The Second City is big league. The names that have come from its cast range from Stephen Colbert and Dan Aykroyd to Tina Fey. For today’s members, the drive to achieve can never be far out of mind. As much as joining the cast is an achievement in itself, it's also a daunting starting point for a future in the (usually funny) performing arts.


For many at the University of Toronto, this feeling will be a familiar one. Looking through any list of famous alumni from the University of Toronto, it’s easy to feel directionless.


This confusion wasn’t felt by Brandon Hackett, a 2008 graduate and a leading actor in the Second City holiday original “Unwrapped,” which opened Monday. Catching up with him before the debut, I wasn’t sure what voice would come out of his mouth, having seen him perform in a grocery list of characters onstage. The one that did was animated but shy, clearly still a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being interviewed. Nonetheless, both of us being Vic alumni, we slipped into familiar conversation.


Coming to Vic, Hackett was a member of The Bob, a Vic improv group. While many just dabbled, Hackett sees this as the start of his performing career. Making the lasting impact obvious, he adds, “It was directed at the time by Ann Pornel, who is also at the touring company at Second City with me now.”


But Pornel isn’t all that stayed with him from U of T; he majored in English Literature and Classics. Hackett is quick with a caveat: “I don't think i saw any connection between what I was studying and what I wanted to do … performatively.” Nonetheless, he speaks as someone who swung education to his advantage.


“English Literature makes you a much more astute reader, really sharpens your critical thinking skills, makes them a bit more analytic, improves your writing, which is what we do,” he comments with a sincerity that assures this isn't just a ‘stay-in-school’ platitude. If I didn't believe his tone, the proof is in his career. According to him, he started “approaching comedy … not just from a joke-writing side.”


The Second City is far from a conventional joke-writing group. “You’ll bring a premise to a rehearsal, … then you sort of improvise the premise,” he explained. This is where his familiarity with the analytic nuts and bolts serves him well. With the troupe, he breaks apart and reworks the sketch, and “if anything interesting happens, ... usually the initial premise you have will change quite a bit.”


But the Second City isn’t the be all and end all for Hackett. His strength as a writer has curried attention elsewhere. Most recently, he was featured in the Bob Curry Fellowship Showcase (the name Bob seems to follow him) where he was selected to take part in the NBC Breakout Comedy Festival in Chicago.


Here, his writing fell sharply on the critical side: “I sat down to write something and it's called “Selma” [which appeared in “Unwrapped”]…. It's about two roommates who are watching Netflix, and one of the movies recommended to them is Selma, ... and they’re trying to find reasons to not watch Selma…. On the surface they’re being very respectful, … but they’d prefer to just watch Interstellar.” I give a chuckle; he gives an explanation, “That one is more a critique of me and my political complacency...”—his Lit major was showing.


My interest was piqued. Continuing, he explains that his cultural critiques can’t run wild, because “there has to be an element of play in it.” He quickly follows up with an example: “If you were watching a sketch of someone who just says ‘women deserve the right to choose,’ ... it doesn't make a funny sketch.”


For Hackett, striking this balance between making a statement and entertaining the crowd has been a central project of his career, and has followed him into The Second City. Recalling the writing process of “Unwrapped,” Hackett is honest and self-critical, admitting, “The idea I pitched initially was a bit preachy, so giving it to the ensemble and letting everyone craft it made it funny and really saved it.”


From a vantage point at the University of Toronto, Hackett’s success at The Second City looks like a shining example of someone who ‘made it,’ having launched himself into a career that gets his face on subway posters. But from Hackett’s perspective, The Second City is just another step in the constant process of improvement. “It’s a gradual thing, to be perfectly honest I still don’t know if it’s a career,” he says, still on his way.


“Unwrapped” will no doubt have social critiques that are Hackett’s handiwork, but he says people should be ready to laugh.


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