The Mission Theater is changing hands—but sketch comedy isn't dead

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Irene Marquette and Mike Brunlieb in Undressed - ELIZABETH MORRIS
  • Elizabeth Morris
  • Irene Marquette and Mike Brunlieb in Undressed

When iO opened its new facility on Kingsbury Street, one of its most exciting aspects was the Mission, a theater that would be independent of iO's typical programming structure and left completely in the hands of improv greats TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi. Last week the duo decided the pressure of the production side of things wasn't their style, so they relinquished control, handing it back to iO founder Charna Halpern. The theater is not by any means closing, despite what Chris Jones reported last week in the Chicago Tribune.

"I think it was just a marketing problem getting out to the people because that last show was so good," Halpern says. And I have to agree with her. Besides producing two excellent (and Reader-recommended) sketch shows, Trap and Undressed, TJ and Dave had a knack for curating out-of-the-box shows that didn't have a home elsewhere. Just last week I praised the Curio Show, which was and will continue to be an excellent addition to iO's lineup. It's true, though, that the turnout for such performances is less than stellar. TJ and Dave's eye for entertainment will be missed, but Halpern assures me that their spirit will be kept alive; as the theater continues with the avant-garde programming already put in place, with Improvised Shakespeare and Whirled News Tonight filling in gaps where the sketch shows would have played. She even mentioned the possibility of more sketch shows by Jagodowski and Pasquesi in the future—but for now the two are focusing on performing instead of producing.

Jones's piece seemed to denounce the possibility of any great sketch show surviving in Chicago beyond Second City’s walls, and cited the "failure" of the Mission as proof of that. I'm not saying that everyone needs to like everything; that's part of the fun of living in a town where multiple critics go to see multiple shows. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. But reading through Jones's article made me question if he even attends shows in the city. Even while criticizing Jagodowski and Pasquesi's sketch shows, he admits to only actually seeing one of them, but continues anyway to offer his advice of what the duo should have done instead to make the Mission a success:
To my mind, what Jagodowski and Pasquesi should have done is really stretch the sketch-comedy form. They should have gone after Second City from the more radical and arty side. They should have created a cooler and more innovative sketch-comedy revue and billed it as the show for the cool kids, even as the masses hit the tables at Second City . . . Second City has an unassailable place of honor with concierges and suburbanites with out-of-town guests. The Mission could not compete with that. But it could have created an edgier, racier, more aggressive show. Had it done so, I think, it might have found an audience.
I'll let Jagodowski's words from a recent interview with WGN Radio speak for me here: "If Mr. Jones wants to create competition with the Second City, then come see the show." 

Because the truth is if Jones had shown up to Undressed or any other number of sketch shows in the city at places like the Annoyance Theatre, CIC Theater, pH Comedy Theater, Public House Theatre, Under the Gun Theater, or one of many other venues that pop up around Chicago every day, he would know that there’s no lack of "edgy" and "innovative" sketch comedy in this city. I'm often overwhelmed by the number of promising shows being put up.

As someone who spends more time in the underbelly "off-Broadway" world of comedy who also enjoys the shiny "Broadway" work that Second City has to offer, I just would like to tell Mr. Jones that his cry for a "different crop of talent" and a "show that takes risks" is answered every night in a dark theater (or gallery or basement) in Chicago—the key is showing up. 


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