The Second City has produced television programs in both Canada and the United States, including SCTV, Second City Presents, and Next Comedy Legend. Since its debut, the Second City has consistently been a starting point for comedians, award-winning actors, directors, and others in show business such as Bill Murray, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Cecily Strong among many others.
The Second City chose its self-mocking name from the title of an article about Chicago by A. J. Liebling that appeared in The New Yorker in 1952. In summer 1955 at The Compass bar in Hyde Park, University of Chicago students led by Bernard Sahlins and Paul Sills began a "commedia dell'arte" based on Sills' mother Viola Spolin's theater games. Calling themselves the Compass Players, they soon began doing occasional shows on the Near North Side. In 1959, the first Second City revue show premiered at 1842 North Wells Street, and the company moved a few blocks south, to 1616 North Wells, in 1967. Sahlins, Sills, and Howard Alk founded the theater as a place where scenes and story were created improvisationally, using techniques that grew out of the innovative techniques Spolin had developed and taught, later known as Theater Games, with Sills as its director. The cabaret theater, comedy style of the Second City tended towards satire and commentary of current social norms and political figures and events.
In 1961, the theater sent a cast to Broadway with the musical revue, From the Second City, directed by Sills and earning a Tony nomination for ensemble member Severn Darden. Eventually, the theater expanded to include three touring companies and a second resident company, and now fosters a company devoted to outreach and diversity. The style of comedy has changed with time, but the format has remained constant. Second City revues feature a mix of semi-improvised and scripted scenes with new material developed during unscripted improv sessions after the second act, where scenes are created based on audience suggestions.
A number of well-known performers began careers as part of the historic troupe and later moved to television and film. In 1973, Second City opened a theater in Toronto. By the mid-1970s, both venues became a source of cast members for Saturday Night Live and SCTV, which borrowed many of the writing and performing techniques pioneered by Second City and other improv groups. In 1983, the adjoining e.t.c. theater became the second resident stage in Old Town, Chicago location, handling overflow crowds and increasing the number of resident company members. Co-founder Bernard Sahlins owned the theater company until 1985, before selling it to Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart.
Along with its theaters, training centers, and television shows, Second City also produceed improv and sketch shows for Norwegian Cruise Line through 2017. In the 2000s, Second City began producing "theatrical" shows, bringing their brand of social and political satire to regional theaters around the country in revues that featured sketches written for and about each location, including Phoenix, Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, and Louisville.