The Second City is to comedic acting what baseball's farm teams are to the Big Leagues: the place where the future home run kings of comedy get their start.
For the past 49 years, Chicago-based Second City has sent up a couple dozen sluggers to the majors, including Alan Alda, Bill Murray, Shelly Long and Joan Rivers.Salt Lake got a chance to see six potential champions Friday night, as the Second City Touring Company brought two hours of non-stop, high-energy comedy to Kingsbury Hall. In 24 skits, the kind of cultural put-ons and take-offs that gave birth to Saturday Night Live and SCTV, the company proved that satire is even more entertaining in person.
But - and this may be considered picky by those who seemed to love The Second City Friday night - the touring company was also something of a disappointment. "Second City Brings Comic Improvisation to Salt Lake City," promised the group's publicity. And yet Friday night's show was about as improvisational as a presidential debate.
"Yell out a location," a member of the troupe urged the audience early on in the show. The idea was that, with this bit of impromptu information, the group would build a new skit.
"Cleveland, Ohio," yelled someone from the back of the hall. And then the company mentioned Cleveland in passing and then proceeded on with an already rehearsed skit. It was a funny skit - about a Catholic couple confronting a priest and a bishop on the issue of in vitro fertilization - but it didn't create the kind of nearly out-of-control electricity that true improvisation would.
(And could somebody please tell comedians who come here from out of town that just throwing in a mention of ZCMI or Provo isn't really that funny.)
The only real extemporaneous humor came during a skit in which troupe member Greg Holliman did a wonderful William F. Buckley imitation, hosting Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi and Mikhail Gorbachev on the Second City's version of "Firing Line." The audience was invited to throw out questions to the men. While the improvised answers weren't hilarious, you at least had the feeling that you were watching humor in the making.
Some of the skits have been Second City favorites for 20 or 30 years; others - and these were some of the best - were more up-to-date. One of the most effective sketches involved three "happy talk" TV news anchors who find themselves delivering a news item announcing the impending total destruction of the Earth 81/2 minutes from now. With so little time left, the three men find themselves baring their souls to their viewers - only to discover that they had read the new bulletin wrong - it was 81/2 millennia, not minutes.
In another skit, a man and a woman meet on a ski lift. The man thinks he's a bad father, so he has decided to jump off the lift and kill himself. The woman tries to talk him out of suicide with a 1980s kind of rationale: "I believe you can do anything you want as long as you forgive yourself."
It may not have been improv, but it was an enjoyable evening of satire and silliness, including a take-off on Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." In The Second City's version, Alice is not from Wonderland but from "The Brady Bunch,"and the rousing chorus went like this: "Remember what Alice said. Make your bed!"