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What’s the deal on stand-up at Second City?

The Up Comedy Club overseen by Second City’s DianMartinez is elegantly designed. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

The Up Comedy Club, overseen by Second City’s Diana Martinez, is elegantly designed. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 20, 2012 8:04AM

Ask Second City alums from earlier eras to recall the physical condition of their beloved comedy college, and more than a few of them will spin stomach-churning yarns.

Nia Vardolos pulled a garish frock from a costume cubby, complete with attached rat.

John Rubano performed a two-by-four-assisted rat cannibalism intervention.

Stephen Colbert was struck by the “unbelievable” stench backstage and the “great compost heaps” of show clothes that served as potential nesting grounds.

There was a stretch, too, when customers weren’t exactly coddled — when hosts barely hosted, waitresses were rude and service was spotty.

While things are markedly improved today, and have been for some time, neither Second City’s mainstage venue nor the abutting e.t.c. space is anywhere near upscale — for performers or patrons. Seating is cramped, changing areas are no-frills, food is ... edible.

Not that anyone seems to care; actors still clamor to audition, and shows still sell out.

But it’s fair to wonder whether folks will yearn for a bit more polish once they settle into the 285-seat Up Comedy Club. Second City’s plush new venue for all manner of stand-up acts, as well as improv shows and various other funny-focused offerings, Up softly launches Wednesday with “The Second City’s History of Chicago.” Comic Frank Townsend then gigs for a couple of nights before “Dysfunctional Holiday Revue” and several more performances of “History” close out the year.

With its supportive and tush-friendly chairs, swell sightlines and elegant color scheme (red and black), dark wood and classy lighting, the gently curved space is far prettier than Second City’s other theaters and the antithesis of tacky laugh shacks — those mirthless dives for which comics devised the derisive and universally applicable handle “Uncle F---er’s Chuckle Hut.”

Located on level three of Piper’s Alley, at North and Wells, Up has been transformed to such a degree that virtually all vestiges of its former existence — as the home of “Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding” — are gone.

Come early January, ideally after any kinks have been worked out, the cavalcade of comics begins in earnest. A couple of the more recognizable names on Up’s current roster include Brian Posehn (“The Sarah Silverman Program”) and Christopher Titus (the short-lived “Titus”). An official hoopla-filled opening is slated for Feb. 17.

So as to enhance Up’s purposely clubby and nostalgia-laced feel, the old Pump Room’s royally upholstered Booth One — where visiting luminaries dined, held court and often were schmoozed by the late Sun-Times columnist Irv “Kup” Kupcinet — is somewhat incongruously installed in a corner near the entrance/exit. When Second City CEO Andrew Alexander learned of its availability, he dispatched a minion to purchase the historic piece at auction for nearly $5,000.

On the other hand, long communal tables that occupy most of the square footage and enable Up’s owners to pack ’em in don’t really scream “hottest spot north of Havana.”

By the way, before you vie for Kup’s erstwhile nook, know this: the chances of non-VIPs scoring that preferred perch are fatter than the rock Elizabeth Taylor sported (just guessing) when she took up temporary residency there eons ago. For bona fide VIPs (famous Second City alums, big-name pols, sports stars), it’s basically first come, first seated. Which could prove problematic if Rahm Emanuel and, say, Mike Ditka show up simultaneously.

Befitting its aesthetically pleasing interior, Up’s menu — which boasts gourmet burgers, cheesecake from the venerable Eli’s and Lou Malnati’s pizzas baked on-site in Malnati’s special ovens — might actually tantalize some taste buds. The sweet potato fries, staffers have reported, are delish.

None of which matters a whit if onstage action tanks and ticket sales flag.

Despite its undeniable pedigree and panache, Up remains a $1.2 million gamble — not least of all because its close-by competitors already are well-established in the comedy community.

Besides the Wells Street mainstay Zanies a half-block away, the storied L.A.-based Laugh Factory is scheduled to debut a much-delayed multi-million-dollar outpost at Broadway and Belmont sometime in January. A short drive north, in Rogers Park, stands the handsome and increasingly popular Mayne Stage theater. To varying degrees, all three houses of hilarity will compete against Up, and each other, for talent.

Asked if the establishments are spaced far enough apart for each to draw sufficient crowds, Zanies vice president Bert Haas expresses uncertainty. “I guess we’ll find out,” he says nonchalantly. “Come talk to me in a year.”

Diana Martinez, president of Second City International and Up’s chief overseer, thinks there’s plenty of room for a handful of stand-up clubs to co-exist peacefully and successfully in the nation’s third-largest city. She also contends that setting up shop next door to the legendary Zanies has no drawbacks, only advantages.

“There’s a reason why McDonald’s builds itself across from Burger King every time,” she says. “And all the car dealerships work together. It’s synergy.”

Haas agrees. Business-wise, he says, Up will be “great” for Zanies — if it’s well-run and well booked. He’s counting on both.

“There are people that go to Second City who will never come to Zanies, because that’s a theater, and we’re a nightclub. They want a theater experience. Now, Second City is going to introduce those people to stand-up comedy. And after they’ve experienced stand-up comedy, they’re going to go, ‘Hey, maybe we should try Zanies.’ ”

Tony Baldino, owner of the Improv in Schaumburg, praises Up’s comedy-conducive design and says audience members “are going to feel that they’re really connected to the talent onstage.”

He warns, however, that from a management perspective, his stand-up racket is a big departure from the in-house comedy that’s long been Second City’s stock-in-trade. Although Up’s headliners are booked out of Los Angeles by Levity Entertainment Group, the club’s local operators will have to deal with an influx of “outside contract talent” versus salaried cast members. That means juggling unfamiliar personalities with different-size egos and “different work ethics.”

Of course, since its founding in 1959, Second City has been a roiling cauldron of personalities as disparate as John Belushi and Steve Carell, Betty Thomas and Tina Fey. Martinez has some skills in the talent corralling department, too, courtesy of an eight-year stint as entertainment director of the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

The ultimate goal with Up, she says, is to build a stand-alone brand — perhaps one that eventually can be franchised. First, though, it must fly in Chicago. She’s confident it will.

“There are a lot of up-and-coming comics, and there’s an audience that’s a little more alternative that will be really happy to [have] a home here,” Martinez says.

If not, there’s always bingo.

Stories and quotes from Nia Vardalos, John Rubano and Stephen Colbert courtesy of The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World Famous Comedy Theater.

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