Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Colbert, and other familiar alums recall their time in the comedy troupe's trenches

Look at the stars on these pages. Can you guess what they all have in common? If you say the ability to make us laugh, you’re right. But there’s more: They all got their start as members of the comedy improv group known as the Second City. In celebration of the company’s 50th birthday, which culminates in a gala in Chicago in December, Thomas compiled oral histories from alums like Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Jim Belushi, and Martin Short for The Second City Unscripted. He’s also included remembrances from some of the Second City’s most famous fans: As a teen in the late 1970s, Conan O’Brien watched SCTV, the troupe’s obscure yet highly influential foray into television. ”I could never understand, ‘Why isn’t everybody talking about this show?”’ the talk-show host told Thomas. ”I know it had a profound effect on me.”

”I remember Tina [Fey] being a bit mousy…. But her ideas were great and she was a powerful member of the group pretty quickly.” — Second City member Scott Adsit

”[Gilda] was sort of our den mother…. She lent us her car. She gave us gas. She took us in. She nurtured our hearts and spirits, and she was just an amazing physical comedienne.” — Dan Aykroyd on Gilda Radner

”I went to Chicago thinking it was going to be the end of any kind of career, and I thought I’d be at this crazy place they called Second City for the rest of my life for a hundred bucks a week, but I didn’t care.” — Alan Arkin

”There was a rat that galloped across the stage during a scene. You’d always smell a dead rat. It was just disgusting. So dirty back there.” — Amy Sedaris

”The smell [backstage] was unbelievable. There was 30 years of clothing piled on the floor, because you’d finish the night and you’d be tired…. You just threw [your costume] on the floor. And then the next night you didn’t pick it up and another shirt went on top. There were great compost heaps of things.” — Stephen Colbert

”It’s just high school all over again. This is what I likened it to: It’s six siblings that you didn’t choose, and you have to share a bedroom, and for sure someone’s always got stinky feet.” — Nia Vardalos

”Second City was a dream realized. Not only did I feel like I was in a family, but I had purpose and meaning in this family, and there’s been no other family like it since — including the one I was raised in. I had a place among this family of misfits. I was connected, I was alive.” — Jim Belushi