Hard to believe it's been 50 years since The Second City started grooming its players for comedy superstardom. Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray and even Alans Arkin and Alda are just a few of the famous faces who honed their craft on the famed Chicago stage.
And this week, the troupe celebrates a half-century with a history lesson at Pittsburgh Public Theater. The lesson: Not much has changed in 50 years.
"The subject matter is really the same, a lot of universal themes. Specifics have changed, but the themes are the same: love, politics, et cetera," says touring cast member Megan Hovde Wilkins, by phone from Chicago. "What we do is satire in general. It's not about an event specifically, but a type of event or relationship."
Those timeless events include disastrous first dates. One of Wilkins' favorite sketches on the program is an original piece she penned with castmate Tim Robinson, in which the two play ill-fated prospective lovers.
In another sketch, written by Mad TV's Stephnie Weir and Saturday Night Live's Rachel Dratch, Wilkins plays a young Southern woman engaged in a conversation with the mother of her long-lost beloved. The sketch is partly scripted, but leaves room for improvisation.
Indeed, aside from her portrayal of an aged nun in another sketch, a great deal of this anniversary show is left to spontaneous audience input, Wilkins says. And the Pittsburgh crowd -- familiar with Second City from the group's annual December visits to the Public -- will inevitably have different comedy leanings than the recent Oklahoma audience, not to mention audiences in California.
Each night, Wilkins, Robinson and castmates Edgar Blackmon, Ross Bryant and Dana Quircioli portray a cavalcade of characters who vary with the mood of the players and the suggestions of the audience.
Improv comedy -- putting behind-the-scenes theater games in front of an audience -- was a novelty when The Second City was conceived in1959. Now it's mainstream entertainment, and still embraced by the current players.
The show's final half-hour is entirely improvised in whatever format the night suggests -- be it games or a musical section -- making each performance unique.
"We improvise these wild-card characters, so who knows who I'll play?" says six-year veteran Wilkins.
But Wilkins promises the same sense of humor that put Second City on the map half a century ago -- a slightly skewed view of easily overlooked cultural mores.
"We'll look at political things and relationship things, and we look at them through our Second City goggles," Wilkins says. "We get people to see things the way we see them, a little differently than they usually would."
The Second City's 50th Anniversary Tour 8 p.m. Thu., Dec. 17; 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 18;and 5:30 and 9 p.m. Sat., Dec. 19. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. $15-48. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org