By Vanessa Markov
Photos courtesy of Second City

Having been a fan of live comedy since kindergarten, I both attempted and abandoned the notion of becoming a comedian after trying out my very first act at a sixth grade talent show. It wasn’t even the worst performance – I got quite a few laughs for the jokes I most certainly did not write – but I also never experienced terror greater than standing there alone and vulnerable, with the task of entertaining a sea of expectant faces.

Since then, comedians have remained among my greatest inspirations in life. How, when given the option not to, can so many people consistently put themselves at the mercy of that sea of faces, especially once they’ve felt that intense burn of mocking silence? I have no idea. All I know is it’s a damn noble thing to do for the sake of laughter, and I continue to stare on in awe of local comics who seem to revel in the challenge.

For the last 42 years and counting, Second City has been at the heart of Toronto’s comedy scene, training over 6,000 aspiring comedians annually, and they’ve now expanded their training facility to the 3rd floor of 99 Blue Jays Way (check out the awesome pics below) to help harvest even more talent. I was given the opportunity to sit in on an introductory course in the new centre last week to get a feel for what goes on behind the scenes…and that’s when my past came back to haunt me.

I should have known better, walking into an improv class thinking I’d get away with being a fly on the wall – no such luck, indeed. I’d barely introduced myself and my intentions to instructor Greg Komorowski when he successfully persuaded me into participating in the workshop to get the full experience. Then, surrounded by students of differing entertainment backgrounds and degrees of confidence, I suddenly felt like that terrified twelve year old all over again.

Before I knew it, we’d gone through a series of ice breakers and trust building exercises, during which we had to make up funny noises, dance around to tongue twisters, and think really, really fast, all while making eye contact with each other. And throughout that time, despite the voice in my head constantly weighing the pros and cons of a three-story escape jump, I started to realize how incredibly liberating it was to do something as simple as laugh at yourself with others – something that requires strong communication and just a little bit of trust.

What started out as a cool opportunity to promote the expansion of a beloved local fixture, turned into something much more valuable than that: understanding the relationship between comedy and coping skills. I walked in wondering how comedians do it, and I walked out understanding that performing can be just as rewarding (if not more) than spectating.  That’s when I found out that Second City in fact offers a course that is specifically designed to help people overcome social anxiety.

I’ve never denied being shy, but I also never noticed how potent my fear of being mocked had actually become until I was more or less forced to make an ass of myself – like, on purpose. But facing those irrational fears in that safe, controlled environment of humour was (albeit exhausting) surprisingly therapeutic. I found that the skills and exercises associated with the craft opened my eyes to both good and bad communication habits, and taught me more about how I present myself in 45 minutes than I’ve paid mind to in ten years. And it was funny! Not wedding emcee funny, actual funny.

I knew it would be cool to see the inner workings of a famous comedy training centre, but I didn’t think it would turn out to be such an inspiring experience that revealed just how far Second City will go to touch our lives with the gift of laughter. Once I complete that anxiety-busting course, I just might take a stab at telling jokes again – but this time I think I’ll write them myself.