TRUTH, JUSTICE, OR THE AMERICAN WAY
WHERE'S YOUR GOD NOW, CHARLIE BROWN?
Second City E.T.C.
OK, before you decide which, if any, of the relatively new shows at Second City you'd like to attend, take this quick comedy quiz.
(1) How do you like your improv-based sketch comedy?
(a) Loud, boisterous, and crass, with some obvious political humor that isn't too difficult to understand.
(b) Clever and subtle, with a cast of white folks so I don't feel too threatened.
(c) I spend my nights over at Slugger's.
(2) What do you think of the Three Stooges?
(a) Love 'em. They're comedy at its best.
(b) Some people I respect like them, and I can't figure out why.
(c) Hate those cretins.
(3) What do you think of jokes about drive-by shootings and serial killers?
(a) Love 'em. Wish we could have more of 'em.
(b) Don't object if there's some point to them.
(c) Does anyone have any shame?
(4) Would you like to hear a good impression of Bill Clinton?
(a) No, I'd prefer it if someone could make him sound like Rochester on The Jack Benny Show.
(b) No, I'd prefer it if someone could make him sound like Gene Wilder with a bad southern accent.
(c) Yeah, why not?
(5) What do you think about the Annoyance Theatre style of comedy?
(a) Love it. More bodily-fluids jokes, please.
(b) Thirty seconds left, says Mr. Warhol.
(6) What are your impressions of Second City?
(a) Love anything they do. Especially if I'm a little hammered.
(b) Remember some of the old stuff. Am usually disappointed.
(c) I don't live in the suburbs, and I'm not from out of town. I didn't realize I was invited.
If you answered (a) to most of the questions, you're most likely to enjoy Second City E.T.C.'s Where's Your God Now, Charlie Brown?, a broad slapstick show whose strengths are in the all-out physical comedy. If, like me, you answered (b) to most questions, you'll probably prefer Second City's main-stage show, Truth, Justice, or the American Way, which contains some very clever character work and some insightful social commentary. If you answered (c) to most questions, you're better off staying home.
Both shows are the traditional mixture of yuppie-life sketches, political satire, and musical numbers. Both take potshots at doctors, modern relationships, the outgoing Republican administration, and antiabortionists. The differences between the two are probably best explained by how they satirize these issues, particularly the abortion issue. Truth, Justice, or the American Way gives us a believable scene of a daughter discussing her abortion with her mother while her father continually interrupts dramatic moments with inane remarks about track lighting and Garfield posters; Where's Your God Now? presents a wrestling match between Roe and Wade. I prefer the subtler approach, but hell, what do I know? I can't figure out the appeal of the Three Stooges for the life of me, and I thought Ishtar was funny.
The best part of Truth, Justice, or the American Way is the talented seven-member cast, the most likable assembled by Second City in years. They truly seem to be enjoying themselves as they roll through the sketches, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The funniest scenes take a standard idea and exaggerate it to squeeze out its comic possibilities. A boy-meets-girl-in-a-condo-laundromat scene takes the generic "Why Can't I Ever Meet a Nice Guy?" to its extreme by allowing spunky Amy Sedaris to flirt with sweet-faced serial killer Steven Carell. "Karl's Haufbrau" takes a hilarious, chilling look at the rising tide of antiforeigner sentiment in Germany, with a cheerful crew of Bavarians expressing their neo-Nazi sentiments to a polka beat. "Revelations" gives us an insurance salesman who offers coverage against the coming of the Antichrist, and "The Deal" examines the corruption of the Catholic Church by presenting a couple of priests who look like they're straight out of the cast of GoodFellas.
Paul Dinello manages to steal the show with an original folk song about how his wife left him for Jesus and how "it still hurts to say his father's name when someone sneezes." I first caught Dinello's comedy act some years back at the Apple Pub on West Irving Park, and he still knows how to craft screamingly funny songs.
There are some clunkers in Truth, Justice, or the American Way. The opening musical number, which tries to find comedy in the budget deficit, falls flat. It strives for the humor of Tom Lehrer but winds up somewhere below Mark Russell. A dysfunctional family's Thanksgiving is long and annoying, and the introduction to a scene about POWs in Vietnam, which makes fun of those who wait for word on the fate of their loved ones, is in lousy taste.
The improv that followed the show the night I attended was especially awful. Are any of these skits really "improv"? What is one to make of "On your suggestion of Kleenex, we take you now to this nightclub"? Especially bad was an overlong scene called "Nightmare," which continually savaged an unwilling physician in the audience by showing him his worst nightmare. Is it really clever comedy to call someone in the audience "a fat, rich doctor" and then ask him over and over if he "sleeps with hookers"? This mean-spirited, unfunny scene reeked of envy, and I left the best Second City main-stage show I've seen in years with a bad taste in my mouth.
Good taste would not be the phrase I'd use to describe Second City E.T.C.'s Where's Your God Now, Charlie Brown?, whose title is not the only thing about the show that smacks of those schlockmeisters over at Annoyance Theatre. This production has some very clever ideas, some nifty staging, and a couple of good bits, but it's also sloppy and uneven.
The best parts are the physical bits, especially a scene aboard the space shuttle and in outer space that uses some very inventive methods to mimic travel in zero gravity. A very screwy scene about a mad scientist and his bizarre patients is shown both forward and backward. I've seen this done before, but it's performed well here. There's a funny skit about a guys' night out where each macho dude reveals he prefers watching Gigi to Terminator 2, and a funny song about dreadfully empty yuppie relationships performed by Stephen Colbert and Renee Albert (subbing for Jenna Jolovitz the night I attended).
But there are too many dead spots. A scene about a shy couple on their wedding night goes on forever. A doctor's-office sketch performed on video is just plain gross, and though the final sketch concerning a health club's draconian measures to enlist a new member is funny and closer to truth than some might imagine, it's too long and overblown--do we really need a masseuse named Candy Vagina to make fun of how health clubs use sex to sell their services?
The full-cast musical numbers are no great shakes either. A life-in-the-inner-city number--featuring a mother crying over her child's death in a drive-by shooting and a drug dealer singing "I got crack. I got crack cocaine" to the tune of "Mama's little baby loves shortenin', shortenin'"--plays on suburban fears and crossed my good-taste threshold. "Bang Your Head Slowly," which strives for pithy commentary about our violent society, seemed too obvious and simplistic.
Second City E.T.C. doesn't bill itself as a second-string company, but this show sure makes it look like one.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.