Shad Kunkle went from Iowa to Chicago hoping to make it to the Super Bowl.
But he wasn't playing for Da Bears. He wanted to get to the Second City comedy troupe.
"It's the first Oregon Trail, it's the first place where comedians sought to use satire to affect people, and the place where people sought to do a blend between stand-up and actual comedic acting," says Kunkle, who will be on stage Friday night when Second City's touring company performs in the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall.
If the name Second City doesn't ring a bell, many of its alumni certainly will — and they will explain why Kunkle refers to the theater as "the Super Bowl."
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The veterans include current A-list comedy stars Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. And the star-studded list of alumni stretches back through Gilda Radner and John Belushi to early stars including Fred Willard and Robert Klein.
For years, Second City has been almost a farm team for Saturday Night Live, producing stars including Bill Murray and Rachel Dratch, and other sketch comedy shows, notably SCTV, which ran in the late 1970s and early '80s and introduced us to John Candy, Eugene Levy and Rick Moranis.
Second City is in a reflective mood this fall because Dec. 16 will be the 50th anniversary of the troupe, which emerged from a group called Compass Players in 1959. Second City quickly made a name for itself, opening shows on Broadway and in London, where the troupe also made its first foray into television, with a 1963 series called Second City Reports.
The theater is celebrating with events Dec. 11 to 13 in Chicago, where scheduled guests will include alums Alan Arkin, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Jim Belushi and even Homer Simpson himself, Dan Castellaneta. The three days will include shows, screenings and panel discussions of shows such as SCTV and The Colbert Report.
Even without a gala celebration, Kunkle says it's fairly easy to be star-struck at Second City.
"About 20 minutes ago, I was standing in the lobby of Second City, and Harold Ramis walked by me," Kunkle says, referring to the Ghostbusters star whose writing and directing credits include Groundhog Day and Caddyshack. "I just thought, wow.
"All those people who came before us, who blazed this trail, I think the reason a lot of people search Second City out is they want to walk in those footsteps."
Like many a performer pursuing a career at a storied venue, Kunkle has a Second City star whose path he particularly admires.
"My role model, even though I'm a Midwestern male, is Tina Fey," Kunkle says, referring to the Emmy-winning 30 Rock actress and the first female head writer for Saturday Night Live. "Her work ethic is unbelievable. She's constantly writing and constantly creating opportunities for herself.
"She's got a career anyone would look back on and be proud of because they would say, 'I made this happen for myself."
Kunkle says he likes being in the touring troupe of Second City, which also has theaters in Los Angeles and Toronto.
Part of the appeal of the road, he says, is that despite the towering legacy of Second City, a lot of people don't know what it is and have never experienced the company.
"The people who come to Chicago have seen this stuff for years," Kunkle says. "But when we're touring around the country to places like Lexington, people are getting to see Second City for the first time, and it's really fun to experience it for the first time."
He says the audience at UK can expect a sketch show in the spirit of SNL, but probably a bit more polished, because the SNL skits often are written, produced and designed quickly for television.
"Some pieces have been around since the early '90s, and some are topical and only have a shelf life of 25 days, or however long the Balloon Boy hangs on," Kunkle says of Second City's material.
In the spirit of the 50th anniversary, he says, there also will be some blasts from the very distant past.
"There will be some pieces in the show from the '60s, and we'll get to see how comedy changed over that period," Kunkle says. "It's kind of an experiment that will hopefully be as funny as it is interesting."
Among the sketches that will be presented, he said, is one about attempts to bring football to the tweedy University of Chicago; it originally starred Arkin.
"The goal is to basically see what the Second City has done over the last 50 years and laugh," Kunkle says.