Second City

Two contradictory rumors about Irv Kupcinet circulated at the opening-night party for Second City’s current revue. One rumor was that Kup had been deeply offended by the show’s material and had even gasped out loud at some of the gags. The other was that he had dozed off sometime during the first skit and had slept through the show. Judging from my own reactions, either could easily be true. The first revue directed by Del Close since 1982 (when he either left or was fired from Second City), The Gods Must Be Lazy, or, There’s More to Life Than Death, is an unholy mixture of the Second City of the 80s (toothless satire, lowbrow wit, shallow commentary on current events) with the hip, mildly nihilistic comedy of another, now long-gone Second City.

The result is paradoxically a show that is no livelier than previous efforts, but far more vulgar and offensive, as if the cast gave up long ago trying to imitate Mort Sahl or Severn Darden and decided to ape Lenny Bruce instead, but got no further than telling a few “dick jokes” and saying “shit” onstage. Of course, Second City has been in decline for a long, long time now, and it may be too much to ask Close to show immediate results. After all, the Second City of the 80s perfected the corporate comedy revue, absolutely free of satire and controversy, capable of entertaining the most philistine of audiences without a single challenge to their values or wit. But one can’t help but hope for something at least as interesting or as risky from Close as his work with ImprovOlympic or his recent experiments with horror comic books (DC Comics’ Wasteland). Instead we get a revue that thinks sexist and racist jokes are an improvement over the “same old same old jokes” about Wisconsin, yuppies, and male-female relationships.

To be sure, the show has its share of nicely done sketches, including a very charming skit about an eccentric but wise street person (David Pasquesi) who teaches an upwardly mobile but depressed young man (Joel Murray) a few things about life. Though the premise is old hat at Second City, Pasquesi brings new life to this hopelessly sentimentalized stereotype, making him alienated, gruff, and a little angry. Hearing him growl about the day’s headlines is one of the high points of the show. Another high point also involves Pasquesi. In the middle of a mildly funny, mildly offensive skit (sarcastically entitled “Ravinia”) about a trio of NRA types who drive through the countryside killing everything they see, Pasquesi mimes putting his hand out the window and for a few hilarious moments plays with the passing air currents (the way we all have at one time or another). The joke is subtle, simple, brilliant–and simply miles ahead of the rest of the skit, which never rises above jokes about the intelligence of cows (they’re dumb) and how silly it is that they have “four tits.”

Another actor worth watching is Chris Farley, the obligatory heavy man in the cast. More than a little reminiscent of John Belushi (in a way that Jim Belushi was not), Farley shows considerable promise as a physical comedian. He has even mastered the Belushiesque ability to get laughs by running headlong into a wall. And speaking of Belushis, Joel Murray (brother to Bill and Brian Doyle), like Jim Belushi, has perfected the art of always looking like he’s just about to say something incredibly funny. The anticipation alone adds energy to any scene he’s in.

For the first time in Second City’s history, there are two blacks in the same cast–Tim Meadows and Judith Scott–something that’s hardly explored in this show. Meadows and Scott look so much like a late-60s liberal’s idea of the perfect black couple (polite, mild-mannered, and decidedly middle-class) that they’d be perfect for any number of hip skits about race relations in the 80s. The only sketch that even begins to exploit this possibility is a short, nasty, and brutal one about a black couple being pulled over by a white Chicago cop. “Fucking pig!” Meadows shouts when he sees the police lights, but when confronted by the cop (“What did you say?”) Meadows is cowed and turns on his wife (“No, officer, I was talking to her. Fucking pig!”). (Ha. Ha. Ha. I can hear David Duke laughing now.)

Unfortunately, this scene is not alone in its less than enlightened view of things. In fact, much of the show contains the sort of humor I’d hoped died long ago. Among the worst is a silent scene (with music) called “Vend-a-Matic,” which starts by poking fun at condom-dispensing machines and ends with a gag about the supposed large size of the genitals of black men. And for the feminists in the audience, there is an elevator scene that ends with a gag about looking up a woman’s dress.

Among the milder sketches in the show is a cookie-cutter parody of Crown Books’ TV ads (“Booze costs too much. That’s why I opened Crown Liquors”) and a funny but very familiar-looking send-up of blues bars, which combines some Blues Brothers shtick with a bit from several shows ago in which Ron West played a blues-singing Homer. Although the best of these mild sketches has to be “Oh Carol,” a short bit about a mouthy but efficient secretary (Scott) and her all but incompetent boss (Joe Liss), even this doesn’t approach the humor of an average Second City sketch of ten years ago.

The great irony of Second City’s current show is that when the material isn’t incredibly offensive it falls somewhere between so-so and fair-to-middlin’ (as if there were no middle ground between the kind of show that appeals to conventioneers and the kind of show that appeals only to suburban punks). Hence a show that can at once offend you and lull you to sleep. Maybe if Close works with Second City for a while, he can whip them into shape. But as it stands now, the only real innovation in the show is Stephen Kastner’s wonderfully surreal background mural (the first in Second City’s history).