Second City ETC

The title of this alleged comedy revue pretty much says it all. As the Dan Quayle look-alike in the cast (Michael McCarthy) puts it, “America Lite, because you’re too busy for democracy.” But really, only about half of the 20 skits in this revue constitute a satire of the superficial political climate that ushered Bush and Quayle into the White House. The skits that make up the other half are filler, which is odd. With the election so recent, you wouldn’t think that the creators of America Lite would come up short on material. But they do. What’s more, the satire turns out to be every bit as superficial as its target, hitting only on the headlines, the flotsam skimmed from the political cauldron. You don’t have to read the Nation to understand it. And I don’t know what you have to do to enjoy it. Comedy Lite. Maybe you just have to have a taste for it.

I laughed twice in two hours. The first time was during a skit entitled “History Lesson.” The premise is that Bush has decided to sell Ohio in order to alleviate the national debt. Now, to appreciate this skit, you must understand that there’s something inherently funny about Ohio. I didn’t know that, but since Ohio pops up in another piece (“Script Ohio”), I can only assume that just mentioning Ohio is good for a laugh. Ohio is like, you know, boxer shorts or prosthetic genitalia–both of which, incidentally, turn up in other parts of the show. Anyway, Donald Trump makes a bid for Ohio with the line, “Ohio will go nicely with my new suit.” That’s when I laughed. OK, I’m easy.

My second moment of hilarity came during “The Liberalarium.” This skit is set in a Twilight Zone sort of future when the “last living liberal” is put on display for the public. The sulking “L-person” is prodded, by electric shocks, to deliver little speeches against capital punishment and the arms race for the viewing public. But he escapes and there’s a big manhunt, which is the occasion for satires of TV news, civil defense procedures, and vegetarianism. (Conservatives, apparently, are carnivores.) What made me laugh, however, were the police, who always entered a scene chanting, “We’re cops. We’re cops,” waving their handguns around in a two-fisted grip like Don Johnson looking for a target in an empty crack house. It’s a silly bit, but funny, and if choreographer Liz Pazik is responsible, then good for her.

The rest of the political satire is too dumb to merit comment, but here’s a sampling anyhow. There’s “Nick’s Bar,” about a watering hole for political pariahs including–who else?–a drunk John Tower. “Here’s to the Men of the N.R.A.” is a drill corps number that ends in a Nazi salute. And in “Pledge” two art museum visitors pledge allegiance to the floor. Boring.

“Darryl and Joe’s Excellent Report,” however, shows some potential. Darryl and Joe are two nerds giving a report on the contras. Their facts are wrong, they can’t pronounce “Sandinista,” and they cover their ignorance with fabrication. Then, suddenly, in the middle of their report, the whole context changes and they become senators at a press conference. Of course, their report to the press suffers from the same mistakes, although their style has become far more polished. It’s a nice contrast, very effective, but essentially a conceptual gag without a substantial script to give it weight. Any point the skit might have made would have probably been moot anyway, since what the audience was really eating up here were the nerd impressions given by Michael McCarthy and Mark Beltzman.

Nerds, I guess they’re inherently funny too. And Arabs, be they Lebanese or Iranian, are also good for a laugh, I suppose, with their clucking speech and fanatical ways. Although I’m not sure what the three skits featuring Arabs have to do with the theme of America Lite. There’s so much to learn about comedy. I really have to get out more often, find out what’s funny and what’s not. For instance, I was just barely culturally literate enough to know that I was supposed to laugh when Beltzman said “fuck you” in that drawn-out way that Steve Martin used to say “excuse me.” And when Ron West performed the Surfaris’ classic “Wipeout,” using only his mouth and a microphone–that should have been funny, since I’d seen “Wipeout” performed on a chair seat only a year ago in another comedy revue. So what makes it funny? How exposed do I have to be to a comic cliche before it becomes funny? Before it loses its humor? I don’t understand. Maybe my sense of humor gets in the way.

All I know is that the rest of the audience laughed their asses off. Maybe they really like this stuff. They certainly paid enough for it. Maybe TV has lowered our standards so low this stuff seems raucous and fresh. But it’s not fresh–nerds with thick glasses, Dan Quayle with a golf club. Maybe people like it because it’s not threatening, like cafeteria food, and it’s a pleasant, rewarding, perhaps even amusing experience to go to Second City and find exactly what you expected. Ohio! Waahaha! Then, by the same token, the reason I didn’t like the show is that I didn’t get what I expected out of it: political satire. I don’t know. America Lite: it’s its own best critic.