One of the biggest regrets of this comedy nerd's life was not taking the opportunity to see The Second City during my only two visits to Chicago.
The first missed opportunity took place during a Boy Scout trip when landmarks like the Museum of Science and Industry and Comiskey Park were deemed more appropriate places for a "morally straight" teenager to visit. The second took place when I could afford my own travel expenses to visit friends in Illinois. Unfortunately, they lived outside of the city and viewed venturing into Chicago in the same way that the apes from Planet of the Apes viewed wandering into the Forbidden Zone without a permission slip from Dr. Zaius.
Fate corrected that mistake by finally bringing some of the Second City's rising stars to my vicinity with the Second City 55th Anniversary Tour, which premiered the first of three shows last night at the Dallas City Performance Hall.
As they explain in their show, the goal of their sketches and scenes aren't just to make you laugh. They are mini-monuments to the art of human relationships and reflections on this insane world that we pretend to view as normal or "the way things are."
The evening was moderated in chunks by cast member Nick Rees as a pseudo-intellectual expert who narrates and improvises long speeches about the history of various subjects, including the long and storied history of the theater. Sketches ranged from as long as 10 minutes to just 20 seconds with one really killer joke.
Robot Chicken may hold the current franchise on short sketches that are basically just one ridiculous concept, but doing them on a stage offered more chances to surprise the audience.
One scene puts the cast in a first grade art class and each draws a picture based on an audience suggestion. Performer Lisa Barber jumped out of the starting gate with a spot-on impression of a spoiled and impressionable pretty girl but she was quickly overshadowed when three of the performers somehow draw the exact same thing and have to quickly change gears in the ensuing melee.
The longer scenes have more chances to grow and are the most satisfying moments of the night. Just about every scene had at least one good device that could draw genuine laughs but those that showed their softer side seemed to bring something back to comedy that's been lost in the penchant for pushing boundaries and achieving that new edge in edginess.
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Of course, the goal is to make you laugh as hard as you possibly can, but then they surprise you by actually being poignant and almost touching in a way that you don't really see in mainstream comedy.
Cast member Jo Feldman drew some well deserved laughs and smiles from a scene in which she learns how to meet people and make new friends from an interactive "How-To" record. Chucho Pérez opened the show with a familiar scene of a meathead bro meeting his brother's gay prom date for the first time and the ensuing awkwardness.
One of the most surprising moments of the night featured cast members Rees playing an Army recruiter and Rachel LaForce as an elderly woman who's ready to answer the call of duty, even though her brittle body can barely hold a grenade let alone throw one past the blast radius.
Comedy should push the edges for laughs, but sometimes it's more refreshing and daring to hear a joke or a sketch that offers a different -- but still funny -- perspective without punching you in the face.