How America's Most Renowned Improv Club Stays Second to None
Recently, Second City unveiled "Between Barack and a Hard Place" and then sat back stunned by what the gods of sketch comedy had wrought: rave reviews; talk about how the troupe is rediscovering its political edge; and box-office business like nothing the club had seen in some time.
CHICAGO -- Perennially -- even in perpetuity, it seems -- they are Chicago's six characters in search of a laugh.
Two years short of 50, Second City's main-stage revue is as durable as crony government and fallible sports teams, two of its redoubtable targets. In this city of contradictions, the gang at the grubby little upstairs playhouse at 1616 N. Wells St. -- the uncomfortable seats are still thisclose together -- oversees a glorious paradox, an institution that changes little yet changes a little every night. Nearly as old as the Lyric Opera but a lot cooler, Second City, though hardly infallible, boasts an above-average score for shots fired at the funny bone.
Their latest show hits the bull's-eye. Recently, the troupe unveiled its 94th revue, "Between Barack and a Hard Place," then sat back stunned by what the gods of sketch comedy had wrought: rave reviews (the Tribune's headline read "Funniest revue in years"); talk about how Second City is rediscovering its political edge; a visit from ABC's "Nightline." And box-office business like nothing the club had seen in some time.
"There's a calendar on my wall, and when I come in on Mondays we're usually sold out a couple of Saturdays down the road," says Kelly Leonard, a 19-year Second City veteran and now vice president. "With this show, we're sold out seven Saturdays in advance. We often do a large walk-up business, sometimes selling 100 tickets at the last minute. Now we're taking waiting lists of 50 to 60 people on some nights.
The last time she saw a similar response, she recalls, was back in the `80s, "when there was a lot less competition for the entertainment dollar."
What gives? That's part of the beauty of show-business success -- no one knows for certain what will work and what won't. Second City revues, as performer Joe Canale suggests, hover within a limited range of quality, more from good to fair than stupendous to lousy. It's the nature of the place never to be too bad or, for that matter, too great. It's limited by the art-by-committee process. It's kept from disaster by its audiences, who gradually approve every skit in the months of improvisation sessions that follow most performances during tryout.
With "Barack," brilliantly directed by Matt Hovde, something clicked and everything came together -- a bright cast, pungent commentary and viable comic currency -- to give us something we'd forgotten we missed: a classic Second City hit.
The buzz on "Barack" has already attracted the likes of actor Dennis Quaid, members of Obama's political team, including key adviser David Axelrod, and former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson.
"Barack" also marks a partial return to traditional form, to a Second City of decades ago, after a long spell of experimentation with skits that became shorter and shorter.
"I watched a tape of a 1961 show with Alan Arkin the other day, and not one scene was under five minutes, and some were 14," Leonard says. "You couldn't do that today. But we do have some scenes that are eight or nine minutes," including "Bros," which unfolds like a miniature David Mamet play with additional dialogue by Oscar Wilde.
Leonard also credits "Barack" with bringing veteran fans back home. "For a certain age group, it's like, `This is the Second City show I need to catch this decade.'"
The club's rich history dates back to the 1950s and includes such luminaries as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Steve Carrell and Bonnie Hunt. All the shows regularly sell out, but the club's behind-the-scenes bunch say that certain ones stand out or just catch the public fancy.
One example from 1995 is "Pinata Full of Bees," which played inventively with the troupe's tried-and-true, linear blackout format. The revue got the attention of Variety and earned a transfer to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels came calling, and performer Adam McKay and director Tom Gianas wound up on the SNL writing staff.
A 1997 success, "Paradigm Lost," led to Tina Fey's hiring by SNL. The first post-9/11 show, "Holy War, Batman," from the Second City e.t.c. arm, was another critical and box-office hit, manna for a nation hungry to laugh again.
Beginning with its title, "Barack" captures a moment in the nation's political history that's more quizzical and open than we've enjoyed in a while. There are changes in the wind after eons of hardened opinions. Nobody is quite sure what to think.
But while die-hard opinion begets obvious laughs, political uncertainty is a tougher comedic challenge. This vibe of the unknown, and its pulse of promise, are embodied by the candidate tweaked in the revue's title. The opening chorale nails Obama's all-things-to-all-comers allure with perfect pitch.
"Hello, African-Americans, I am Barack Obama," says Amber Ruffin, the revue's only black member. "Hello, white male Americans," says Brian Gallivan, "I am Barack Obama." "Hello, American women, I am Barack Obama," says Molly Erdman. Ithamar Enriquez greets "Hispanic slash Latino Americans," Joe Canale greets gay ones and then Brad Morris concludes, "Shalom, Jewish-Americans." We are all Barack Obama.
The troupe didn't set out to be more political with this revue, Gallivan says. "After the last show, we felt more like, `Let's just do some scenes that are fun.'" That revue was entitled "War! Now in its 4th Smash Year!" Gallivan notes that the ensemble has done five shows about the war and grew weary of the topic. Not to mention patron confusion over the title.
"They thought the revue itself had been running for four years," Erdman says.
But almost everyone gets the current title and its swing away from Bush-bashing. "Essentially, everyone's ready to turn the page," Morris says. "No one wants more Bush jokes. It's past the point of being funny; it's too easy."
But there wasn't a conscious shift to focus on the Democrats in the new show. (Besides Obama, Hillary Clinton gets quite a workout, one reason "Nightline" showed up.
"We got the title about three weeks into the process (of creating the show), which is about normal," Canale says. Ruffin, making her Second City main-stage debut with this show, came up with the title, one of the best in years and true to the longstanding Second City formula: funny, clear and reflecting pop topics with a great pun, right up there with such gems as "We Made a Mesopotamia" and "Jean-Paul Sartre and Ringo."
The troupe also had a subject whose persona and comic possibilities were fresh and largely unexplored, unlike topics like Iraq or the Bush presidency. "I think the timing turned out to be remarkable," Erdman says. "We're getting to know Barack Obama as much as those in the audience are getting to know him. It's new to everybody."
Satirical comedy is typically a pinpoint art. Monica Lewinsky, a vice president who shoots someone, an attorney general monkeying with the law, a family-values conservative monkeying with congressional pages -- jokes about such figures have a specificity that is instantly recognized. "Barack," by contrast, turns on something more comically rare: ambiguity, which can affect audiences in unpredictable ways.
"I do think people come to this show and they all see something entirely different," Morris says. "My dad comes, and he's more conservative than my mother, and he takes me aside afterward and says, `I really love it that you guys rip into Obama.' And my mom, separately, says, `I'm so glad we contributed to Obama's campaign. Your show just confirms it for me.' "
The cast of this revue is a remarkable ethnic rainbow: one African-American (Ruffin), one Latino (Enriquez), a white woman who's one-eighth Mexican (Erdman), a Jew (Morris), a gay (Gallivan) and an Irish-Italian Catholic who happens to be left-handed (Canale).
There's not a right-handed white Anglo-Saxon heterosexual male Protestant in the bunch.
Diversity in casting is nothing new at Second City, but it became an established practice after the 1989 race riots in Los Angeles, where the organization's owner and CEO, Andrew Alexander, was living at the time. "I came back to watch the show right after the riots, and I saw the cast in a deep struggle to reflect what was going on," Alexander recalls. "I realized we had to straighten out our approach to diversity."
Nearly two decades later, the complex diversity of the current cast neatly mirrors Obama's own colorful background. In mocking/saluting his composite variety, they mock/salute themselves. "In satire, there's nothing better than holding up someone who's a mixed-race guy from Hawaii with a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas and saying, `This is too good to be true.'"
As with any affirmative-action issue, the changes have not come easily or without controversy, even within the friendly improv confines.
"When you're straight and white in the improv community, it takes 10 years to get on the Second City stage," says Canale, 35, who has been struggling in comedy here since 1994. "I think Amber's been here for 12 whole minutes," he jokes by way of comparison, and, in fact, the journey for Ruffin and Enriquez, both 28, has been quicker. "It's a whole different schedule for some of us," says Morris, 31.
Their mild resentment (reflecting the comedian's cynicism and pseudo self-pity as much as any genuine affirmative-action complaint) echoes a debate in the wider Second City community. "I know some casts over the years have not been happy," about the emphasis on diversity, Alexander says. "There's a feeling that the most talented improviser should get the job, period. But it's also about content. It's also about being truthful to the community you live in. Someone who isn't the best improviser may have a lot to say."
Canale admits that if he chose the cast, "I'd probably make it four of my buddies and two cute girls. There'd be a flavor to that show, but all one flavor. I realized that when I started working on the main stage. The (multi-ethnic) approach opens up more possibilities."
Erdman agrees: "People bring their experiences of gender, race, sexual orientation, whatever, into what they're doing. It's not just that we need to be colorful. Amber has different experiences as a black woman than I have as a white one."
Indeed, Ruffin provides the show with some of its sharper bits. She delivers hilarious, scathing rap songs in a setup about an insensitive husband who doesn't understand his wife, a skit that harkens back to Lucy and Ricky. And in a song entitled "Good to be Black," she pungently notes that these days, there are some new ethnic whipping boys on the block, and hallelujah:
When I tell you this, you're gonna have a heart attack
But, for once in my life, it's good to be black
I'd rather be LaShondra than Hassan or Paco
I'd rather have an Afro than a turban or a taco
The song reflects Ruffin's experience after her return to the U.S. from two years in Amsterdam with Boom Chicago, a Netherlands troupe the comic community views as a kind of boot camp. When she came back last year to join Second City in Denver, she realized that in her absence things had changed for African-Americans.
"When something unusual happens to black people, you see it, just as Hispanic or gay people see something that happens to them," she says. "When I got back from Amsterdam, everyone on the street was suddenly looking me in the eye, smiling, asking me politely in stores if I'd like to try on clothes. You'd see it everywhere, on the bus or at Starbucks. The more I heard everyone talking about immigration and terrorists, I wondered: Can anyone else see this?"
But Ruffin isn't in the Chicago cast just to be black. Another of her contributions is a laugh-out-loud solo about a woman outrageously ill-suited for her job: greeter at a mortuary. She mouths a heartless litany of insults about overweight corpses and bad music choices guaranteed to horrify grieving relatives. Ruffin delivers it with a kind of you-go-girl sass, but it's really a prototypical sendup of a universal human failing -- the flubs of a tactless person in a job requiring utmost tact.
There's a cagey, layered complexity to the way diversity is handled in "Barack" that reaches a high point when the Irish-Italian Canale and Latino Enriquez team up to play a pair of aged black jazz musicians, improvising their way through the final days of a club about to be turned into a Cinnabon. The two actors are hilarious and touching in the roles.
The cast themselves say they aren't even conscious of all these racial and ethnic subtleties. "This stuff is different from an audience perspective than ours," Morris remarks. "From where we sit, as a cast, spending six days a week together for nine weeks, we just don't think about it." In the opening, the line about being gay is uttered not by Gallivan, who is, but by Canale, who isn't. ("Naturally," Canale wryly laments, "that's the clip they show over and over on TV.")
Once the performers trained their sights on Obama and Hillary Clinton, eyeing blue-state totems after years of red-state ones, they found it liberating, an invitation to take comedic risks. With an Illinois favorite son and daughter now fair game, why not add an even more beloved one? Why not take on Abraham Lincoln?
The result is a skit in which Obama has a conversation with a portrait of Abe not dissimilar to Richard Nixon's colloquies with dead presidents in the last days of Watergate. New biographical mutterings come into play, including Lincoln's mixed record on civil rights and gossip he may have been gay.
The following strain in the show can get pretty ugly. Clinton, impersonated with sublime understatement by Erdman, hires a hit man to knock off Obama. The killer is played by Gallivan, who can't help falling for the guy instead. In a blacker than black comic joke about assassination, Lincoln chides JFK as a "copycat."
"That one, " Leonard admits, "upset my mom."
But a lot of "Barack" turns on mocking death, on the dark absurdity of a world mixing terrorist fright and political hope. Canale and Gallivan, weirdly inverting Ruffin's "Good to be Black" theme, play downtrodden Irish Republican Army terrorists who, with the rise of al-Qaida, get no respect.
The death theme later builds to a silly mass suicide by the tiny force of Slovenians, part of the coalition in Iraq. The skit is a classic example of the makeshift methods of improvised comedy.
"Our process can be described as chaotic, for lack of a better word," Enriquez observes. "And then, toward opening night, it gets more and more refined. The Slovenian skit started out to be about the small force in Iraq. Nobody died. Then, one night, in an improvisation, Brad shot himself and fell down, and we had this eureka moment. Now, we all fall down, and that became what the scene is about" -- what Morris calls "our Jonestown."
While the show has received rave reviews, not everyone is joining the chorus of approval.
"To me, it's a boilerplate Second City revue," says Nina Metz, who reviewed the show for New City. "It's like all the revues, from year to year, not really changing. What's missing is the unexpected. ... They haven't reinvented their philosophical approach to sketch comedy, but I'm sure they feel they don't need to."
Even the players themselves have mixed feelings about their generally good press. "If this show's so great, I want to say, `Hey, my earlier shows weren't so bad, either,'" says Gallivan. They take particular umbrage at remarks suggesting this revue moves them farther from the John Belushi-oaf persona and toward the Stephen Colbert-type political satirist, down to their conservative haircuts.
"I've had the same haircut for more than 10 years," Gallivan says.
"We have these cuts because we all go to Hair Cuttery," adds Canale.
But they can't dismiss the praise from their peers.
"What surprised me is how much friends and colleagues in the improv business here almost universally liked it," Morris says, "and I mean in some cases some really jaded, bitter people who came up and said, `That was a good show. No, really.' Even when you knew it was hard for them to say."
One colleague who's by no means jaded or bitter is Peter Grosz, a former Second City e.t.c. performer and now a writer for The Colbert Report.
"Satire can be heavy-handed or subtle or in between, and I thought these guys did a good job of finding a way of subtly, realistically incorporating satire into their sketches," Grosz says. "It almost has more to do with Obama than them. They're taking his popularity and imagery -- and Hillary's too -- and eight months before the first primary, really exploring this phenomenon and pent-up energy."
Kevin Fleming, who performs on NBC's Sports Action Team, says the review "harkened back to some great old shows, from maybe 15 years ago."
In one skit, Canale plays a kind of South Side working stiff who is conducting the audio guided tour at the Art Institute. The jokes turn on the contradiction of a kick-the-tires town that is also home to Picasso, Monet and Seurat. Kelly cites that skit as an example of Second City's heritage, that mix of intelligentsia and proletarians, the University of Chicago meets the Grabowskis. Is it any wonder that Obama and a great revue about him spring from here?
"When people ask what's the DNA of Second City, I answer, `It's Chicago itself,' " Leonard says. "Obama represents a nationwide force, but he's also ours. ... Some like that we praise him, some like that we say he's a political changeling. An articulate woman called the other day and said our material is sociopathic.
"I love it that art is up for interpretation," he concludes. "Sure, we're here to be funny. But we also aim to be deep enough to bear introspection and even a discussion now and then as to what in the world satire really is."