It’s evening in Chicago, and a boisterous crowd has gathered inside The Second City’s Mainstage Theater, ordering drinks and waiting expectantly for the lights to dim and the show to begin.
When it does, the audience of comedy fans, corporate groups, birthday and bachelorette party guests, and people of all ages and from all over the world set aside their ordinary lives for a couple of hours of silliness and fun. They begin to giggle and then laugh uproariously as the actors use their comedic chops, and often their wits, to explore wacky and even surreal scenarios such as what it’s like to date an imaginary friend.
For that particular sketch, Mainstage cast member Andy Bolduc ’10 energetically mimes kissing a person who isn’t there, an act so over-the-top that at first, it seems to catch some in the audience off guard. But then, as the joke builds, so do the laughs—and it’s in that liminal space, the one between the uncomfortable and the hilarious, where Bolduc is most at home.
“I think the thing that I love the most, the real nugget of it for me, is creating new material, new jokes, new characters, the feeling of potential danger that they won’t be received well,” he said. “The core for me is something about the danger. The potential for failure has to be there. If there was no risk to it, it wouldn’t feel so good.”
Bolduc, a comedian, actor, and writer from Bangor, Maine, walks the line between risk and reward six nights and eight shows a week at The Second City, the venerable comedy enterprise that is considered by many to be the apex of improv and which has brought great comic minds to the world at large for more than 60 years.
‘A class clown with class’
The company’s alumni list is a who’s who of comedy, and includes luminaries such as Alan Alda, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Candy, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Eugene Levy, Tim Meadows, Mike Myers, Jordan Peele, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert.
It means a lot to Bolduc, who has been one of the six Mainstage cast members for two years, to be part of that tradition. But perhaps more importantly, he’s thrilled to be making a living doing what he has always loved to do: writing and performing sketches that transport the audience somewhere else.
“You try to craft something that will really be an original idea that will get past whatever their defense points are, whatever resistance there might be,” he said. “And to get that great reward of a really surprised, unexpected laugh. Getting to that is my absolute favorite thing.”
On stage, Bolduc tackles his characters and scenarios, no matter how off-kilter, with a gravity and commitment that makes them all the funnier. He also clearly revels in the team nature of improv, working seamlessly with the other members of the Mainstage cast.
In conversation, he’s thoughtful and reflective about comedy and his own journey to make a career as a performer.
“I always loved doing school musicals and school plays. I truly think it was just looking for an opportunity to be funny, to get on stage and try to be very, very funny in front of other people,” he said. “I would just say I’m a class clown with class. I’m not looking to waste anybody’s time. It’s not just for attention. It’s to get a well-earned laugh. I always wanted to do that, absolutely.”
At Colby, where he was a double major in government and French studies, Bolduc continued to seek opportunities to make people laugh. It was college where he first learned about improvisation, or improv, a form of comedy in which performers do not use a script.
In the short form of improv, audience members are asked for suggestions to inspire the performers on stage. The TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? now in its 20th season, is a great example of short-form improv. In the long form, improv is much more open-ended, leading to situations where actors might create an entire performance on the fly.
Colby Improv focused on short-form improv, and it was a great fit for Bolduc.
He remembers putting enormous pressure on himself to do well in the shows, always striving to be funny for the students who came to watch and shout out suggestions for the performers.
“We had fantastic audiences, incredibly generous for the stuff that we were doing, which I’m sure was most of the time not very good,” Bolduc said.
He also joined Powder and Wig, the student theater club, participated in the Broadway Musical Revue, and wrote and produced a couple of musicals with his friend Nicolas Robichaud ’09. On stage, Bolduc tried his hand at dramas as well as comedies, appearing in plays like The Foreigner, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Macbeth, in which he played the murderous, doomed titular character.
“That was really fun,” Bolduc said. “I think a good skill for any person doing comedy is to be able to also perform seriously. Just to commit to a character really hard, hard enough that the audience fully believes you. Then you have a lot more power comedically.”
A memorable student
Bolduc’s comedic power was never in doubt, according to Performance, Theater, and Dance Technical Director John Ervin, who described his first entrance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the Power and Wig 2008 production of The Rocky Horror Show as an “absolute showstopper.”
He had unbound imagination, with one of his musicals requiring the creative team to build a large-scale working puppet of the malevolent being Cthulhu.
“Despite his exuberant performances and over-the-top imagination, he was most affable in our day-to-day encounters and surprisingly different from his onstage personas,” Ervin said. “I couldn’t be happier to hear of his ongoing successes.”
Making it to The Second City’s Mainstage is no small feat, according to Jen Shepard, the executive director of the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor and co-owner of ImprovAcadia, where Bolduc worked for several summers after college. But she’s not surprised that Bolduc has become part of the acclaimed Mainstage cast. Even as a young performer, he had something that set him apart from the rest, she said.
She described his style as absurdist, even surrealistic. And like the best performers, he’s able to stay true to himself while still fitting into the style of the place he’s working, whether it’s ImprovAcadia or The Second City.
“That’s what’s great about Andy. He doesn’t sell out. He’s still weird—totally weird. He’s still funny, and still willing to take risks,” she said. “He’s just a very funny person, and he’s also a generous person to be with on stage. He’s fun to be onstage with. He realizes it’s not just about him. Andy’s just a very good person, and he brings that to his comedy as well.”
‘Deformed monster children’
During one summer break Bolduc went on a road trip with two Colby friends, traveling the country in search of a good place to land after graduation. They scoped out various cities, comparing rents and more, and ultimately chose Chicago as both affordable and full of possibilities.
“Chicago was definitely the best,” he said. “It was a large city with a vibrant comedy and theater scene, lower cost of living, and a good public transportation system. It had all these characteristics.”
It was also a great place to do improv and sketch comedy. He took classes and put on his own shows at small theaters around the city.
“I spent a long time building a little name for myself in the independent comedy scene,” he said.
For years, Bolduc performed with the sketch group Cigarette Sandwich, and their slightly edgy brand of comedy became popular around Chicago. In 2018 he joined The Second City’s touring company and has been writing and performing with the group since.
“It’s very, very fun” to work with the other cast members, Bolduc said, adding that it’s hard to choose his favorite sketches and characters.
“I have so many. I’m like a little horror movie doll master, you know, obsessing over his little creations,” he said with a laugh. “I love them like my little deformed monster children.”