Second City

I think comedy revues compared to straight drama have a more active rapport with their audience. Whether or not a comedian “dies” onstage depends on immediate audience response. Thumbs up, thumbs down, everyone’s a critic. But there are all kinds of critics, from curmudgeons to cheerleaders. And the opening night audience for Kuwait Until Dark was what’s called a good audience. They were eager. They were also significantly upscale, white, and well dressed. The evening had the feel of an occasion, a place to be seen. And so I wondered, while waiting for the fashionably late show to begin, what chemistry Second City would bring to bear upon this occasion.

What I didn’t expect is what you might expect: 22 skits on random subjects, including a couple musical numbers, two improv routines based on audience input, ten concept gags not much longer than the blackouts that separated them, and eight longer sketches with mildly satirical intentions. In short, a standard comedy revue formula. My response was ambivalent; I liked half of the show. I liked the half that was better written.

That’s what’s strange, that it should all come down to the script. Even in the improvisations, when the audience is solicited for suggestions, that “dangerous” contact with the audience is kept to a minimum. Not that this was an audience of hecklers, by any means. Only once, during the “Poets Corner,” did the wild card turn up. Bonnie Hunt was fielding ideas for improvised poems. Someone shouted, “Adultery!” She snapped it up. A second idea was offered, but Hunt shot back, “Come back tomorrow night.” Then someone asked (in reference to the cohost of Poets Corrier), “Is that Richard Liss or Dick Liss?” Hunt responded, “It’s a dick joke. Laugh!” And she threw back her head and cackled, and the show went on. That was one crisp piece of audience control.

The obvious consequence of Second City’s tacit decision to just do the show, as planned, is that they must sink or swim according to their material. So they swam and sank in equal measure. In a situation like this, only a star personality can float a bad routine. Second City has been known to produce such comedians, in litters, about once a decade. Now, the current cast is good but, well, it’s obviously an off year.

The closest any single performer comes to transcending the more mediocre material is Steve Assad’s impression of William F. Buckley in a send-up of Firing Line. Assad plays the whole nine yards, complete with overbite, stuttering, and that wonderfully self-satisfied style of intellectual condescension. But the sketch itself is weak. The Firing Line guests, as either characters or actors, don’t measure up against the onslaught of Assad’s portrayal of Buckley. And, really, the whole routine of the talk show satire is at least as overexploited as the talk show itself.

Sex, politics, religion, and the media–the standard fare–are recurring themes. There’s a piece on exhaustive television coverage of the Democratic primary, the obligatory satire of Catholicism, and even a musical number on safe sex. Old stuff, tame stuff. Far more successful are the weird exceptions. I particularly enjoyed “Le Concert,” a French minimalist performance of the Surfaris’ classic, “Wipeout.” And I think you’ll enjoy another good concept gag, the John Marshall School of Law and Modeling, elegantly performed by Joe Liss.

But my very favorite is “Pool Hall,” a satire of the witty repartee of films noirs. Kevin Crowley and Bonnie Hunt play a Bogie and Bacall couple who get involved in a pool game where the balls are definitely on the line. For instance, he admits that he used to go by the nickname Spit. She wipes her face and says, “I had a dog named Spit.” He asks, “Did he come when you call?” Then, after a pause, she answers, “That’s why he’s man’s best friend.” Of course, this sort of game can only lead to gunplay, and the first to get shot is the sax player.

In the end, my ambivalence persists. I don’t know. I guess I’m hungry for something spicier. Even when it’s good, this is cafeteria food. What happened to Second City’s reputation for cut-and-slash satire? Are they consciously appealing to an upscale audience by hanging back and pulling their punches? Is this the gentrification of Second City? Have they become, God forbid, an institution? Tune in next week . . .