Household names like Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert are just a few notable past members of the Chicago improv group The Second City. This summer, Ben Leit ’22 is studying comedy in a program hosted by this very group, in conjunction with Columbia College Chicago.
So far, Leit said he is enjoying the process of learning how to be “structurally and technically funny.” Four courses make up the program: Creating Scenes Through Improvisation, Writing Comic Scenes, History and Analysis of Modern Comedy, and Physical and Vocal Training for Comedy. The improvisation course is the big one — a “four-hour class where they essentially just put you on stage for 10 minutes at a time and say make us laugh,” Leit said. “That’s really hard.”
Majors: Theatre and Philosophy
Hometown: Maplewood, N.J.
High School: Newark Academy
There are 14 students in the program, all of whom live in Chicago apartments while attending class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. Some are enrolled in colleges and universities, while others have already graduated or otherwise moved on to the professional world. “Three of us are professional actors,” Leit noted. “One of the guys is like 29 and just wanted to get some tools under his belt.”
At the end of the summer, the students will put on a show that combines the skills they learned over the course of the program. The show, Leit said, will likely be a mix of “some traditional sketch stuff” (think SNL) and “some improvisational things” that will work off of audience suggestions. “We’re working on a lot of visual comedy right now, which is just like don’t say a word and make the audience laugh in as short a time as possible,” he said. “A weird way to convey that is to just have an empty stage lights up, put the lights down, then have everybody [on stage] staring at the audience … they will react to that.”
Though Leit has no formal experience with comedy, he certainly did not go to Chicago without any acting chops whatsoever. He mentioned Professors of Theatre Craig Latrell and Mark Cryer as hugely influential in helping him develop important skills like work ethic, memorization, and acting technique, among other things. The two have also “been really supportive in terms of wanting me to branch out and get this experience,” he said. “And it’s not their job to do that.”
The transition from theatre acting into comedy has been illuminating for Leit, and he described how it led him to reconsider his views on college drama at large. “There’s this trend in college theatres to be very serious — like oh, I saw a college show … it’s very avant garde and kind of esoteric. To me, that’s a little bit of a dangerous mindset. If you’re taking anything too seriously, you’re not self-aware.”