Sketch at Its Best | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Sketch at Its Best

The Second City’s new revue, Taming the Flu, has true ensemble spirit.


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A friend who enjoys sketch comedy about as much as most people enjoy pumping gas recently went to the Second City for the first time. What got him through the evening, he says, was trying to figure out which Saturday Night Live slots the performers pictured themselves auditioning for.

He'll get no such relief from Taming of the Flu. There's not a single attempted star turn in this 97th main-stage revue, directed by Mick Napier. The streamlined two-hour show never pauses long enough to give anyone a chance to show off, and never stoops to the kind of Big Obvious Idiocy SNL performers rely on. Nothing seems to matter to Napier except getting to the comedic point. This is the rare comedy sketch show in which the material upstages the performers.

That's no slight to the performers—after all, they wrote the material. And while a handful of their sketches strain to make jokes not worth making in the first place—like one about how Jay-Z often rhymes a word with itself, for example—the great majority of the evening's two dozen scenes are pointed, clever, and even revelatory.

There's the guy trying all manner of ingenuity to hide his cell phone texting while his wife attempts to engage him in serious conversation. ("Every time I hear a grown man say 'Twitter,' a little part of me dies," she laments.) And the busybody Wisconsin housewife chirpily trying to understand her airplane seatmate's lesbianism ("First question: how and why?"). There's the unctuous, unbuttoned-to-the-navel mobster pitching his Underworld Health Protection Plan to the audience (when a woman in the front row declared she didn't need it, he cooed, "Aren't you the classiest piece of corn in the turd?"). There's even President Sarkozy and Carla Bruni answering the audience's questions about socialism—and casually pointing out that the French pay lower income taxes than Americans.

The ensemble members execute their myriad roles with ingenious subtlety, giving the most outlandish conceits—coffeehouse open-mike singer reveals he's a suicide bomber, Russian peasant belts out a twisted folk song in a bizarre attempt to prevent a banker from foreclosing on her house—humanity. Even more impressive, these scrupulous, genial artists rarely draw attention to themselves. If they share a common objective, it seems, it's to make everyone else onstage funnier.

This sense of camaraderie makes the show's overarching political theme all the more satisfying. Napier and company devote the lion's share of the evening to lampooning Americans' penchant for swaggering and bullying their way through any problem, from securing Iraq to fixing health care to policing Chicago streets. As Bruni exclaims, we're "strong and wrong." With a different cast, Taming of the Flu might easily become a facile harangue. But this tight-knit crew tacitly declare that we're all in this mess together and that laughing at our collective responsibility for a planet in disrepair is a healthy first step toward perhaps setting it right.

The only serious weakness here is that many of the best sketches leave promising ideas underdeveloped. Seven minutes with the mobster (Andy Saint Clair) and his Underworld Health Protection Plan was just enough to make me wish someone would give him an hour onstage. The same goes for the graceless aldermanic candidate (Shelly Gossman) trying to cajole voters by listing her worst faults ("The environment? Don't care about it. When I see a rabbit in my yard I chase it with a hatchet."). Maybe it'll happen yet. If every other vacuous SNL character can become an excuse for a feature film, why can't Second City revues spin off solo shows? I just hope they don't try it until everybody's seen this one.

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