Andrew Alexander’s journey in comedy leads to a Governor General’s award

Andrew Alexander. Photo: Don Dixon

There are many significant moments in the history of Canadian comedy,  but likely none is more important than the day Andrew Alexander plunked down a few thousand bucks to buy the Second City outlet on Lombard Street in Toronto in 1974.

That moment of entrepreneurial inspiration has led to so much success from the legendary careers of comedians such as Gilda Radner, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty to the creation of the comedy show SCTV in 1976 with his partner in the The Second City Entertainment Company, the late Len Stuart.

It’s the kind of career that gets recognized with a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement. And that’s just what will happen to Alexander this week as he joins five other lifetime laureates (Ottawa’s Angela Hewitt, Genevieve Bujold, Murray McLachlin, Peter Herrndorf and Ginette Laurin) who will be hailed in the House of Commons on Thursday, feted at Rideau Hall and lauded for their contributions to the performing arts in Canada and beyond. The celebration also includes National Arts Centre Award winners Tegan and Sara and the winner of the Ramon John Hnatyshsyn award for volunteerism in the arts, Florence Junca Adenot. The three-day party concludes Saturday night with a glittering gala in the National Arts Centre. Then Alexander’s picture will join more than 200 other Canadian artists, including his old pals Eugene Levy and Martin Short, in the hall of honour inside the NAC.

“It’s a fantastic acknowledgement but I hope my career isn’t over yet. Generally when you get these kinds of awards it’s at the tail end of something. I understand that,” he said in an interview, signalling clearly that he’s definitely not done yet. We just celebrated SCTV at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, that was special night too,” he added.

His start with Second City was almost by happenstance. He had, he said, been bouncing around in various jobs in journalism and the arts in his 20s and managed to land a position in Chicago at the Ivanhoe Theatre, where he met the founder of Second City in Chicago and Toronto Bernard Sahlins.

“I was always entrepreneurial. I kind of had a misspent youth in my 20s, trying different things. I happened to be in Chicago and met the owners of Second City who had started an outlet in Toronto in 1973.” That Toronto outlet had struggled. A year later, Alexander bought it.

“I also got to know John Candy because John was in Chicago at that time. The thing that happened for me though, the lightbulb went off when I was sitting in the audience and watching Second City in Chicago and I said to myself ‘This really speaks to me, the style of humour, the sensibility'” and the spontaneity of it. “Chicago and Toronto are very similar cities with strong theatre cultures.” So he thought the Toronto club would work. Eventually Alexander would buy the Second City outlet in Chicago too.

The other thing that was happening at the same time was that improvisational theatre and comedy was taking hold in North American culture.

Today, he believes it has evolved into a lifestyle. “Tina Fey in her books talks about this and how it’s served her very well. People all over the world have come to understand the value of it all,” he said. People are joining improv clubs, testing their skills in amateur improv nights in comedy clubs and not necessarily because they want careers in the theatre, he says. But because it’s fun to do and it’s a healthy pursuit … literally.

He has been working on understanding the health benefits of improv for people suffering such things as anxiety disorders. He is just finishing up a study for Cedar-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles in a bid to put some science behind what is anecdotally obvious to people who work with folks suffering from various conditions and who see improvement with improv.

“So what started out on Lombard Street has grown” into something truly significant.

The success and evolution of Second City is something Alexander takes pride in.

“When we did the Elgin Theatre thing last week, the response to the clips was great. The material was holding up and seems almost timeless. At the time when you are doing it, you are right in the middle of it and you don’t really know if this will hold up 20, 30 years from now. We were just moving from one show to the next show.

“But now, with so many years having passed, it was very rewarding to see the response from people.” That SCTV ethos has staying power.

So does Alexander. His initial investment in 1974 has led to a career as an impresario and a producer working with networks on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border such as ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox Television, Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, A&E and the CBC. He’s produced shows with the likes of Ed Asner, Aykroyd, James Belushi, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Harold Ramis, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. It might in fact be more efficient to ask who he hasn’t worked with. 

He’s also done a lot of work that helps others through, for example, The Second City Alumni Fund, which has raised $750,000 for almni of Second City laid low by illness or economic hardship. He’s actively involved in Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto (named for Gilda Radner, the comedian who died from cancer), which helps cancer patients, their families and friends. He is also an honorary board member of Gilda’s Club Chicago.

Alexander has watched the evolution of comedy over the decades into the powerful social and cultural phenomenon it has become through shows such as The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

SCTV was a different kind of animal, he said. It was not as political as say Saturday Night Live, because, he says, it was syndicated and going into different markets. Their comedy was more culturally rooted in mocking the television industry.

Nowadays, however, the politics of our time is evident on Second City stages. It is a feature of our polarized times. Alexander said that there have even been occasions in Chicago when folks from places in the U.S. Midwest, such as Nebraska, come to see a show that is decidedly political and they have to be escorted out because they are so angered by what they are hearing.

These days Alexander spends his time moving between Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto keeping up with his many projects. But one initiative he is focussing on a lot these days is the Harold Ramis Film School which opened in 2016. The school is named after the actor and producer who was the brain behind movies such as Caddyshack and Analyze This. Alexander is involved in the project with Ramis’s widow Erica. The school is connected to Second City in Chicago and is the only film school in the world focussed on comedy.

The gift just keeps on giving.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.