Let’s be clear. The only reason this entry exists is because the city in question is nicknamed The Second City. That pretty much demands inclusion in a book on also-rans, doesn’t it? True, Chicago is also called The Windy City, The City of Broad Shoulders, and Chi-Town. It is also true that the epithet was not self-administered. The journalist and essayist A.J. Liebling popularized the name in several New Yorker articles in the 1950s and then jack-hammered nail into coffin by titling the collected volume of those essays “Chicago: The Second City.” Subtle, that. But then again, the guy made his bones writing about boxing (“The Sweet Science” is among the best sports books ever written) so he knows how to land a jab.
Liebling was a native Manhattanite who found Chicago meager in nearly all respects compared to Paris, London, and New York. The backhand slaps at the city he lived in for a year were called “tongue in cheek” at the time and nowadays would be called “satirical”. Either way, the Second City nickname stuck. And it stuck because it was grounded in home truths.
The statistical truth, which is always the boring one, is that Chicago was second in population to New York then. (It’s third now, behind LA.) The emotional truth – if we can be forgiven for ascribing inchoate qualities to something as choate as a city – is that there is a cultural inferiority complex at play. It’s a real complex. It’s a deserved complex. And it’s really not all that complex.
Compared to New York, there are fewer everything and less diverse everything. You can’t bluff these truths away. Carmine on the presses in Astoria and Howard making big bank on Bond St. – these guys know it. They’ll see your Lincoln Park and raise you Central. They’ll see your Mercantile Exchange and raise you the Big Board. They’ll see your Daley and raise you Boss Tweed. When you re-raise with the science museum, they’ll put you all-in with the Met and MOMA and a hundred or so more galleries from the chip stack. And you’ll probably fold. I would if I were you.
But so what? The First City guys leave with some extra scratch. It’s what they came for, I guess. Pavel at the stockyards knows it and Leonard at the Merc knows it, too. They don’t care. It’s not really all about the extra scratch, is it? Really? That would be sad.
Which brings us back to Liebling, and the name. It was meant disparagingly then and might be considered demeaning now. But it’s not. How’d that happen? Well, a reappropriation occurred almost immediately, in the late 50s, by an improvisational comedy troupe who took the name to heart in a spirit of jest, named their theater after it, and have been the home base for much of the best satirical (even Lieblingesque!) comedy ever since.
Where Are They Now?
The Second City Theater is home to the comedy troupe of the same name, whose alumni include Alan Arkin, Peter Boyle, Fred Willard, a couple of Belushis, John Candy, Dan Akroyd, dot dot dot, too many to mention, Stephen Colbert, and many many more. These people make smart funny and funny smart, and that is not only a good thing, it is an essential thing. When you are essential, why compare yourself to anything else?
The city is still on the shores of Lake Michigan, unlikely to move anytime soon.
Something about last and best laughers.