It's funny, if you'll excuse the expression, but Shad Kunkle didn't move to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy.
Living in his parents' basement and working a dead-end job in Fairfield, Iowa, he felt trapped and decided to get out.
"There's only three jobs in Iowa: You can do farming, insurance or selling insurance to the farmers," Kunkle said. So he moved to Chicago, aiming to become an actor, but after taking note of the city's vibrant improvisational comedy scene, on a whim, he decided to give it a go.
Now, Kunkle performs with the touring cast of the renowned comedy troupe The Second City. Thursday night, he and four other comedians will bring their rollicking live act to Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.
"Second City has allowed me to do comedy for comedy's sake," said Kunkle, 36. "I've gotten the chance to go through and perform in front of audiences of 1,200 that are just there to see comedy."
Established nearly 40 years ago in Chicago, Second City is known for its mixture of scripted and improvisational comedy, as well as its star-studded alumni. Comedians such as Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Joan Rivers and Stephen Colbert were all a part of the Second City family at one point or another.
"They're bringing in new talent all the time, and look where some of them have ended up," said Kris Stevens, who booked Thursday's show. "You can never get enough humor in today's world. We're psyched."
That roster of A-list comedians helped entice Kunkle to Second City. But more important, Second City - and the rest of Chicago's comedy community - was a far cry from Fairfield, and offered opportunities he'd never had before.
"The nice thing about Chicago is, it's a community of people trying to learn this art form," he said.
Kunkle didn't land a spot with Second City right away. In fact, he auditioned 10 times before finally getting accepted to the Second City family.
"It is a bottleneck as far as talent goes here," Kunkle said.
"There's a lot of people who are very capable, who are very similar in casting," he added. "I basically had to just sit back and participate in all of the art in the community and learn how people did it and take my time to learn the craft so I could eventually go through the audition process."
During that time, he performed improv comedy as much as possible. He still performs once every other day, he said.
The first time Kunkle tried improv, he joined a few other actors who were pushing and pulling an imaginary refrigerator across a stage. At one point, the refrigerator almost fell over, and one of the actors thought she would be crushed. Kunkle and the others were able to save her.
"It had become so realistic," he said, laughing. "By the end of it, I was covered in sweat, and I was like, 'I just moved an imaginary refrigerator.' That's a pretty powerful thing."
Most of Second City's touring act is scripted, Kunkle said. There are two pre-written acts, each lasting about 45 minutes. At the end of the show, the actors return to the stage for 10 to 15 minutes of improv. The pre-planned routines are plucked from Second City's rich history and are often infused with political satire.
The Second City Chicago Theatre is one of the country's only performance venues dedicated to improv. Having that kind of platform for performers to practice the art of improv is a big reason why so many Second City members have gone on to be successful comedians, said Kelly Leonard, Second City's vice president.
"The public is not that interested in improv as an art form," Leonard said. "It's like avant garde jazz - there's always going to be an audience for it, but it's a thin audience. But there's magic in improv, and what we do is distill that magic and put it into a commercial model."
The touring show has few props; four chairs make up most of the staging, and there might be one other character piece such as a wig or jacket. The rest is up to the comics, Kunkle said.
"This is not Les Miserables," Kunkle said, deadpan. "We don't have a rotating stage. I wish, I wish. I'm all about [comedian] Carrot Top. I want as many props as possible, but they don't let me travel with them."
At its core, improv comedy is based on saying "yes, and ... ," Kunkle said. When one actor comes up with an off-kilter idea, the other actors accept it as reality and try and add to it. Whereas stand-up comedians have the freedom to put together a show by themselves, improv comedians depend on one another. Punch lines may be key for stand-up comics, but improv shows are built on smaller situational jokes.
"If they say, 'This tree just became a robot, and it's attacking my mom,' you have to say, 'Yes, and your mom looks scared, and the robot is probably gay,' " Kunkle said. "Or whatever you come up with in the moment to help further the story line."
Kunkle is not sure what his next step is ("That's the question my mother keeps asking me," he says). He thinks he will stay with Second City for another year or two and then see if he can strike out on his own.
Kunkle said he's glad he pursued a career in comedy instead of acting.
"I've always had better success with comedy than being sexy and good-looking, which I'm clearly not," Kunkle said. "I found myself going down this road and haven't regretted it."
if you go
* The Second City comes to Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, on Thursday. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29.50. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadtavern.com.
* If you want to see more improv comedy, the Baltimore Improv Group's Spring Kick-Off show is at 8 p.m. Friday at Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for Creative Alliance members and senior citizens. Call 410-276-1651 or go to creativealliance.org.
* Or, if you want to try your hand at improv comedy, Laurel Mill Playhouse will host an improv class at 6 p.m. Sunday. Fee is $5. The playhouse is at 508 Main St. in Laurel. Call 301-452-2557 or go to laurelmillplayhouse.org.