out the Second City system—what they’ve created here has lasted for sixty years. And so now, coming in from a creative perspective, it’s less about changing the system, and more about being intentional about it. It’s about, if we’re going to do a show, let’s plan it out a year in advance, and make sure that our entire season is reflective of different voices, diverse voices that are all doing the Second City thing, but from a different perspective. That’s what keeps it unique and interesting and fresh. And then, the other part of that is also just making sure that we’re not only bringing in super-talented folks that are from a diverse background, but also making sure that we’re giving them the tools to express themselves and their points of view, throughout the system and as they’re learning and developing at Second City.
Parisa: What’s interesting is that after sixty-plus years of tradition and history, what we’ve done that’s really moved the needle is challenged those things to say, what was the purpose of it? What is it serving? Did something become tradition just because it was tradition, or was it serving a larger purpose? When we’re saying we’re being intentional, it means keeping everything that works, and challenging that other stuff. And then figuring out how that makes it work for us now, in this moment in time. And helps set us up for our success in the future.
Regarding the accusations of institutional racism at Second City, can you drill down a bit about what that means specifically?
Parisa: A lot of it is about transparency. People understanding why things are happening is important. A lot of the things were lost in communication.
What was apparent to me was the siloed nature of people who worked in our training center weren’t really necessarily talking to people who run our stages, and our corporate work. Internally, I don’t think people were set up for success. We were competing against ourselves, instead of operating as one.
The things that were called out were not things that I knew about, because it was just not something you would see or be a surface issue. Once I dug into it, a lot of it was creating transparency in process. How things get done; why they get done that way; who has access to those things. To me, a lot of that was about evening the playing field, and assuring that everybody has access and understands when and how things are happening.
Jon: When people say institutional racism, a lot of times, what it is, is that you have all of the same type of person looking at something and saying, “This is funny, this is not funny.” One of the great things that we brought in is a diverse group of people who are decision-makers. The other creative director here in Chicago is Anneliese [Toft], and we have very different perspectives. We have very different life situations that we’ve come out of; we can both look at something, and I can say something’s funny, and she can say it’s not funny. We’d have a conversation, versus the path before has all been kind of the same type of person who all kind of came up the same way, who all kind of thought the same thing was funny. And as a result, you start seeing the work on stage lean toward a very specific direction and goal, and because you’re trying to please those decision-makers. By keeping it diverse, by keeping it a large group of people who are making the decision, we can create better work. Because we know, if it’s speaking to our group of people, we know it will speak to a larger audience, as well.
It sounds like, from your standpoint, it was less of an institutional racism problem and more of a dysfunctional management-structure problem. And that this exacerbated issues, because there was no clear way to address them. On the creative side, it was just the composition of the room. It wasn’t that people were inherently racist, there just weren’t diverse perspectives, and that leads to blind spots.
Jon: Right, and those two things are connected. Because if there’s not a clear organizational system of how you hire, how you fire, then, what you end up having is, “My buddy needs a job, so…” All of a sudden, you’re getting all of your friends, and it’s all kind of connected in that institutional situation. By organizing those things, we can start seeing and identifying those blind spots, and address them.
Parisa: If your organization isn’t clear, transparent and aligned on its objectives and how it’s running, and there aren’t checks and balances in place, it just breeds bad behavior. And people being able to get away with certain things. Or, you know, subconsciously, making decisions—if there are no checks and balances, someone may not even understand that what they’re doing isn’t a best practice, because there’s no one checking them.
Things were being done before at Second City to increase diversity, like the Bob Curry Fellowship. Were they failing? Was it just the hiring process—was that the core of the problem?
Parisa: I don’t know that it was failing. I wouldn’t categorize it as failing. I would say, there’s always more work that needs to be done, and taking something from being initiative-based, and focusing—you know, Second City was primarily focused on, in DE&I, just on the D aspect, which is the diversity and representation aspect. But if everything around them is not set up for those people to be successful, then we’re still failing.
Now, we’re focusing on, holistically, not just representation; we’re making sure inclusion is in there. How is the business set up in a way to make sure that those people are successful and that we’re supporting that with our ecosystem, and then, what about the equity piece of it. We have to look at it holistically, and not initiative-based. And a lot of the work that was being done was well-intentioned, but initiative-based. For something to have longer legs, and a foundation, and actually make lasting change, we need to diversify our audience. We need to put up new programming and new content. We need to find a way to reach people and meet them where they’re at, instead of trying to do the same thing, and hope they come.
Do you think this is endemic to comedy? Or is it culture in general, or is it just corporate or America?
Jon: I genuinely think it’s different with comedy. It’s probably all of those things, but I can say, specifically from my experience, because I’ve been here for a year, but I’ve been doing comedy for twenty, twenty-five years, and I can tell you the litany of stories that I’ve had in my personal life, where I experienced some type of racism, or the doors weren’t open to me that were open to other people. Or the smallest things, like how much comedy is built around bar culture. Of just like hanging out with the guys after a show, and how many jobs are given or taken away, based on those conversations that happen there, and your access to that group determines what your career will be. And not everyone has access to that group. It was very much that comedy comes out of—particularly improv comedy—comes out of a system of, we’re just going to try something and figure it out, and we’ll just go with the flow, and all that kind of stuff, which is fun, except that when you do that, you ignore your blind spots. And comedy has ignored these blind spots for so long, and that this was kind of a reckoning of all of their blind spots coming up at the same time, and saying, no, you have been doing it wrong for so many years.
Parisa: Interesting that you say that. Because for me, it’s like, no, it’s America. [laughter]
Just because I didn’t come from comedy. But I’ve been experiencing this throughout my entire career. I came from tech, and it was predominantly male, predominantly white, definitely older than me, and there were plenty of instances in my life where I could look back and be like, I never even had equal footing or a shot, or consideration, or access to any of those things.
Is turnover a reflection of progress? Or is it just retraining people that were already here?
Parisa: There’s a combination. We didn’t just come out of the pandemic looking the same as we did before, for a number of reasons, including restructuring the business, and just being more efficient. But we have brought quite a few people back. We also have quite a few new people. It’s about everyone being aligned and understanding where we’re going, where we were, where we are now, and where we’re going, and being aligned philosophically and culturally with that, and being brought into that. It’s a key part of the interview process that we’re having now. We are trying to grow and scale right now, from where we were. But we significantly reduced our headcount coming into COVID, and now we’re just in a place that’s starting to scale back up.
With any creative field, especially comedy, a big part of the conversation is about not having boundaries. How do you navigate that as a leader?
Jon: I would reframe it as not setting boundaries, but setting expectations. It’s not that “you can’t go here, you can’t go here.” It’s more about my expectation for your comedy is that you have to punch up, you are going to have to put thought into it. Nine times out of ten, if I’ve seen an offensive show, it’s usually by a lazy comedian. It’s usually by somebody going for a cheap joke, usually they’re old jokes. They’re relying on something that worked fifteen, twenty years ago. What we’re not saying is you can’t do all these things. And more so is, you can’t rely on old material. You have to rely on pushing new ideas and new concepts and new experiences, and frankly, we haven’t talked about certain things in the past, because we assumed the world wouldn’t get it. One of the things that really impacted me is a student show, a Bob Curry grad show. One of the songs was about being a first-generation immigrant. You wouldn’t have seen that fifteen, twenty years ago, because the comedian would be like, not enough people would identify with that first-generation experience. Now, rather than saying you can’t say this or this, it’s like, take a risk. Talk about the fact that you’re a first-generation immigrant. Talk about the fact that you suffer from mental health and those type of things. Let’s talk about those things, and all of a sudden, you’ve opened up this whole new area of comedy that we’ve never been able to explore before versus, I can’t say this or that. Yeah, but also that stuff is boring. We’ve said it a billion times. Why are we focused on it? Does that make sense?
In a couple of years, is a Second City show going to look very different than it does today?
Jon: No. The structure and what we do here at Second City has worked for sixty years, and it would be the worst thing in the world for me to come in, like, “I’m the new executive producer. Throw all that stuff out. Here are my ideas.” No. It’s worked. We want to do it. The change is, Second City has always worked as an ensemble. The ensemble creates this work as a group. All we have to do is bring in people with different perspectives, and they can bring in their unique and different perspectives into a Second City show, have neat and interesting content without actually changing the structure of how we make these shows, and how these shows come about. It’s less about changing the whole form and more about letting our artists truly express themselves to the fullest ability.
Talk about the casting process. The new mainstage show reminded me of the way it was before, too. A few actors of color in a mostly white cast. Is that going to change?
Jon: This particular cast, these are a lot of the performers that were here pre-pandemic. Their show got cut off for the pandemic and we want to make sure that we honor them, and make sure that they get a chance to do a full run. That is probably why that was like that.
I don’t know that it’s necessarily us putting a formula on it, as much as it’s us being very aware and making sure that when we talk about who we’re casting that it’s not just people that all look the same that are making those decisions, but that it’s a diverse group that are coming together to say, how can we best put on the best possible show across a wide, diverse group of people? And that’ll look different, depending on what show that is.
Parisa: Casting, naturally will look different, regardless of the process, which, working on the process and ensuring that that’s fair and equitable is one piece of it, but the other piece of it, is investing in long-term development of a diverse talent pipeline. That you have enough people who you are actually considering that run the gamut when you’re looking at representation, as well, and being inclusive. That’s a longer-term game, which you know, we have other things we’re working on to ensure that we have a diverse talent pipeline, but that takes a little bit of time.
Jon: And maybe it’s not so much putting a formula on it, but sort of removing an implicit formula that might have existed over the years.
As in “you can’t have too many…”
Jon: Well, that’s been the fun part. People telling me what you can and can’t have in mainstage shows. Like, nobody over thirty-five. I’m like, I never said that. Where’d that rule come from? But you can have diverse backgrounds, race, age…
Beyond this triage you’ve been working on, I am sure you have ideas and plans for the future of the company, both in and beyond Chicago. Can you elaborate?
Parisa: Well, I mean, we’re still very much in a recovery mode, we’re not one-hundred percent yet. But we really discovered new business opportunities, because we’re forced to innovate in COVID. Our training center—now we have a virtual training center.
We have students in over twenty-eight countries and fifty states now. You used to have to come to Toronto, or Hollywood, or Chicago to be able to experience a Second City class. That’s not the case anymore. Really, purpose-building our virtual training center to ensure that that experience is amazing. And then, we have a farther reach with our audience there.
We also flipped our corporate work online within a matter of two weeks of COVID happening, and we’ve reached a much larger audience that way, which will grow. The really cool and interesting work that we do that actually helps transform peoples’ lives, we get to do on a much larger scale, now that we’ve discovered being able to do this virtually.
Jon: It’s really, like you said, it’s not about breaking what we’ve done at Second City, but just connecting it. We have seven stages that are here, in the building. Rather than them all kind of doing their own disparate things, how can we connect those things? It’s that idea of like, how can we run some of our smaller stages? We give the artist a chance to take a bigger risk. How do we engage more of our artists, and do shows that are specifically designed to engage the diverse talent, and keep them engaged? Because we’ve had programs and initiatives that are about bringing in the diverse talent, but once they’re in, what do they do next? It’s about finding shows and programming to keep them engaged with what we’re doing. And then, also, letting them be a part of building that ecosystem, when we have the UP theater, that has a number of different shows, and the shows that we’re going to be doing here in the near future are all shows that were developed by or are the brainchild of some of our talent here in the building. It’s less about us, as a leadership staff, saying, we think this is funny. Let’s do this. It’s more about, let’s go to our talent and support their ideas, so that they can go on to the next level, feeling supported, and like they’ve learned the skills that they need to survive even beyond Second City.
Parisa: Engaging with our alumni and providing them as a resource to our talent now. Something else we’re working on and what’s really exciting is potentially thinking about, how do we take, once we’re farther down the line of COVID recovery, how do we take some of the things and lessons we’ve learned throughout that, and translate it into the digital world in a meaningful way, and still be true to who we are.
Talk about this new structure that you have with a corporate parent.
Parisa: The intersection of their other portfolio companies is media and content, so we play perfectly there. It was an investment that made sense on their side. There’s only one Second City, and I’m grateful that they didn’t pass up the opportunity.
I report directly to the board of directors and ZMC and our CFO does as well. Our board of directors is really interesting because we have a policy expert, we have [Stephen] Colbert, who’s an alumnus on the board, and his executive producer, Chris [Licht], on there. We have writer-producer Chris Henchy, Brad Jenkins. We have a really interesting board that is, in addition to ZMC, providing us resources and guidance as we navigate the business forward.
My most important question. Which of you is funnier?
Parisa: I’ll take it.True or false, I’m going to agree with him!
Is there anything else that we should talk about?
Parisa: We have shows seven days a week, come see us!
Jon: One of the things I’m very proud of, that we’ve started doing, is being able to connect with more non-profit and community organizations that we haven’t been able to do in the past. We’ve done that in a lot of different ways with some of our shows, and that sort of thing. It’s also just been great to be able to not only recover as an organization and do what we need to do, but also, start making a positive impact on the community around us.
Parisa: We should not be here right now. We should have been bankrupt, and we should have gone under. I say this all the time, and I say it because I mean it. I don’t know a more resilient group of people who really, really played to the core tenets of what improv is, for us to survive the pandemic, make all of the changes we’ve made, come out stronger, and be in the place that we’re in. I’m very, very proud of our staff. I’m proud of everybody who has really been a part of that journey, and one day, we need to write a book, or make a documentary about it, because it’s been a heck of a ride, but totally worth it. Really excited for where we’re going next.
The Second City, 1616 North Wells, (312)337-3992, .secondcity.com