TURN YOUR HEAD AND KAFKA, OR IT’LL ONLY HURT FOR A MAMET
Second City Northwest
Until recently, improvisational comedy has seemed the last refuge for grandstanders, idiots, and rogues, where Second City wannabes–no matter how untalented, uninformed, or awkward onstage–could form a slapdash improv troupe and pretend for a few tedious minutes every week to be the next Bill Murray or John Belushi without thinking about what they were doing onstage. All you had to do was join a workshop, pay your money (a very important step), and learn a few simple rules of improv: don’t contradict (unless you can get a laugh), don’t interrupt (unless you can get a laugh), and always listen (unless it interferes with your getting a laugh).
Eventually even Second City became infected with this dumber-than-thou aesthetic; by the mid-80s Second City shows seemed tailored for the slowest, loudest, drunkest members of the audience–the ones who always shouted “a toilet” or “taking a leak” when asked to suggest a place or an activity during improv sets. Gone were the sort of verbally nimble, intellectually adept, liberally overeducated performers who made Second City Second City, replaced by grimly pragmatic careerists willing to do their time and play the game before they, too, were offered a movie or a TV series.
In early 1989, around the same time Second City reached its nadir with Del Close’s shockingly misogynistic and unintelligent return for one show, The Gods Must Be Lazy, several smaller improvisational companies around Chicago–most notably Cardiff Giant and Mick Napier’s Metraform–were showing that Viola Spolin’s improvisation games might still work. Surprisingly, many of the new and better improvisers in Cardiff Giant and Metraform had studied at Second City (Mick Napier even teaches there).
How long would it be before the best-paying employer of improvisational talent would begin to benefit from this apparent revival of improv? If the current show at Second City Northwest is any indication–though I’m not sure it is–Second City may be on the verge of a major artistic rehabilitation.
Certainly the show at SCN is better–wittier, more entertaining, more intelligent–than any show I’ve seen at either Second City’s main stage or their E.T.C. space in a very, very long time, even though the show’s six- member troupe seems to have been cast according to Second City’s rigid formula of four men (one fat, one funny looking, two mildly handsome) and two women (one dark-haired, one light-haired), and even though the show is structured the way all Second City shows have been structured since Eisenhower was president (skit, blackout, skit, blackout, skit, blackout, and so on; piano accompanies both skits and blackouts; at end of show re
mind audience to tip waitress).
Somehow, faced with all of Second City’s formulas, rituals, and superstitions, this cast has managed to create life where other troupes have only been able to create shtick. The cast is scrupulous in avoiding two of Second City’s most dangerous ruts: (1) the women are free, independent, contributing members of the cast, not just bimbos, secretaries, and wives, and (2) none of the men go for those all-too-easy slob laughs that countless John Belushi clones (among them Jim Belushi, Mark Beltzman, Chris Farley) have made their own.
It helps, I think, that the show begins with a skit about censorship that manages both to be fairly funny (despite some tiresome jokes about flag burning) and to give this company the sort of political point of view missing from so many recent shows. (It also can’t hurt for performers to begin every night by reaffirming their belief in the importance of self-expression!)
It also helps that this six-member cast seems blissfully free of the kind of self-aggrandizing that has done in so many troupes before it. Instead, they actually perform together as a team, each contributing to his best ability, each holding back when it’s best for someone else to take the spotlight in a scene.
This remarkable (and very un-Second City-ish) give-and-take is most apparent in the show’s various large group scenes, such as the long, expressionist (and, I should add, risky) sketch in the second act involving a bored retiree (played by Ken Campbell without any of the usual old-man cliches) who spends every day playing golf. In this complex sketch he wanders though the audience looking for an errant ball while various people in his life–his wife, his doctor, his son –pop in and out of his thoughts (and the scene), dispensing bits of advice (stop smoking, lose weight) and asking favors (Could you stay home until the UPS mans drops off the package I’m expecting?). Without the cast’s rigorous, well-paced interaction, this extended scene could easily have become frenetic or lapsed–as most Saturday Night Live sketches do–into lethargy or chaos. As it is, the scene moves flawlessly from start to finish, marred only slightly by an overly sentimental ending.
Even more remarkable is the degree to which the group seem to enjoy themselves while they entertain us. This playful spirit is most apparent in a two-person silent sketch (performed to a bit of pounding Europop) in which Amy Sedaris and John Rubano appear as a pair of exercise fanatics who can’t decide as they go through their workouts whether they are trying to compete with or seduce each other. Take away the joy with which Sedaris and Rubano execute this exuberant dancelike routine, and all you have are a bunch of tired and oft-repeated jokes about fitness nuts and their obsessive narcissism.
This is not to say that every sketch in the show is an unqualified success. There are a few clunkers, among them a tired bit satirizing product placement (in this case, Romeo and Juliet is brought to you by Pepsi) and another in which a pair of politicians gracelessly sing and dance their way (“I’m Culligan,” “I’m Mulligan”) through a press conference. But the ratio of successful sketches to bad ones is high (6 to 1!).
So does this mean we’ve entered a second golden age of Second City? Perhaps, but I doubt it. A lot of the playful freedom this cast bring to their work may well come from the fact that the stakes are lower in Rolling Meadows. Cast member David Razowsky suggested to me after the show that unlike their fellows at the theater on Wells, the cast of Second City Northwest are far away from the judging eyes of casting agents and producers. No one has to worry about not shining on the night someone from Saturday Night Live is in the audience, and so, paradoxically, everyone shines every night. It remains to be seen whether this playful spirit can be transplanted to (or rather, reified in) Old Town.
Still, a show like Turn Your Head and Kafka gives me hope that someday, just maybe, I’ll stop cringing when out-of-town guests insist on seeing a show at Second City.