Joe Elkin always knew that he wanted to pursue a career in acting or comedy, but until he could figure out how to make that happen, after graduating from Amery High School in 1995, he thought he should get a “real job.”
Elkin became a certified EMT and was hired as a 911 dispatcher. He also spent time working as a paramedic and as a deputy sheriff. He never stopped thinking though about his desire to make a break into show business. The Second City in Chicago seemed to be the answer to his comedy goals.
The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise, based in the Windy City. It also has training programs and live theatres in Toronto and Los Angeles. The Second City Theatre opened Dec. 16, 1959, and since that day it has become one of the most influential and prolific comedy theatres in the world.
The Second City has produced television programs in both Canada and the United States, including the popular weekly airing of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Since its debut, The Second City has consistently been a notable starting point for comedians including: Gilda Radner, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, John Belushi , Chris Farley and many more. Additionally The Second City houses the Harold Ramis Film School, the only film school dedicated to comedy filmmaking. Ramis is responsible for comedy classics like Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. Most of these films feature Second City Alumni.
Elkin said, “As a kid, I would sit up Saturday nights, staring at an old black and white television in my room. I hoped for a clear picture so I could see this week’s SNL host. I was aware of SNL and SCTV (Second City’s TV channel) long before I could understand the jokes. I decided at a young age that I wanted to be a comedian. I dreamed of working on a show like Saturday Night Live since they seemingly only worked one night a week. I’m fully aware this is the antitheses of reality.”
Elkin says the application process to The Second City Training Center is similar to signing up for any other class, and there is not much to it. “But to advance through the various levels you have to provide examples of your abilities. Examples would be auditions or writing samples. I’m also a writer so we produce several comedy sketches a week and sit down with our peers and go over rewrites or get more ideas. Eventually you have a finished product fit for performing,” he said.
Elkin is in Chicago one day a week. He described an average visit saying, “We meet as a writing group for three hours and review the sketches we have written over the previous week. I remember the first time someone reviewed one of my sketches. A few actors performed it in class and I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. Someone reminded me that they were using most of my jokes and my words – just rewritten. That’s when you understand the power of collaboration. They took my simple idea and turned it into something amazing. I didn’t do that on my own – we did it as a group. Writing and Improv are both “team sports.” After I’m done with writing, I spend another three hours learning and practicing improv with “The Regis Philman” crew – named after a skit we were doing about Regis Philbin. Somebody mispronounced his name and it stuck. That’s been the name of our troupe ever since.”
He believes there were some key people from his childhood in Amery that set him on the path to comedy and writing success. “My grandmother, a former teacher, used to play word games with me when I was very little. She taught me how to put letters together and make words and eventually full stories. She is an amazing lady and great role model. Once I started school, I would routinely write stories. In third grade Miss Mugerauer helped me develop my stories. She also allowed me to use classmates as actors in a play I had written. A few years ago she presented me with a short story I had written 30+ years ago. She had saved it all this time and gave it to me as an adult. I’ll never forget her words of encouragement; she is one of the great teachers. Because of these influences in my life I’ve always tried to write stories with strong female characters,” said Elkin.
Although he is afraid that it may sound cliché, Elkin wants to encourage others to always follow their dreams. He said, “How will you know what you can accomplish unless you try? I’ll never regret my career path but I wish I had followed my dreams earlier in life. Every Monday I walk through the doors of 1616 N. Wells Ave. Seriously, it never gets old. Strolling down the halls and seeing the alumni pictures on the walls, it reminds you of the people that were there before you and the things they have accomplished.”
He sees a connection between how he has spent life before now, and his current endeavors. “I have been involved in pre-hospital emergency medicine and law enforcement for over 20 years. Having spent every day surround by death, dying, and destruction I’ve had a front row seat to tragedy and shared a dark corner of the American experiment. Writers, actors, and comedians have the opportunity to act as narrators for society. From political satire to a commentary on world events, we have the ability and obligation to engage in key conversations. Our words transcend our environment. We need to ask appropriate questions, have meaningful conversations and be advocates for those who do not have a voice. These values are not lost because we use a humorous tone or comedic expression,” said Elkin.
When looking ahead at the future Elkin shared, “Ideally I would like to be able to find a permanent use for what I’ve learned. I like doing Improv for sure, but I really enjoy writing and putting pen to paper and watching something develop in front of you. Then you put that idea in front of some really smart and talented people. I could see myself writing full time. Anyone hiring? Asking for a friend.”