(Bloomberg) -- The improv comedy empire The Second City has arrived in New York in the form of a 12,000-square-foot multi-use space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The seeds of the eastward expansion, its Chief Executive Officer Ed Wells says, were sown during Covid-19. “We shifted to an online model almost immediately for all of our classes,” he says, at which point the organization, which has locations in Chicago and Toronto, noticed a surprising number of New Yorkers signing up for its online improv courses. The numbers were such that “it became a point of interest to say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a geographical expansion opportunity into a market where we’re seeing that there is demand already,’” Wells says. “That was the beginning kernel of thinking about coming to New York.”
The Second City, which was founded in Chicago 65 years ago as a small cabaret, is known as an incubator for multiple generations of internationally famous comedians. Alumni include Bill Murray, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Keegan-Michael Key. Over the years, the company has opened and closed outposts in cities including Las Vegas, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Detroit. Its Toronto space opened 50 years ago and has stayed there ever since. The company also expanded in other ways: For a few years in the 1980s it aired the TV show SCTV on NBC, and its performers entertained on Norwegian Cruise Lines for more than a decade in the 2000s.
Once it was acquired by Strauss Zelnick’s private equity firm ZMC in February 2021 for a reported $50 million, the company had the backing to help make New York a reality. (Wells declined to comment on numbers.)
“The Second City sits at the center of two major tailwinds,” says Jason Sporer, a partner in ZMC, on the firm’s rationale for acquisition. “First, people are spending a lot more on experiences and live events.” Second is the company’s classes, which help people develop so-called soft skills such as public speaking. “What’s at the core of Second City is its training,” Sporer says. “That curriculum is applicable not just for improv, but all walks of life.”
The Brooklyn building consists of a restaurant, two theaters (one small black box, the other with roughly 200 seats) and classrooms. The space will host shows seven days a week—twice a day on Friday and Sunday, three times on Saturday—and offer classes in improv, stand-up, acting, music and comedy writing. The Bentwood restaurant, which is smash hamburger-centric, will serve dinner and drinks every day.
Making It Anywhere
It’s a model that’s thrived in Chicago and Toronto—both locations also have a combination of training, restaurants and performances. But it’s unclear if the same playbook will work in a city already struggling to sustain ticket sales for its many live performances.
Broadway grosses are still well below their pre-pandemic levels—admissions for the 2022-23 season were down about 17% from the last complete season before Covid, according to New York City Tourism + Conventions.
Comedy clubs haven’t been immune, either. The Upright Citizens Brigade closed its New York locations in 2020, although recently it announced plans to open a new one; the Long Island City club the Creek and the Cave closed permanently in 2020; and the famous comedy club Carolines on Broadway, which had been open for 30 years, shut its Times Square location in 2022. Even the storied Friars Club, home to New York’s comedy royalty, faces serious questions about its future.
But Wells, who was interviewed in the Brooklyn space about a week before the opening, says the Second City’s multipronged approach makes it less reliant on the vicissitudes of ticket sales.
“We have a pretty dynamic business model that not everyone understands,” he says, checking off the live entertainment (performances, along with food and beverage sales), the training center and the Second City Works, which he describes as “our professional services division, where we work with companies around the world to go in and do workshops with them based on whatever their needs are.” These workshops can be for professional development, team building, compliance training or keynote exercises.
Wells declines to say how much the New York outpost cost (they gut-renovated the building, although they don’t own it), other than saying it’s a “multimillion-dollar investment,” but he expects these multiple revenue sources to make it profitable within the first two years. “I don’t think it’s going to be a long runway for us,” he says.
Another potential revenue driver is one that’s still, Wells says, in its nascent stages.
“We believe there’s an opportunity—especially with setting up shop here in New York—to start to play in the media and television space again,” he says. “These casts in Chicago, Toronto and New York who are improvising every night and creating new characters and new material? All of that is up for consideration as we think about, ‘Hey, that character might lend itself really well to being developed into a long-form sitcom or a long-form comedy show,’ or ‘maybe that character provides for a podcast opportunity as a host.’”
In that respect, the Second City’s New York expansion can be seen as a continuation of its existing model, and a bridgehead into one that’s entirely new. Early indications, Wells says, are encouraging: They’ve already accelerated the timeline for their advanced courses based on the volume of early signups, and when they announced auditions for talent for the theater, “we had almost a thousand entries in the first three days,” he says. “We’re really excited to get tickets on sale, because we’re confident it’s going to follow the same trend.”
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