Second City

Three notes on the state of American humor, inspired by an evening at Second City:

(1) The gulf war was not funny.

I know, I thought it was too. But it’s not. Winner Takes Oil plunges into the gulf at least four times, and the bits leave a weird aftertaste every time. The show opens with a press briefing, for instance: The stiff-necked government man (Ron West) and the maxed-out general (John Rubano) fielding questions from hyped-up funny reporters. The skit has laughs. (“MTV News” got the biggest one.) There’s even a clever song with the usual ironies about the LAPD and the casualty rate in Detroit.

But there’s something wrong with the setup. It’s too easy to forget which side we’re supposed to be on. Sure, the reporters seem to have the right line–the war distracted attention from serious problems at home. But why so gleeful about it? And how come our point of view is being taken by the dopes in the skit? And if our point of view is so smart, why does the rousing song (“Just ’cause it’s over don’t mean that it’s done / And just ’cause they lost doesn’t mean that we won”) make it sound so feeble?

The same thing happens in a cute skit in which Rubano and Steven Carell play a couple of skateboarders visting the Vietnam War Memorial–and the Gulf War Monument. It’s obvious how the gag is supposed to work. Rubano and Carell put across a couple sight jokes about the huge ‘Nam memorial and the itty-bitty gulf memorial. Then, calling each other “dude” as often as possible, they run through a catalog of Neanderthal opinions about the war, Saddam Hussein, and miscellaneous weaponry. (“Smart bombs? Those were genius bombs.”)

The trouble is that, crank up the teen-heathen bullshit as high as they can, nothing they say sounds worse than what an awful lot of us were saying for a while there. The characters are cute; the lines aren’t bad. We’re laughing, but gradually we begin to wonder: who’s the butt of this joke?

(2) The left is funnier than the right.

Despite the title, Winner Takes Oil isn’t really satirical. The show’s characteristic tone isn’t outrage–it’s curmudgeonliness. The targets aren’t villains, either–they’re ninnies. Sure, there are a few satirical bits: a cute but predictable skit about the Democrats auditioning presidential candidates, a song and dance about cosmetics, another song about tearing down Cabrini-Green for the real estate. (That last one is funnier than it sounds, and I loved the Miles Davis pastiche it was set to.) But they’re pretty tame, as if the world of events and public figures just didn’t provide a firm handhold for humor.

The bits that work best mostly pit exasperated traditionalism against contemporary piddle-headedness: Tim O’Malley, in a veterinarian’s office, heaps abuse on two blithering animal lovers. Ron West rants at the dinner party his dim-bulb sister-in-law is throwing for the new boyfriend she’s “visualizing.” Michael McCarthy, as a Brown College misfit, reasons futilely with the girl who added his name to the notorious date-rape list. (“I didn’t touch you,” he says. “Oh, OK,” she sneers. “All of a sudden, just because you didn’t touch me you didn’t rape me.”) West, as a history prof, shoots up a classroom full of ignorant kids.

No doubt about it, there’s a conservative flavor to Winner Takes Oil. There’s some lip-service humor at the expense of advertisers and Strangelove-ish generals and the like, but for the most part the establishment types are the good guys and the innovators, the critics, and even (God help us) the peacemongers come off like dweebs.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think some right-wing conspiracy has bought off the nation’s premier improvisational troupe with the intention of subverting the course of American satire. It’s just that humor has its own implacable logic; some things are funnier than others. The young women of Brown may have a historical imperative on their side, but chain a hundred comedy writers to a hundred typewriters and make them write Brown jokes–and guess which side 95 of them are going to take.

Their jokes won’t all be fair, of course. The Brown skit, though it’s funny, isn’t particularly fair either. Jill Talley as the accuser is a lot dumber than the point of view she represents–a lot cuter, too, which just muddles things further. It’s odd to sit in the room that gave birth to a generation of wildly anarchistic actors and find yourself rooting for order. I knew Belushi was dead. I never realized he was that dead.

(3) Old codgers with band instruments and bad haircuts are funnier than either the left or the right.

Is this one of the all-time great Second City casts? Oh, probably not. Everybody’s good. A few folks are just terrific. But nobody’s showing signs of an inspired approach; nobody makes you rethink reality the way the very best Second Citizens always have.

But you couldn’t ask for a better bunch to sit around and watch while we wait for the stuff of legend. Second City’s farm-team approach to casting has paid off here: even the newcomers are solid, experienced performers. I’m especially fond of Ron West, a stiff, stone-faced giant who plays great curmudgeons but also turns in a memorable moment pirouetting and flapping his tongue as an airborne Michael Jordan. John Rubano has the energy and the dangerous edge for the Belushi/Alan Arkin sorts of roles, but the craziness is still a little abstract. As he makes it more personal, he’ll be even better. And if one of Second City’s functions is to serve as a sort of truck farm for television actors, somebody should harvest Jill Talley soon–she’s ripe.

These aren’t just comedians. They’re actors, capable of pulling off a complicated bit of stage business (like the hilarious bird’s-eye view of a skating accident, played with the rear wall as the surface of a frozen pond) and also of setting the jokes aside for a minute and letting a skit fly on the strength of character work. West, Rubano, and Carell have some of the best minutes of the evening as a trio of aging musicians working the airport for spare change. The writing is warm, the performances are funny, and best of all, the three can really play. I could watch them all night.

The other thing I could watch all night is the show’s one formal bow to the company’s long tradition of onstage improvisation, as Rubano, West, Carell, and O’Malley ask for some personal information from a couple of volunteers and then wing a song based on it. It’s a pretty simple bit: The tune’s worked out in advance. Everybody knows when to come in for the “spontaneous” harmony. The words just barely make sense, much less rhyme.

But oh what a nice bit it is. No matter how many times you see it, there’s still something exciting about seeing a bunch of wild-ass hotshots working without a net. The actors play it to the hilt, working up the ante, playing off each other, doing little character turns. I can’t remember a single joke they made, but I know how much fun I had watching them. Making it up as you go is the core of Second City. It’s nice to see these folks have it in their bones.