Second City

The quality of improv is not strained. Good trial-and-error sketches build from premise to punch line as naturally as the yuks that follow. Whatever twists occur along the way should feel almost inevitable–not thrown in to perplex us after we’ve given up on any other potential interest.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today, the Second City troupe’s 72nd revue, not only boasts one of Second City’s sharpest ensembles but is happily free of TV-spawned humor. But the 19 scattershot skits directed by Nate Herman, some of which play like they’re still stuck in the improv pipeline, often don’t rise to the comics’ occasion; only a third are worth recalling after the last drink. After seeing this show you could easily feel hungry for both more and less–more targets more deftly hit, and less inexplicable quirkiness.

The better fare supports the show’s theme, abuses of authority in America. Take the sketch about the petty tyranny of two Wrigley Field security guards (Chris Farley and Timothy Meadows): only a few feet apart, they breathlessly communicate over walkie-talkies, bark out sinister code terms like “sector” and “pre-entrance area,” and sadistically hassle two friends of Harry Caray (“Read my lips, stay behind the line!”). Unfortunately, with no effort to show why the oafs act like snotty brats, the sketch just plays the surface. It’s a shame: recognizing an abuse is never enough. The next bit is a real laugh-getter in which Harry himself is the expendable authority: when he passes out during the seventh-inning stretch, he’s soon replaced by Caray clones planted in the crowd. (The trick is to sound innocuous and affable while you hustle everything in sight.)

Completing the baseball sequence is the revue’s most heartfelt sketch, the only one that shows any anger. In it three south siders (Meadows, Joe Liss, and Judith Scott) who have just lost their homes to the highly questionable second Comiskey Park sit on a porch, listen to the sound of other homes exploding, and grouse about the “conspiracy” that dogs their lives. Modeled on the sidewalk superintendents in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the three employ vaudeville timing and mischievous, wordplay, including mangling Reinsdorf’s and Einhorn’s names, to convey Chicagoans’ smart-ass irreverence.

Reversing sexual expectations, a cunning send-up has five guys throwing a shower for the groom, cooing over such gifts as a handgun and a do-it-yourself bomb kit. Then we’re back to standard sexual roles and a sharp culture clash, when members of a stuck-in-time 60s soul group croon dated, disastrous come-ons to two very unimpressed 80s women.

In a second musical parody, Liss and Joel Murray are the Llama Brothers, two siblings who seem to share a single cerebral hemisphere between them. Reunited to sing country ditties no one wants to hear–like a ballad about their obligatory affair with the only woman in town–their comeback eventually turns ugly as the fratricidal duo bad-mouth each other (“How far is that bug up your ass?”) and spill some foul family secrets.

As always, Second City loves its hit-and-run shots: the perils of dialing a 900 number when you’re driving, George Bush hawking a McDonald’s special that’s tied to the capture of Noriega (free fries if we don’t get him), an unpleasant birthday surprise featuring a distinctly unerotic male stripper, a Star Search for Hitler impersonators (appropriately sponsored by Adolph Coors). Also semiscathing are the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene as done by a fast-talking Spike Lee and a running joke in which a snotty yup (David Pasquesi) smugly attributes liberals’ ideals to lack of regular sex. Though this stuff doesn’t outstay its welcome, the cast sure didn’t dig deep to find it.

Most perplexing are the sketches that appear to say more than they do. A confrontation between an angry son and his adulterous father flows into a flashback in which the father receives bogus absolution from a yuppie priest; it ends as arbitrarily as it began. One bizarre bit is interrupted, Monty Python-style, because the actors insist on playing themselves. A sketch that’s a clone of Saturday Night Live’s Lupner family plays variations on the theme of nerdiness (the daughter takes her homework on a date in case things get boring). Though it’s a good excuse for some inspired mugging, it never gets beyond the familiar, and there’s no payoff.

The most ambitious episode celebrates a mistake of nature, a “whale boy” (it seems some sperm sperm got mixed up with the human kind). He was adopted by humans who now find him distasteful and vindictively call him a “fluke of improper waste management.” Vainly he plays the folk-music circuit to arouse sympathy for his out-of-water experience. This wandering whale saga could have been a metaphor for our perverse success in spawning new species to replace the ones we destroy–but it’s played only for shock effect. Yet Chris Farley depicts the wistful, rejected mammal with “elephant man” pathos–and a fully functioning blowhole.

The seven Second citizens are certainly skilled at goosing uneven stuff for more than it’s worth. Murray and Liss milk their rubber faces for all they can get. Meadows and Scott are welcome additions to the menagerie, and Holly Wortell harks back to the supple shenanigans of Barbara Harris and Mary Gross. The deadly Pasquesi expertly skewers insufferable assholes, and Farley never lets his dignity get in the way of a laugh.

As comedy salespersons, the magnificent seven never fall to fill their laugh quota. But after the last chuckle fades, you still wish they’d taken Thirty Years further and deeper.