FARMINGTON — At first blush, not a lot of people would equate having an English degree with being the best background for pursuing a career in improvisational comedy.
That's not the way Amy Thompson sees it.
The California native, who performs with one of the traveling companies of The Second City, the legendary Chicago sketch and improv comedy theater company, says her English degree from Brandeis University in Boston has served her well as she builds a career on making people laugh.
"I think the better read you are, the better you are at telling stories," she said during a phone interview today from Chickasha, Okla., where her company was preparing to perform tonight before it heads to the Four Corners for a weekend show. "Improv is like writing, without the paper. … The better you are at the creative thinking, the more it's in your blood."
Thompson recently celebrated her first anniversary with the touring company, which performs in smaller markets around the country while The Second City's better-known resident groups perform on a nightly basis in Chicago, Hollywood and Toronto. Thompson hasn't worked her way up to varsity yet, but she's having a good time taking The Second City brand to audiences outside those three cities.
"It's been wonderful. We see every part of the country, a different town every week. We see every walk of life," Thompson said, explaining that she and her fellow company members often feel like the comedic relief for people weary of the political polarization that has gripped America.
Thompson said reactions to Second City's brand of comedy definitely vary, depending on whether the company is performing in a blue state or a red state.
"But, sometimes, all that matters is getting a reaction in general," she said, adding that performing for audiences in communities outside major metropolitan areas is a satisfying and perspective-broadening experience.
Despite her classical education at Brandeis, Thompson seemed destined for a career on stage.
"I'm a theater kid, by nature," she said, explaining how she was performing in community theater productions by the time she was 11. She also studied acting and film in college, but it wasn't until she headed to Chicago after graduation that she dived into improv comedy in a big way, taking classes and workshops at Second City, working with independent comedy companies and performing solo shows while also working in the Second City box office.
"I got bit by the Chicago scene, which is a lot of storefront theaters," she said. "It's what you make of it."
All those activities prepared her for her current role with The Second City, which she earned only after multiple auditions. The company requires prospective performers to go through its training program, and the learning curve for improv comedy is a steep one.
"Most times, it's about building your confidence, and that doesn't necessarily happen right off the bat," Thompson said. "Plus, they like to vet you a little bit."
Improv veterans like to advise newcomers to "Follow your fear" or "Go before you're ready," she said, explaining that the goal is learn to let go of your fears and inhibitions, to avoid the urge to give in to self-censorship that can stifle your comedic impulses. Thompson acknowledged that training has taught her a lot.
"When I arrived in Chicago, I thought I was confident, but not like I am now," she said.
There's no shame in having to go through multiple auditions before a performer is deemed ready to join the company, she said.
"They say (Second City alum) Tina Fey auditioned four or five times," Thompson said.
The long list of those who have performed under the Second City banner over the years — Dan Aykroyd, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Steve Carell, Bonnie Hunt, Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Andrea Martin, Amy Sedaris, Chris Farley and Martin Short, among others — give it the best-known comedy brand in America outside of "Saturday Night Live," to which many of its alums have graduated. Thompson credits Second City's "ensemble mentality" for its record of success that exceeds a half century.
"It's based on working with each other and getting the best of each other," she said. "We surprise each other. We better each other. … You even see that in our celebrity alums. They always continue to work with one another."
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: "The Best of The Second City," featuring The Second City touring company
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington ST.
Tickets: $30 at the Civic Center box office, online at fmtn.org/CivicCenter or by phone at 505-599-1148
For more information: Visit secondcity.com