Second City the First: Inches from Improv

The Second City is a comedy troupe responsible for nearly every famous funny person in the last several decades: from Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd to Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. It is practically SNL’s farm system (I realize that I’ve lost the percentage of you required by law to believe that SNL has been horrible since X cast member left). On Tuesday night, EA and I took the Brown line L Train, got off at Sedgwick, and walked a few blocks to catch the legendary troupe’s newest Mainstage revue, their 100th.

Our seats were in the front row. And when I say “front row,” I don’t mean that we were in the first row and then there was a nice five foot aisle between us and the stage. Without stretching out, my feet touched the bottom of the stage. The guy next to me (a nice gentleman from Iowa) and I were warned beforehand that a member of the ensemble would leap off the stage at the very beginning and we should scoot over lest his shoe catch us in the head. The lady next to EA was kissed by an actor during a scene. Awkward eye contact with the ensemble was made throughout. I laughed quite a bit, but I was self-conscious about it.

Am I laughing enough? It’s disingenuous to over-laugh. And I shouldn’t laugh if I think something’s not funny. Laugh normal. But they don’t know where I am on the scale of laughers. I’m not a snorter or giggler. I’m kind of in the middle. I should just laugh naturally. Don’t think about it. Alright, I’m not thinking about it. Dude, stop thinking about it.

You could say the lack of a buffer made me a bit nervous. A big part of Second City’s forte is improv and anything can happen in improv. My introverted nature began a silent freak out. We were not protected. What if they asked what I did? I’m from the South. I work for a ministry. Would they think it’s weird that I’m here or would I just be a high-arcing softball?

All of this makes it seem like it was a horrifying experience. It wasn’t. It was highly entertaining. Plus the lady next to EA and scores of drunk people behind us took the full force of the improv’s unpredictability.

The show was a series of very loosely connected vignettes; some workshopped with live audiences over a period of time and some incorporating improv suggestions from that night’s crowd (including an all-improv 3rd Act which played like a quality episode of Whose Line?). In a way it was like watching an episode of SNL with a few exceptions.

First, there was a static set and few costume changes which meant that making the scenes come alive relied almost solely on the ensemble. I didn’t really miss the sets and fewer costumes meant that when they were employed, they had bigger impact. In other words, the cast did well with an almost blank slate.

Secondly—and I could have done without this, but I figured it would be the case—there was more profanity than you would see on a episode of SNL. I’ve mentioned before about how this is more of a cultural thing than we realize, but I still would have preferred it differently. Content was also more inappropriate in places, but that connects to something I’m going to talk about in a separate, more reflective post.

Thirdly, they knew when to end a sketch. On SNL, funny skits will often lumber along way past their point of being funny and will typically end with a whimper. It’s something I understand all too well when I’ve written comedy sketches. It’s easy to come up with a funny idea, but closing it out with a sensical resolution is incredibly difficult. But in most of the sketches at Second City, they made the joke and usually got out before it wore out its welcome. If that meant a sketch lasted less than a minute, so be it.

On the whole, the show was hilarious. There were several sketches that fell flat or I felt went farther than I would have liked. My favorite sketch involved the inventor of a time machine taking a bunch of kids back in time so that they could tell racist jokes without feeling guilty. Except before they can get any off, they encounter various historical figures that tell their own racist jokes and/or facts about how minorities were treated in that time, the group is horrified by the bigotry, and flees to a more civilized time. Life lessons and irreverent takes on history. I could watch a full show of that.

The actors were immensely talented. I have a lot of admiration for people that do live theater, comedy (because I think it’s often harder than drama), and improv. There were a few spots where you could see them channeling other comedians (there was one in particular where I almost thought a female cast member was doing Cheri Oteri doing a character), but that’s going to happen when there are like twenty or so sketches in a show. For EA and I, the MVP of the show was Edgar Blackmon. Alright, I’m going to stop now because I’m awful at doing critical reviews of the arts.

Coming up later today (or tomorrow): Part 2 of my thoughts about Second City tentatively titled “Second City the Second: Jesus and Sex Jokes.” Don’t worry, it’ll hopefully make sense. Though, I don’t know if I’ll really follow through with giving it that title.

Second City the Second: Jesus and Sex Jokes

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