Second City E.T.C.

We may be deep into the season of peace on earth, but you’ve got to draw the line on goodwill somewhere–at bad comedy, say. After a happy remission in Disgruntled Employee Picnic, or The Postman Always Shoots Twice, Second City E.T.C. has relapsed into silly, soft, half-baked humor in its 12th–and perhaps least laughable–revue, Cardinal Knowledge, or Felonious Monks. Don’t be fooled by the title: those killer puns are funnier than anything the show itself offers.

It’s unintentionally revealing that in Michael Broh’s set design the back wall is cracked, with leaking plumbing showing through. Shows thrown together to meet a deadline confess it, in skits that would never have seen the stage if there’d been time to come up with better. (Or maybe they think we deserve this . . . )

Directed by Norm Holly, E.T.C.’s concoction is burdened with an easy brand of pseudohumor–sight gags that look tough but are just plain mean. These include such Saturday Night Live rejects as the saga of a heart-attack victim who dies shoveling snow: his merry neighbors prop him up and decorate him with Christmas lights. All you have here is a seventh-grader’s impulse to gross out grown-ups. Also mindlessly mean is “Rats,” a vindictive ballad that puts down parking-meter readers for doing their job.

Happily, there are some thinking mean bits too–and I don’t mean the jokes about Lorena Bobbitt and Joey Buttafuoco, the Second Citizens’ self-confessed pandering to the audience. There’s some cruelty in the skit in which a nerdy bore has been forced by his family to dine alone on Christmas in a restaurant, where he’s mocked by an insolent wait staff, a happy father who comes in to use the bathroom, even by Jesus himself–I mean, does the dullard deserve all this? But Jimmy Doyle plays him with such dedicated dreariness that the punishment actually seems to fit the crime.

And when the means aren’t mean, the ends are petty–especially in facile takes on pot-smoking families, professionally miserable talk-show guests, and guns as a cure for sexual harassment. “Lights Out, America,” sung by a perky Janet Reno (Scott Allman, who bears an awesome resemblance to her), offers a peculiar but lame solution to American violence: all of us ought to be in bed by 8 PM. (Hey, a national curfew–it just might work . . . ) In the opening sketch, a minister is willing to strip and shimmy to swell his diminishing offertory. The revue’s sole political piece (labeled as such in the program) is about an anti-NAFTA senator who tests potential letter bombs by handing them to his daughter. This, I guess, is political satire in late 1993.

Four sketches rise above the rest. Pushing beyond a cheap spoof of PC thought is a surreal bit in which the pseudoapologetic cast, answering a letter accusing E.T.C. of indulging in ethnic and sexual stereotypes, “come out,” revealing that–gasp!–they are who they spoof. There’s also potential in a bit about a gay but closeted tourist (Ian Gomez) who mistakes a stranger (Scott Adsit) for a hustler and propositions him in terms so lucrative that the guy agonizes over changing his sexual orientation. But like much here the skit sticks with the obvious–the solicited man’s panic and confusion–never topping it with an imaginative reversal.

Clever until the wimpy end is a scene in which a dorky father, chaperoning a kiddie party in his basement rec room, terrorizes the tots with a sadistic game of musical chairs; but it needs a whiplash turnaround, not the silly resolution it’s got. Most clever, even downright hilarious, is “Security,” also a classic case of escalating humor. A frightened high-rise dweller encounters several weird to lethal visitors, seen on his closed-circuit security camera, among them a “bear-hunting” neighbor kid with a cigarette lighter, a mental patient still in his hospital gown, the nut case who’s stalking him, and a terminally peppy Girl Scout. With its sharp portrait of a man disintegrating under the influence of a mounting nightmare, “Security” is vintage Second City–and Doyle builds his nervous breakdown with all the urban paranoia of a Tribune series.

There’s no doubt these six yuksters could take blue ribbons in timing, mugging, and delivery. Indeed, in a telling change from past revues, the audience-suggested improv section–an audience member was “tried” for having had sex on a desk–was sharper than the other scenes: the defendant’s lawyer (Jenna Jolovitz) praised the defendant as an “explorer” whose only goal was to stimulate her fellow employees’ productivity. But then the prosecutor pointed out that she didn’t work there.

If this cast can be so funny on their own, you wonder why so few funny things happened on the way to this forum.