The Pilgrimage to Second City

June 1, 2010

Islam has Five Pillars, a set of religious practices that a Muslim must go through during his or her life.  They are difficult to achieve but if one can complete them all, one gains a well rounded insight into their own spiritual outlook.  Now comedy is not religion (although I’m pretty sure laughter was here first). However, there are a certain number of pillars in its Pantheon, depending on the practitioner.

I feel that within the past year and a half I have been able to bear witness to three Pillars of Comedy.  I saw Jerry Seinfeld at a huge theater in downtown Pittsburgh, I saw Bill Cosby at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.  Now I can cross another Pillar off of my list.  This past weekend I traveled to Chicago.  While there, I took in a show at the world famous Second City Theater.

It was a 4 o’clock show.  Which, by comedy standards, is extremely early.  For a performer, you’d like to get the later audiences because, as the alcohol seeps into the crowds collective blood stream and the darkness settles over their faces, there is a much larger probability that they will laugh.  Most club owners want to start shows later too so the audience has an opportunity to buy food and drinks.  “Who drinks at 4 o’clock in the afternoon?” you’ll assuredly ask.  About 130 people in the sold out theater in this case.  If you serve it, they will come.

The 4 o’clock show is where all the glamor of show business fades and the business side comes out.  They don’t do a show that early for the roar of a crowd or the applause.  They do it because people are willing to pay 30 bucks a head just to get some afternoon amusement.

The show was good.  But that’s about it.  Maybe it was the fact that the sunlight still shined on the outside of the building but there were no moments where I felt like my sides would split.  It was more amusing than anything else.  The actors were very good though.  A quality improv artist should be able to make you forget that there are no props or sets on stage.  They did that at Second City.  I would visualize the kitchen that a scene took place in, even though it was never explicitly stated that the scenes was set in a kitchen.

The key to good improv is completely letting go.  You are in the hands of the audience and whoever you’re with on stage.  You have to accept the reality given to you and play within that scenario.  It’s a terrifying notion for me.  I remember going to a few improv shows by myself just to see if I would have enough courage to try it.  I never did though.  I like (perhaps too much) the control that a stand-up has on the stage.  I am the conductor of the train.  I am the pilot of the plane.  If there is turbulence it will come from my inability to steer, not from the passengers shouting out suggestions on how to navigate.

A few of the people I was with commented after the show, that they were almost wishing that one of the ensemble members would step out and do a quick set of stand-up comedy just to really get the crowd laughing.  That a concentrated burst of focused humor might take it up a notch or two, which says to me that stand-up comedy is still king.

I’m not sure where I’ll find my other pillars, but at least I’ve got a good start checking them off the list.

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