Second City E.T.C. Company


Organic Theater Company and Cat, Horse, & Phoenix Productions

at Organic Theater

If improv comedy were ever to become an Olympic event, with the audience as judges, the scorecards flashed after each skit would never show the usual 8.5, 9.2, 9.9. No, it would be more like: 3, 150, 38, 0, -170, 3,050. Funny is as funny feels; and the degree of difficulty is going to vary with each judge.

For a revue, a real team sport, it’s better to seek an average. Though a tad too eager to please and a bit heavy on the generic yuk, Second City E.T.C.’s fifth and newest revue, Channel This, or Die, Yuppie Scum!, still hits a solid .500–enough to keep them in the big leagues and an audience happy in their seats. The comics–with women outnumbering men four to three, a first for any Second City troupe–stick to the familiar but they don’t stop there: they know how to take the shock of recognition and raise the ante.

The opening skit, for instance, has two 80s kids goofing off before bedtime, imploring mommy to “Tell us a videotape.” A traditional mom, she tells them a story–but the boys keep turning it into sci-fi TV schlock. A bad skit would end here; this one adds a surprise the kids unwittingly deserve. Likewise, the luded-out son (a nicely comatose Chris Barnes) of a smug suburban family turns out to be the sketch’s moral center–with the father screaming, “Eight generations of alcoholics in this family and he ends up a druggie!” and both parents trying to freak him out with funny faces. It ends with the son, already on a bad trip, forced to stare at the brain-damaged neighbor kid brought over as an object lesson.

A conversation between expectant fathers explodes into grungy anecdotes about bad deliveries (“Would you like to eat the placenta?” coos a nurse). The tale of a C-section is gross-out humor at its most eccchy-funny (“It’s all drugs and knives now,” screams the foreign doctor, ready to slice), and it never strays too far from truth.

Other artful escalations firmly based in reality: a substitute teacher gleefully misinforms the class (“You won’t absorb anything anyway so–fuck it!”); Jeff Michalski, with a giant, used condom on his head, praises his “mental prophylactic” as the perfect way to get sex out of anyone’s mind; Barnes does a soul-stirring, semisalacious “Democratic Party Rap” (the only political piece here–odd in an election year), plus a derelict’s hymn to the glories of bumhood, set to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”; a Masterpiece Theatre story develops into a strange tongue-twisting contest; and inevitably, Bartles and Jaymes sell cocaine in a folksy commercial.

The septet works like comic clockwork. In a witty spoof of channeling, they’re happy mediums who scatter through the house, stirring responses from dead spirits in the “astral turf”–the audience. As in Johnny Carson’s soap opera, where audience members provide the cameos, this one percolates as the E.T.C.-ites build on answers wrangled from the crowd.

In several sketches, however, Channel This stoops but fails to conquer. Two all-women sketches didn’t work, for example. One, set in a brassiere store, sinks into a dumb-ass series of vaguely misogynistic sight gags about female anatomy. The other–California-cool yuppettes sharing Roseanne Roseannadanna-style embarrassments, like sneezing so hard you drive a cocktail straw up your nose–seems too clearly the women’s version of the men’s childbirth gross-outs. The least focused routine has Holly Wortell and Barnes as a couple trying to prolong their date but for different reasons; because it lacks a point of view, it feels aimlessly improvised. The one real improv, with the players asking the audience to “Give me a line,” needed better lines. Finally, a musical salute to “Nissan, Tennessee” foundered on easy xenophobia–since “the Rising Sun it never sets,” the workers sleep in the factory–and cheap cracker caricatures–they now drink sake with their moonshine. Gung Ho, Ron Howard’s spoof of a Japanese takeover, should have warned them against this one.

At least the E.T.C. talent refuses to play coy. Wortell’s funny mouth works well with nerdy types; Judy Scott has a deceptive sweetness she can switch off like a light; and among other escalations, Michalski builds his childbirth nightmare like a symphony conductor, Kevin Michael Doyle rages well as witless authoritarian figures, Jane Morris’s wonderfully goofy rhythm keeps her scenes nicely off kilter, and Barnes can sing as well as mug. Even taking the strikeouts into account, their average remains .500.

Can two warriors from the future return to the past in order to preserve history as we know it? That’s the Terminator-like premise of Time in a Battle, an hour-long, late-night sci-fi adventure by Cat, Horse, & Phoenix Productions at the Organic Theater. If you buy the premise, human history might have turned out worse than it did, a thought that chills. According to Time, two time travelers from the year 2037 manage to retroactively repair the past, like plumbers plugging a broken pipe; self-effacingly, they haven’t left even a graffito behind to claim the credit. Only by advancing a half-century can their story be told.

Why it should be told is a different matter–the plot of Time is pretty ridiculous; but like the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it offers athlete-actors (in that order of emphasis) an excuse to erupt into some fairly gripping stage fights with broadswords, daggers, aluminum pipe, fists, and feet. (What, no flamethrower?)

Our 21st-century hero is a computer programmer (Eric Sandeen) along the lines of Doctor Who; he’s the coinventor of the Intellex-12 time machine. In the course of his journey through time he learns that the soul of the woman he loved and lost got programmed into his computer; “she” (Karen Garland in a voice-over) continues to guide him through time and teach him the languages for each stop. His partner (David Mazzaferro), the obligatory motor-mouth fighting buddy, is a gang-banger (2037 is filled with warring tribes–so what else is new?) who keeps falling in love along the centuries.

Together they try to thwart a history-bending villain (Franklyn Garland) who has already engineered the assassinations of Gandhi, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Now this fiendish “trans-temporal assassin” intends to see that King Arthur be sired by a different father, Romeo fall out of love with Juliet, and a feudal samurai warrior, Kenichi Kuzuhara-no-Fujiwara, not commit hara-kiri. If the rotten cur succeeds, among other things the Renaissance Italian city-states will not combine (as they would have otherwise in tribute to Romeo and Juliet), and Japanese history will take a peaceful course, thus depriving us of Japanese technology.

Pursuing its preposterous, overplotted premise, Time merrily confuses myth with fact–Romeo and Juliet and Arthur never lived, or they did so under other names. But, as Moose Productions’ long-running Dungeonmaster showed, plausibility and sci-fi have always made a shotgun marriage–it’s the pell-mell action that fuels this genre. As choreographed by Richard Rupkalvis, the mayhem in Time is fairly persuasive. A few of the brawls feel slow and look tentative, but in time Time may rampage its way to combat heaven. That’s assuming that the six fighter/players here don’t kill each other first–or, considering their groaner jokes, that the audience doesn’t decide to bump them off.

Anyway, it’s summer, a season that always justifies silly make-believe; and in that department–no question–Time certainly earns its laurels.