The most interesting part of the moments before a show starts are the snippets of conversation you pick up from the audience members around you. On Friday night, the audience at The Carolina Theatre appeared quite familiar with the comedians called The Second City, who were about to entertain as part of the 12th anniversary of the North Carolina Comedy Festival. Some asked each other, “Is this the first time you’ve seen them?” Others regaled their friends with tales of the days when cast members from “Saturday Night Live” had been ensemble members of The Second City. Those audience members who were newbies to performances by this 50-year-old comedy company were promised they were in for a treat. And they were.
The Second City, which is based in Chicago, has 11 touring troupes, and has theaters in Chicago, Toronto and Hollywood, where their particular brand of sketches and improv have been the training ground for such comedic greats as Gilda Radner, Alan Arkin, John Belushi, Tina Fey, and Martin Short. The training centers work with more than 13,000 students a year who graduate into all types of media performers: stage, screen, television, and the corporate sector. Their list of alumni rivals any other center for the study of the comedic arts.
The troupe that performed at the Carolina on Friday included Shad Kunkle (a four-year veteran of Second City), Abby MeEnany (a member of the critically acclaimed all-female improve troupe Sirens), Asher Perlman (a member of Second City’s NCL Epic, the comedy troupe that performs on the Norwegian Cruise Lines), Tim Ryder (a graduate of Duke University and founder of the college’s first improve troupe, DICEY), and Sarah Shook (a performer with Second City’s House Ensembles). This is Second City’s third collaboration with the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, and this particular troupe has worked together for two years.
In their introduction to the evening’s entertainment, The Second City explains that the combination of written sketches and improvisational moments will depend on audience participation; but it was clear they had no idea that Durham’s audience was more than happy to challenge the troupe with both local and esoteric suggestions. One of the first improvs — an “improv in a square” — required that the audience supply a place for the event (Bull City Burger was one audience member’s suggestion), a pair connected by a relationship (grandmother/grandchild was chosen), a profession (pilot), and a type of person (losers). As the square “turned,” controlled by The Second City member who directed the troupe to shift left or right, then to perform their sketch in pairs based on their word suggestion, the improvisational skills of the troupe drew guffaws from the audience (and sometimes even caused the troupe members themselves to giggle).
The Bull City Burger improv grew from a play on words to a slapstick routine that moved so quickly, the players almost became tongue-tied; and the audience, thrilled with the troupe’s willingness to devise a new identity for the popular dining spot, roared when the sketch reached a fever pitch.
As is typical of Second City’s history, some of the sketches touched on political or personal topics, such as a sketch which included Kunkle, Perlman, and Ryder as three gay men who had decided since they weren’t allowed to get married, “We’re coming after your women.” Their argument was that they, as gay men, know wives much better than the husbands do. In the audience, women glanced over at the men they came with when the troupe began to list all the ways that gay men are better able to please women than straight men, starting with the knowledge of how to buy clothing to the willingness to sit and watch “Housewives” with those women. By the end of the skit, women everywhere nodded their heads while the men looked rather sheepish or laughed nervously.
Another skit about a woman meeting a man in a laundry room who turns out to be an admitted serial killer had people squirming in their seats a bit since it hit close to home. Many murmured that they would be as blind to the signals a serial killer sends out as the woman in the skit.
And that’s what makes comedy funny. It’s the ways in which the troupe connected with the audience — either by asking for suggestions in their improv skits or by hitting on tough and timely topics in their sketches. For years, The Second City has made inroads by creating hysterical comedy delivered by comedians well known for their radical approaches to sensitive topics. From the spot-on impersonations done by comedy legend Tina Fey to the frantic and irreverent work of John Belushi, performers from The Second City’s troupes have delighted audiences for the past 50 years. And if the troupe that visited The Carolina Theater in Durham on Friday night is any indication, they will continue to delight audiences for another 50 years.
The North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival continues to celebrate its 13th year through Sunday, February 17th, with performances at five venues throughout the Durham/Chapel Hill/Carrboro region. For more information about events and performers, visit http://www.nccomedyarts.com/tickets.
THE SECOND CITY: LAUGHING MATTERS (North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival and The Carolina Theatre, Feb. 8 at The Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC.
N.C. Comedy Arts Festival http://www.nccomedyarts.com/.
The Carolina Theatre: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/.
The Second City: http://www.secondcity.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_City (Wikipedia).
The Second City (tour): http://www.secondcity.com/performances/ontheroad/ (official web page).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.
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