Word of Mouth
at the Second City,
Donny’s Skybox Studio
Under the Influence
at the Second City,
Donny’s Skybox Studio
By Kelly Kleiman
The two solo shows now appearing at Second City could have been a final exam in Anatomy of Humor for the city’s thousands of students of improv-based comedy. OK, class, what bone connects to the funny bone? Ali Farahnakian’s Word of Mouth is not funny, while Megan Grano’s Under the Influence is. Explain the reasons why.
Farahnakian, a veteran of Second City and Saturday Night Live whose return home attracted the attention of the Culture Club a few weeks ago, presents a show almost entirely about himself–his feelings, his needs, his beliefs, his reactions. The central question seems to be, “How can Ali come to terms with the raft of professional and personal disappointments with which he’s recently been faced?” The result of this unrelenting focus on himself is an evening that more strongly resembles a motivational seminar than a comedy show, with Farahnakian concluding many of his tales with canned bits of wisdom on the order of “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” That this philosophy is a comfort to him is certain; that strangers will benefit from hearing it is less so.
At first blush, Grano’s show (directed by Abby Sher) looks like a nightmare extension of this romance with the mirror: Enough about me, what do you think about me? We were instructed to “sign in and read the wall,” a wall covered with photos of the performer and her parents and friends, her Weight Watchers food diary, her family’s “newspaper.”
But though the central device of her show is that every character is talking to Grano at some point in her life, the focus is on the 15 or 20 characters she portrays, from a street person to a school principal to a resentful ex-boyfriend. “Megan” is the show’s organizing principle rather than its subject, and this generosity of attention produces a funny, thoughtful, varied evening.
The choice of presenting characters rather than oneself seems essential to avoiding the self-absorption trap. Near the end of his show, Farahnakian briefly abandoned his own persona to portray an immigrant cabbie; and though the piece suffers if compared to the cabbie created by Avery Schreiber in the early days of Second City, it was a welcome relief from the rest of the show. Characters, after all, have always been a strength of the Second City/ Saturday Night Live brand of comedy, whether they be John Belushi’s crazed weatherman or Dana Carvey’s Church Lady. Grano’s commitment to, and ear for, her characters gives her show momentum; from the prosecutor mother, who gives her an overexplicit warning about talking to strangers, to the foreign exchange student who compliments her hair as “gentle,” to the doctor whose advice about her father’s Parkinson’s disease is “never cry,” we want to know what kind of lunatic she’ll encounter next. Farahnakian and Grano both say more about what happened to them than about what they did, but his report sounds like a victim’s complaint and hers like the anecdotes of a bemused observer–bemused because people are weird but observant because they’re interesting.
That’s the key distinction between the shows: Grano is generous to other people while Farahnakian is harsh. There’s certainly a place for harsh solo comedy (stand-up exists for that excoriating purpose), but you have to make sure you’re funny. And if you’re going to do a one-character show about the meaning of life, you’d better be Samuel Beckett. People play to their strengths, of course, and Grano can transform herself simply by picking up a pen or putting on glasses. She succeeds in portraying people wholly other from her in gender, age, nationality, and set of concerns. She even manages a credible imitation of a man failing to deflower a virgin. By contrast, Farahnakian is his pleasant self first, last, and always. The elaborate prop table he keeps onstage serves mostly to highlight the amount of effort it takes for him to present someone else.
Surprise! Better actors put on better shows.
But more important, writers who think critically about themselves and respectfully about others write better shows. Throughout, Grano demonstrates an awareness of her own privilege. She is able to perceive her well-off Grosse Pointe childhood as other people do, giving a sympathetic portrait of the boyfriend who broke up with her because “I’m not perfect like you, with your perfect money and your perfect life,” and another of the teacher who, fed up with Megan’s bragging about an upcoming trip to Europe, presents to the class the physics problem of her death in a plane crash. Farahnakian is aware that other people have a hard time seeing him clearly–he gives a moving account of being the only Iranian in his school during the hostage crisis–and not as aware of his difficulty in seeing them. His bit about a Navajo lawyer flirts with casual racism of the Chief Illiniwek variety, and his very long routine about anal rape has more than a touch of homophobia. He acknowledges that his fascination with the subject raises questions about his own sexuality, which doesn’t excuse using gay people as props.
Grano’s whole point is that other people aren’t props. They’re not the supporting cast of our lives; they’re more like an infinity of directors. This sensitivity to the value of difference may flow from an overseas church trip in which she helped rebuild a flooded school. In the persona of the welcoming priest, she says, “Here, there is no air-conditioning, there is no Best Western….I cannot guarantee you that you will love every minute of this. The work is hard. But I can guarantee you that the experience will change your heart.” Grano’s “changed,” or at least generous, heart shows in the way she permits characters to criticize her, as well as in her ear for prejudice: in an otherwise sympathetic portrait of her grammar school principal, Grano slips in the principal’s disdainful “Are you from Detroit, for God’s sake?”
Some evolutionary psychologists argue that men are inherently more outer-directed than women, more engaged with the world, because their genitals predispose them to, well, push forward and stick out. Women are supposed to be inner-directed, predestined by the existence of our wombs to concentrate on what’s going on inside. With these two shows, Second City demonstrates the opposite–so that’s two anatomy lessons for the price of one.