Second City Northwest

Let’s face it. Second City is a corporation, like a chain of fast-food restaurants. It’s not in business to change the world; it’s here to sell drinks, give the audience a couple of chuckles, and send them home with a smile and a good buzz.

Second City is also selling a dream. After you’ve purchased the T-shirts and the sweatshirts, you can sign up for the hallowed Second City classes: you could be the next Tim Kazurinsky or George Wendt. The problem is that, though Second City can provide its actors with great technique, it can’t teach them to be funny.

Second City Northwest’s latest revue, Destiny and How to Avoid It, is well polished, cute in parts, and very, very familiar. While some Second City shows aim for the daring and racy, this one is about as daring as a ride on Metra and about as racy as an ad for Jockey shorts. It settles for the merely friendly and dull–the usual collection of white-bread skits interspersed with trying-too-hard musical numbers.

As usual, there are the stupid characters who talk in country accents and wear their pants funny. Gentle fun is poked at political candidates. Then there are the sketches that seek to address the issues of the day, but they play it so safe that they can be read as right wing, left wing, or apolitical. Mustn’t offend anyone–we’re in Rolling Meadows after all.

The first doctor’s-office sketch (no Second City show would be complete without one) deals with a woman’s decision to get an abortion. The dumb hicks in her family assail her with such nasty metaphors as “If you mix oats with water, honey, you better eat that oatmeal.” She doesn’t give them much of a fight, and is finally saved from making any decision when the fetus spontaneously aborts. Aside from not being funny, this sketch doesn’t even approach the political. Its views are about as easy to pin down as Ross Perot’s.

A lot of the skits backfire, too–and it’s interesting to see what gets laughs and what doesn’t. In one endless sketch a “violence therapist” tries to help the victim of a crime deal with it by having him reenact the crime with his attacker. As you’d expect, the victim is continually punched and beaten up in each reenactment, as the audience guffaws at the sight of a helpless man clubbed with a baseball bat.

Another sketch pokes fun at the Second City legacy by reprising an old Second City “classic” featuring JFK and Castro. When it gets no laughs from this audience, the actors spice it up by adding dick jokes and hurling the female character from one side of the stage to the other. The idea is to mock the declining standards of comedy audiences, but at the same time the sketch plays to those standards. The dick jokes and sexist antics they satirize get the biggest laughs of the night.

There are a couple of chortles here and there. Paul Dinello stands out in an improvisational sketch in which he and another cast member make up a folk song based on an audience suggestion. In one mildly diverting scene that makes inventive use of the stage, two men find themselves on top of a mountain peak. And there’s a song-and-dance routine mimicking life inside a fish tank that has a genuine spark of creativity and imagination.

For the most part, though, it’s just a lot of the same old thing. The woman on the pay phone in front of me effectively summed it up:

“I am so wasted,” she laughed. “You should have seen it. The guys were so cute I wanted to die . . . ”

A long pause.

“Yeah,” she said. “I guess it was OK.”