Mr. Sahlins’s influence on American theater — in particular, sketch comedy — cannot be overstated. So many “Saturday Night Live” performers were Second City veterans that Mr. Sahlins once jokingly suggested the theater bar entrance to SNL producer Lorne Michaels, lest Michaels raid all of its talent.
In the 1960s, actors Alan Alda and Peter Boyle and stand-up comedians David Steinberg and Robert Klein performed in Mr. Sahlins’s Second City club in Chicago. An aspiring playwright named David Mamet once worked as a Second City busboy.
“Bernie’s track record discovering future Hollywood megastars was unmatched,” comedian and Second City veteran Tim Kazurinsky told the Chicago Tribune. “He probably was responsible for the greatest revolution in American comedy.”
Mr. Sahlins and producer Andrew Alexander expanded the Second City brand to Toronto in the early 1970s. The Toronto casts included Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, John Candy and Martin Short.
Mr. Sahlins later helped develop the television show “SCTV,” which ran on Canadian television and later on NBC and parodied contemporary programming with shows from the world’s smallest network in the fictional Melonville.
Long after Mr. Sahlins sold his stake in the business, Second City continued to serve as a training ground for entertainers, including Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. The organization now has touring companies and schools to teach comedy performance.
Mr. Sahlins founded the Second City — as it was originally called — in 1959 in a former Chinese laundry on North Wells Street in Chicago. His partners were two other theatrical veterans, Paul Sills and Howard Alk.
All three had struggled financially with earlier theatrical ventures and were thinking smaller — a coffeehouse venue devoted to satirical comedy and improvisational theater. They took the name from a New Yorker column by A.J. Liebling that spoke derisively of Chicago theater.
“We had a golden opportunity,” Mr. Sahlins told the New York Times in 1999. “McCarthyism had chilled everything, and comedy was a lot of mother-in-law jokes. All you had to do was go out on stage and say ‘Eisenhower’ and everybody had an orgasm. It just wasn’t done.”
A typical Second City revue consisted of sketches created through improvisation but later polished and scripted with the show’s director. Improvisation also had a place in the finished program, often through audience suggestions that sometimes took a sketch in a new direction. The company got by with the barest of sets and props — a few chairs and a piano.
“We wear our characters lightly and dress them lightly,” Mr. Sahlins once told Time magazine. “Put on a pair of glasses and you’ve got a businessman.”