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A Sketchy Crowd

Kings of the road: the Second City troupe.

By James Yeara

Second City
Swyer Theater at the Egg, Nov. 14

Second City’s Friday night performance at the Egg was nouveau vaudeville. Like the vaudeville productions that toured America almost a 100 years ago, Second City’s show consisted of numerous short scenes (12 in the 50-minute first act, 18 in the 40-minute second act); “dumb shows,” wordless routines with music that audiences responded to even without narrative or characters; classic jokes dramatized; and bawdy, topical humor. One of three national tours out of Second City’s Chicago headquarters (Second City was also performing on tour in Barrington, Ill., and New Orleans on Friday night), these six performers (Jennifer Bills, Pip Lilly, Nicky Margolis, Lori McClain, Kevin McGeehan, Craig Uhlir) and musical director-piano accompanist (Joe Grazulis) show the franchise is not only alive and well, but kicking ass.

This was the most tightly scripted Second City show to have buzzed into the Egg (an annual event): Only four scenes had any impromptu improvisation, and one, the 5-minute “Freeze” encore, was literally an afterthought. The sketches were more focused political/cultural satire than in the most recent shows, and Friday’s performance did feature lots of dancing or staged movement to recorded music tracks, from buzzy techno to classic rock to a line-dance tune involving audience participation. The office-chair ballet alone would do Mark Morris proud, but the musical hit Friday was “Triple White” (Bills, Margolis, McClain), a band whom their producer, P. Shitty (Lilly), proclaims are “so white they make the Dixie Chicks look like Destiny’s Child.” The three white-on-white female singers then rapped and literally hipped and hopped through their debut song on the wonders of white: “I know you’re all dreaming of this white Christmas” they butt-shaked to the audience before “Peroxide” gave a shout out to other women with “butts white as mashed potatoes.” They dedicated the song, of course, to “Pork . . . the other white meat.”

In addition to packaged musical groups, Second City bravely broached American military misadventures: “We invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq this year—where should we invade next?” a gung-ho sergeant shouts to the audience. The audience suggestions—first Mexico, then Canada, and finally France—found the six performers running through a series of two-minute skits with the same frame: the indigenous dangerous wildlife (a hysterical bit miming animals no human should encounter), movies that “taught me all I ever knew about” the country in question (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Strange Brew, National Lampoon’s European Vacation), and conversations between natives in broad accents and stereotypes, all culminating with the U.S. invasion and rebuilding (“This is where the Taco Bell/Wal-Mart will go”).

It was cultural satire that generated the biggest laughs of the evening: A split-scene sketch focused on a middle-age father and mother having post-fight sex in the backseat of a station wagon while on the other side of the stage their 20-something daughter listened in on the cell phone, unbeknownst to her un-tech savvy parents, literally giving a blow-by-blow color commentary to her titillated fiancé. The sight of the father with his wife’s pantyhose over his head while she is spread beneath him, her feet flying up in the air, coupled with his screaming, “Come on, baby, put your legs in the air, this is a stick-up” brought roars of laughter from the audience. Roars matched only by the reaction to the daughter’s look of abject revulsion and the boyfriend’s avid interest.

As the proving ground for such Saturday Night Live stalwarts as Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey and Chris Farley, Second City’s touring group gave ample proof that sketch comedy is still king.

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