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Inside the improv process at Second City

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

What gets improvised at Second City tends to stay at Second City, preserved only in the minds of the actors and the 300 or so people who watched them. But in 1996, some of the creative process was caught on camera, and the footage, intriguing then, has become even more illuminating with time.

That’s largely due to the players involved, most of whom went on to TV success acting in sitcoms, performing late-night sketches and, in one case, impersonating Sarah Palin to mind-blowing effect.

They were captured not just improvising, but also rehearsing, discussing and opening the revue called “Paradigm Lost,” hailed as a high point of Second City’s most recent golden age. The resulting hourlong documentary, “Second to None,” chronicled the show’s creation and aired on PBS in 2000.

Now the footage has been reshaped into a new version of the movie, almost twice as long. The original narration by Jim Belushi has been cut to make room for more segments showing the actors and director Mick Napier working on their scenes about giving blood, easing a gargoyle into kindergarten and adapting when your workplace decides to go country.

The expanded “Second to None” makes its TV debut at 10 p.m. Monday on WTTW-Channel 11. A DVD, with additional footage and new commentary by the actors, is available at Amazon and at the theater, 1616 N. Wells.

Already fascinating as a peek into the workings of comic minds, the movie now has archival value in showing us the nascent wit of future celebrities: Rachel Dratch of “Saturday Night Live,” Kevin Dorff of “Conan” and Scott Adsit of “30 Rock.”

Most astonishing of the stars-in-the-making is Tina Fey, long before her transformation into comedy megastar and geek-glam sex symbol. “I look about 57,” Fey says in the DVD commentary while watching her younger, chunkier self do lap-dance moves.

“So gross,” she says.

“America might beg to differ,” replies her longtime friend Dratch.

Even in 1996, the future “SNL” head writer is self-assured as she throws ideas into the communal creation effort. Her eventual “30 Rock” rapport with Adsit is evident as they gravitate toward scenes together, so many that two have to be grafted into one, lest they dominate the running order.

In her new book Bossypants, Fey celebrates being part of the first Second City cast with gender equality, but it’s not a new sentiment. “There’s no reason why it can’t be three men, three women,” the young wit with the short hair tells the documentary crew. “Or eight men, one woman, three dogs and a chicken. It can be anything because we can write whatever comes out of these people.”

And when the three women, in a joint interview, bring up their anxiety about having good material, Fey is the one to suggest — correctly — that the men are expressing no such worry.

“Second to None” director Matt Hoffman and writer Scott Silberstein devote much of the movie to showing the process of improvising ideas that can be the basis of scripted scenes. In one amazing bit of kismet, cameras are there when Napier tells Dratch and Fey to vamp a scene starting with the line “Oh right, I’m wicked.” Fey delivers it as a lower-class Boston mom trying to tame her wild teen daughter. The dialogue goes so well that it ends up in the show — and later becomes a long-running “SNL” routine with Dratch playing teen Denise opposite Jimmy Fallon as her boyfriend Sully.

There’s poignancy, too, in seeing the genius of Jim Zulevic, a curmudgeonly talent who died at 40, nine years after the “Paradigm Lost” opening. At one point he emerges from a back room with lyrics for a hilarious song, dashed off in 20 minutes or so, that ends up being the anchor of the whole show.

All through “Second to None,” Napier and the cast (which also includes future TV writer Jenna Jolovitz) explain what they’re doing, articulately and amusingly demystifying a somewhat abstract process. After opening night, Adsit considers the advantages of Second City life and concludes, “I think I’m probably now the happiest I will ever be in my life.” More than a decade and hours of national TV airtime later, he views that old footage and finds no reason to disagree.

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