#406: The Comedy Machine

December 1st, 2014

The line started outside.

It was wrapped around, as lines should be. The perfect length to show that, yes, what’s happening in this small storefront in Old Town is worth seeing, worth waiting for, worth wrapping around a building for.

“I don’t know how clear your conscience needs to be, but the line starts back there,” a man in line snipped as I walked in the doors.

I shot him a look somewhere between obsequious smile and a 14-year-old girl’s interpretation of withering.

“We’re heading up to will-call on the second floor,” I said. “My conscience is fine.”

Over the previous 24 hours, I had eaten deep dish pizza, gone to the Bean and Marshall Fields, brunched, dined, talked about buildings, made plans then broke plans to go up the Sears, walked Michigan Avenue and done all the other things you do when family is in town.

And now Second City.

The Second City theater in Old Town is:

  • the global hub of a comedy empire with offshoots in other cities, through touring companies, on cruise ships and at any other place aspiring improv comedians flock for the sheer love of asking audience members to name a profession, a celebrity and maybe a type of plant.
  • the training ground for pretty much everyone who has made you laugh in the last six decades, from Nichols and May to Keegan-Michael Key.
  • a machine that produces comedy, one clockwork in its precision.

Before you’re even inside the doors, the signage reminds you how much you owe them. John Candy, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, pre-nosedive Mike Myers — every square inch is plastered with the faces you know and love.

The nostalgia buttons pressed, the logistics come into play.

There’s a man with an earpiece answering questions outside, a coat check guy waiting inside, will-call, check-in times, a line that happened to meander by the souvenirs and a staff with the sureness of a collegiate marching band on the field spreading to exact spots to answer questions, direct traffic, intercept strays and guide them back on the path to the room where the funny ha ha was about to go.

Then, the room, where smiling people in black T-shirts played human Tetris, shifting and shuffling the milling herd into crisp perfection. It was row after row, tile after tile of fan lodged in a room snug up against each other, all with a view of the stage and a table for drinks.

Then you’re told you’re going to see some wacky.

As for the act, it was good. Funny. Two hours of sketch followed by some improv I ducked out on because 1 a.m. passes my threshold for watching people make stuff up.

They did funny accents, they really sold their characters and they threw in a few topical references, just like SNL, SCTV and any other place where Second City alumni did funny accents, sold their characters and threw in topical references.

It followed all the rules for looking like it was breaking the rules.

I don’t know why I’m being so harsh to people who just wanted to make me laugh. The cowboy sketch was brilliant and the coma sketch touching and deft. Every performer was on. If I had seen this same show with the same actors in a dingy little theater, I would never stop telling people how brilliant it was.

There’s a Second City way of doing comedy. The wackiness has become codified and being marched past six decades of photos of identical reaction shots and wacky mime scenes didn’t make me excited for what I was about to see. It made me excited for Bill Murray’s past or these actors’ future.

The biggest laugh of the night came for me when my family and I tried to cram in for a selfie. Since we were all Tetris-wedged, it was hard to get the five of us in one shot. One cut off everything of my uncle but his hair. Another squooshed my cousin and his girlfriend together in a sort of weird way.

And I laughed and laughed and laughed.

It was a small moment — all my favorites are — but it was real. For me and probably no one else, that’s the moment I would have waited in line for.

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