Chicago's Second City produces local laughs on a national scale
By Eliza Bent
Dana Quercioli, Ric Walker, Katie Caussin, Micah Sherman, Kiley Fitzgerald and Tim Sniffen in the Second City's One If By Land, Late If By T (photo by Michael Brosilow)
I had an acting teacher in Rome who, after I made a pun in Italian, remarked: "You English speakers have such a different sense of humor, with your wordplay and puns. We don't quite have the same thing... For Italians, comedy is much more about a facial or physical expression. Just look at our tradition of commedia versus a British sitcom." Indeed, my gestures while I lived in the bel paese became more florid and artful than ever before.
So why is it that some moments of humor are so universal (someone falling down flat like a pancake will almost always provoke a chuckle) while others seem not to translate at all? (There's a reason why the term "German humor" exists.) The sense of humor of a culture outside your own can confound, delight or tickle the funny bone, depending on the material, translation and circumstances. Even within the U.S., there are variations in sensibilities and taste about what's funny, given what region you happen to find yourself in.
Chicago's 50-year-old Second City has capitalized on this paradox with a series of city-specific funny shows on a national scale. "Like all things we do at Second City," executive vice president Kelly Leonard tells me, "it happened by accident." In 2000, the company took Piñata Full of Bees, a hit in the Windy City, to Washington, D.C., where, despite its stellar cast (Steve Carell and his wife, Nancy Walls, both starred), it resoundingly flopped. Touring shows with extended runs, it seemed, was in vain. But when the company took another comedic romp, Red Scare, to Denver in 2006, it did so well that the Denver Center Theatre Company leadership asked the Second City if they had any other ideas for shows they wanted to try out. "We started to wonder, 'What if we did a show about Denver?'" recalls Leonard. How I Lost My Denverginity popped its cherry, so to speak, in 2006 in its namesake city, where it was written and performed by the Second City cast of Red Scare. Soon after, other cities started calling.
"Most Second City touring shows will have a one- or two-night performance schedule in a city before they move on," explains Leonard. "Our customized city shows, on the other hand, usually have a six-to-eight-week run." To prepare for a city-focused production, Second City writers will typically visit a city for three or four days, going through a battery of interviews and meetings with local celebrities as well as friends and family of the extended Second City network and representatives of the theatre venue. The writers generate a host of scene ideas and then intersplice them with a few archival skits and sketches from Second City's half-century worth of material—"to avoid comedy fatigue," as Leonard puts it. "There is an expectation from audiences that we will provide contemporary national satire, which we do. But the spine of the show looks at a city and reveals some truth about it. In Atlanta, for example, we looked at racial relations."
In Boston, where I took in the closing performance in May of One If By Land, Late If By T at the Calderwood Pavilion, another tradition was mined. Bostonians' peculiar custom of complaining while simultaneously defending Beantown was exposed with aplomb: "I don't need someone coming to destroy my town," grumbles one character through a thick South Boston accent, lamenting the yuppification of her neighborhood. "I can destroy it myself." Other Boston-specific topics that provided rich material included Paul Revere, who inspired the show's title (the T, incidentally, is Boston's ancient and notoriously slow metro service); Mayor Tom "Mumbles" Menino, played with verve by Micah Sherman; the "Phantom Gourmet," a mysterious TV program about restaurants; and, of course, the Red Sox, Boston's once-cursed baseball team.
These topics might mean little to those who aren't familiar with Boston—and that's exactly the point. Observe the titles of other Second City site-specific shows: Three Rivers Runs Through It (Pittsburgh Public Theater), The City of Nutterly Love (Philadelphia Theatre Company), Peach Drop Stop and Roll (Alliance Theatre in Atlanta), Can You Be More Pacific? (the Laguna Playhouse in Orange County). It's clear these shows are intended precisely for their home communities and audiences.
Most of the shows are in a sketch format, with some Second City-style improv portions. "When you have long runs like we do," says Leonard, "you can create a meaningful dialogue with your audience that deepens the experience. By the end of the run, the performers have built up an arsenal of one-liners they can use and characters they've observed while staying in a particular city."
Hot-button issues are fair game, as was evident when the company brought Close But No Saguaro to Arizona Theatre Company earlier this year. "The immigration legislation had just passed," recalls Leonard, who was nervous how locals might respond to the show's sketch about illegal immigration. "The piece featured a retired college professor and a redneck border patroller who get into a debate about illegal immigrants. It had a bit of bite to it, but it was personalized in such a way that people of all political stripes were able to appreciate it."
Having out-of-town writers sweep in and create generalizations about a city they are not intimately familiar with can present potential dangers of "cultural carpet-bagging." Ric Walker, whose juicy portrayal of the Charlie Card character in One If By Land was a scene-stealer, puts it best: "When you specialize in satirical comedy in a place like Chicago—a city with politics more twisted than Louisiana, traffic worse than Atlanta, sports fans as hardcore as Boston's and racial tension as thick as anywhere in 'post-racial' America—we are not carpet-bagging, we are commiserating." Leonard agrees, noting that the insight of an outsider can sometimes offer a fresh perspective. He adds, "We tend to cast a few local actors to give the show a bit more authenticity."
Miracle on 1280 Peachtree Street will open at the Alliance in November, marking Second City's third appearance in the Athens of the South. Walker, who will perform, admits he is dying to play one of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta." But Leonard says, "Now that there's an established relationship, it's less about doing a show about Atlanta and more about filling a hole in the Alliance's holiday season schedule." (Still, perhaps the Real Housewives could make a special holiday appearance?)
Developing relationships between LORT theatres and the Second City has proved mutually beneficial. Leonard sums it up: "Artistic directors know our theatrical heritage and are interested in collaborating on original work with high commercial potential. It's a rare combination of a national brand that not only can sell but can also have a hyper-local impact. I wish I'd thought of it!"
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