So a couple of snooty critics and uptight theater patrons are upset about a sketch in The Second City Does Dallas, the new Dallas Theater Center comedy that just opened at the Wyly. The bit comes toward the end of the two-hour evening of satire, which hits on such easy-aim Dallas targets as the death-rays shooting off Museum Tower and the intolerant attitudes of Highland Park (where, their punch line goes, you can be pulled over and ticketed "for driving through Highland Park").
This is a topical show, written and performed by members of the famed Second City comedy troupe from Chicago. They do revues like this in other cities, too, sending a couple of writers -- for this one they sent Brooke Breit and Ed Furman -- to town a few months in advance to gather topics from conversations with locals.
I went to lunch with Breit and Furman this summer. They were nice kids but not exactly a barrel of giggles over burgers at Lee Harvey's. They turned out to be funnier writers than talkers. I laughed a bunch at Second City Does Dallas, which I saw opening night. Wouldn't mind seeing it again to hear lines I missed when everyone else was laughing louder than I was.
This brings me back to the bit theatergoers are giving DTC flak about.
Toward the end of a fast-moving two hours of digs at Mayor Rawlings (depicted as a pizza-obsessed good ol' boy), Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (a chubby guy in drag tries out for the squad a la Chris Farley and the Chippendales) and how nobody gives a shit about Fair Park except when it's corny dog season, they do a sketch about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.
The scene is framed as a meeting to figure out what Dallas should do to commemorate the city's darkest hour and how the event can turn a profit. Actor Amanda Blake Davis plays the boss, with cast members Frank Caeti, Martin Garcia, Liz Mikel, Scott Morehead and John Sabine chiming in with ideas. (Sabine, by the way, grew up in Lake Highlands and graduated from Jesuit College Prep.)
As they pass on things like parades and candlelight vigils, Sabine keeps popping up to offer the most egregiously offensive suggestions. Like, using one of those wavy cloth figures that dance over car lots to greet people at the Grassy Knoll (which is, after all, "the only grassy knoll in the entire world"). Or selling "before and after" JFK bobble-heads. Or building a rollercoaster called "The Magic Bullet" that would take riders through the hole in a giant JFK head. Each time the guy spouts one of these tasteless notions, he's shouted down by the rest of the group, even when he insists "I've got a buddy" who can get the bobble-heads wholesale or build the thrill ride cheap.
Then Sabine, in character as the office boob, suggests flipping the event to celebrate Jack Ruby's murder of Lee Harvey Oswald instead. Shut up, say the others. OK, and I'm paraphrasing the material here, what if the only way to draw attention away from Dallas on November 22, 2013, was if another president was assassinated somewhere else? "I've got a buddy," says Sabine. And blackout.
Some comments on Dallas Theater Center's Facebook page have expressed mild outrage at both the jokes about JFK as a bobble-head and the suggestion of another presidential assassination. A spokesperson at the theater said a few patrons had called or emailed to ask that the bit be taken out of the show. A couple of local theater critics have typed their disapproval in their reviews, with one saying flatly, "It's not funny."
It's only not funny if you don't get the joke. Here are five reasons why this sketch, given the context of the show it's in, is hilarious:
1. It's not about the death of President John F. Kennedy or a wished-for death of any other president. This bit is about this city's obsession with wealth and with finding ways to make a buck off anything and everything. The DTC show is being performed in a shiny new theater emblazoned with the names of millionaire donors in an arts district named for AT&T. (Second City gets in some excellent knocks at that outfit, too.)
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2. The bit brilliantly sends up office dynamics. There's always that one person who can be counted on to come up with the lamest ideas, making the next, less horrifying suggestion less pallid by comparison. Earlier in the Second City show, they do a wordless ballet on office chairs, a statement about the lack of whimsy on the cubicle farm. Lots of jokes in this thing are directed at people who work in the skyscrapers that surround the Wyly Theatre. You might call it site-specific satire. Like The Office, which starred Second City alum Steve Carell.
3. Second City always dares to go there, whatever the topic. There's a reason so many of their "graduates" become stars as writer/performers on Saturday Night Live. The JFK bit is SNL-esque, though far funnier than anything SNL has aired since Tina Fey (who started at Second City) put on her Sarah Palin drag. And the sketch is extra satisfying because it's the one topic an upscale Dallas theater audience is probably afraid out-of-towners will bring up, so they do. What's the old saying? Comedy is tragedy plus time? Maybe it's tragedy plus time plus smart comedy writers clever enough to weave jokes around a tragedy without making the actual tragedy the punchline. Mel Brooks wasn't accused of making sport of the Holocaust in his "Springtime for Hitler" bit in The Producers.
4. Dallas needs to get over itself. The world can watch the TV show Dallas and assume that all our daddies are evil, conniving, womanizing assholes and we all have bubbling crude spewing out of the back 40 and that's just fine and dandy. But one little reference to the grassy knoll and they're calling for censorship OF A COMEDY SHOW.
5. Nobody minds that there's a burger place here called Lee Harvey's and a gift shop selling Sixth Floor Museum souvenirs in what used to be the Texas School Book Depository. If you don't see some sick comic irony in that, you're braindead, too.