Second City E.T.C. Company

Most of the jokes in Kukla, Fawn, and Ollie are based on mundane urban experiences that have been pushed into the realm of comedy by the simple question “What if . . . ”

What if those video monitors in apartment lobbies were plugged into every TV set in the building, allowing residents to watch the little dramas that unfold while people are waiting for the elevator?

What if a wife were so organized and efficient that she could give birth all by herself at home in the morning, and still have the house picked up and dinner on the table by the time her husband came home from work?

What if Corona beer were sold at Wrigley Field? Would the vendors look as hip and fashionable as the product they were hawking?

These are some of the questions asked–and answered–in the fourth revue by Second City’s E.T.C. Company, and the eight company members extract a liberal dose of humor from such imaginary situations. These skits are built on the ridiculous, and get funnier the farther they get from reality.

But there’s also another type of skit in the show, whose humor is derived from looking into reality and observing what’s actually there, not wondering “What if . . . ”

For example, a man walks into a dingy secondhand store operated by an elderly couple so insulated from the outside world that they have become very peculiar. They no longer talk to each other–they just express annoyance with short, nasty hisses. They’ve just about lost the impulse to talk to customers, too. He remains totally detached, never looking up from his book unless provoked, and she levels a bug-eyed stare at the customer. The hapless customer just wants to buy a present for his wife, but he must deal with this eerie couple. What’s going on between these people?

The E.T.C. company attempts to answer questions like that, too, and the skits that result from such exploration demonstrate how improvisation is supposed to work. Contrary to popular belief, improvisation is not a method of joke writing. It’s a way of drilling into the personality of a character and discovering what’s inside. Since most people are contradictory, deluded, and perverse, what’s inside of them is often very funny; but improvisation is after truth, not humor.

Of course, improvised skits, brilliant as they may be, tend to evoke smiles of recognition, not the belly laughs that sell tickets, so the E.T.C. people rely more on the “what if . . . ” situations. But “what if” they concentrated on improvised character studies? That’s a scenario that might result in brilliance, not just the run-of-the-mill gags that dominate this revue.

In one of the character skits, for example, Jane Morris plays a middle-aged woman who has returned to college, and ended up in a dorm room with an 18-year-old bulimic airhead, played by Madeleine Belden. The mere thought of such a situation evokes a smile. If the performers manage to get at the essence of their characters through improvisation, though, they’re going to be funny. And they are. Morris develops her character’s world-weary cynicism, while Belden plays off the vapid superficiality of hers. What results is an insightful look at the difference between maturity and the self-absorption of youth. “Once you reach a certain age,” Morris says, trying to explain why she lacks enthusiasm for her new roommate, “everyone below that age seems stupid.”

There are a couple of other character studies. In one, Joe Liss plays a city worker who is watching television with his girlfriend (Barbara Wallace) and her father (Kevin Doyle). The skit is well done, but the humor is undercut by callous mockery of the lower-middle class (“Whaddaya mean I don’t do anything?” Liss shouts at his girlfriend. “I go to the tavern. I play bingo. I go to the dunes.”).

The most memorable skit involves a panel of sportswriters from the National Review (Doyle), Psychology Today (Chris Barnes), Popular Mechanics (Liss), and the National Enquirer (Jeff Michalski). As the moderator (Mark Belden) throws out questions, the panelists respond: “There will never be lights in Wrigley Field because the candy-ass liberals don’t want lights in Wrigley Field,” the National Review asserts. “The real reason,” the National Enquirer responds, “is that there’s a huge vampire population up there.”

The title, incidentally, bears almost no relation to anything in the show. Michalski makes a brief appearance as a representative from the Department of Bureaucratese who is responsible for developing misleading words and phrases for a president who “wants to make the world safe for democracy by establishing right-wing dictatorships all over the world.” Since Admiral Poindexter, in his testimony during the Iran-contra hearings, claimed to know what the president’s true intentions were, the wordsmith has coined a phrase to describe that–“paranormal intentability.”

Michalski and Chris Barnes also have a brief skit in which they play Poindexter and North respectively (but not respectfully).

So Kukla, Fawn, and Ollie is probably a misnomer. The show doesn’t have a lot of political satire, but it does contain a reasonably entertaining combination of gags and character studies. The only problem is that the character studies are so much more imaginative than the gags that they left me wondering “what if” they stopped worrying about getting a laugh a minute, and got down to some serious improvising?