on September 20, 2006
Trying to describe comedy has to be one of the more frustrating writing tasks, so when it comes to Second City, the phrase "You had to have been there" is an overworked cliché. But, really, you had to have been there. Much of the sharpest comedy is visual, and the unexpected sight gag is something of a specialty of Second City, which is widely regarded as one of the best comedy troupes in North America. Everyone (or almost everyone) knows its alumni include the likes of Dan Akroyd, Alan Arkin, John Candy, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Mike Meyers, Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert…the list goes on and on. The comedy bar is set as high as the audience’s expectations at Second City. We took in the 11pm Saturday show of "Red Scare," foregoing the earlier 8pm seating, as we wanted to stick around for the after-the-show improv that follows the last show of the evening. We were glad we did, as while many of the comedy sketches for "Red Scare" were laugh-till-you cry funny, there was an engaging risk-taking edginess to the improv that followed. "Red Scare," like many Second City reviews, had an underlying theme: the fault lines in American society. Given that this is a time when the nation seems more polarized than ever, the ensemble had plenty of material to work with. The review opened with three couples flinging random (and opposite) clichés at each other, a sort of dueling "values" piece. The ensemble consistently tapped into that undercurrent of anger with "others" that has metastasized throughout American public life. Some of the best sketches deftly exposed how artificial and pointless these opposing cultural stances are.Much of Second City’s comedy is politically inspired, and while both left and right wingers receive sharp jabs, the right consistently provides the richest material and thus received the lion’s share. One memorable sketch poked fun at the military’s "Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell" policy regarding enlisting homosexuals during these times of low recruitment ("Don’t Leave! Don’t Leave!"). Another riffed on the rather absurd concept of black Republicans. But it was most refreshing when the audience ended up laughing at its own (largely liberal) biases.A sketch based on the premise, "What if Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Juliet had had a gay friend?" reduced me to a helpless puddle of laughter. While it admittedly played into some simplistic stereotypes, the gay character’s "reality check" deflated these characters’ histrionic suicides so neatly that the humor wasn’t so much at the gay character’s expense as it was at Shakespeare’s. And as for those sight gags? Well, you had to have been there. Note: There are three Second City stages: Chicago Mainstage, Chicago e.t.c., and Donny’s Skybox. The largest venue, and by default the one that most people are referring to when they say "Second City," is the Mainstage. This is not to disparage the two smaller stages, but just to clarify a potentially confusing booking situation.
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