Comedy pioneer Bernard Sahlins, who co-founded Chicago’s famed Second City theater, died Sunday at age 90, according to news reports.
As a Second City producer, Sahlins, AB’43, pushed the boundaries of sketch comedy and helped make performers like Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner household names. He also continued to give guidance and inspiration to generations of UChicago students.
The Chicago native was a founding member of the Compass Players, a student-run theater at UChicago that is widely credited with inventing modern improvisational comedy. Sahlins and fellow alums Howard Alk and Paul Sills brought the techniques they pioneered with the Compass Players to The Second City, which they founded in 1959.
“Compass and Second City were really born on the top floor of the Reynolds Club,” Sahlins said in a 2009 interview.
From its earliest days, Second City earned the reputation for presenting high-minded and topical satire. Through improvisation, Second City’s writer-performers developed sketches that probed contemporary life and culture.
Their approach was directly influenced by the theater’s University of Chicago origins, Sahlins wrote in his 2001 memoir, Days and Nights at the Second City: “We were university people, imbued with respect for intellectualism and the great masterworks.”
Sahlins remained an active force at the theater for the next 25 years, directing and producing numerous Second City revues. He also co-created and produced “SCTV” in Canada.
As a director, Sahlins pushed his performers to play to the top of their intelligence while allowing them to develop their own voices and styles. “In this work the job of the director is to hold to standards of intelligent discourse and skilled acting, not to dictate attitudes and content,” he wrote.
He sold his interest in Second City in 1984, but remained devoted to the Chicago theater community. In his distinguished career as a playwright and director, Sahlins worked with institutions including Court Theatre, Steppenwolf and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
Sahlins never forgot his University of Chicago roots. He returned to campus in 1986 to train the first generation of Off-Off Campus, the University’s improvisational theater troupe. “There’s a legacy of training that goes directly back to Bernie,” said Heidi Coleman, director of Theater and Performance Studies.
Sahlins received the University’s Professional Achievement Award in 1989. He also received Joseph Jefferson “Jeff” Awards for directing and professional achievements, among many other honors.
In 1999, when the Second City celebrated its 40th anniversary, Sahlins spoke at the festivities and reflected on the value of Second City’s work.
“The fact is, man is the only animal that laughs, and comedy’s major role is to evoke the laughter that celebrates our unity as mortal creatures,” he said. “[Laughter is] the realization of a desperate hope: the hope that we are enough like one another to sense one another and to be able to live together.”
He is survived by his wife, Jane Nicholl Sahlins, and his brother, Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Anthropology.