Comedy Factory Improvisation: The Second City troupe has been making up humor and churning out stars for decades.

June 13, 1996|By A SUN STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- The note says "Pantyhose" and not another word. Steve Carell lifts it off the stage floor, reads it aloud and in a moment knows what to do: Sing operatically about pantyhose.

He steps downstage left and opens his mouth wide enough for root canal work: "PANTYHOOOSE."

His colleagues in The Second City comedy troupe quickly fall in line as a chorus behind him as the pianist bangs out muscular chords. The pantyhose aria goes several measures before Carell's big closing line: "They fit me very well, and if you don't like the way I look in pantyhose then you can go to hell."

The bit is quick, effective. The crowd at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater goes nuts. People are applauding and shouting. They are amused, perhaps astonished. Pantyhose opera -- go figure.

Steve Carell hadn't, at least not until it happened. Neither had any other member of the troupe, which is performing a show of rehearsed routines and improvisation through June 23 in a theater turned into a cabaret.

Once the improvisation starts, nobody quite knows where they'll wind up. Perhaps in a game show in which contestants vie to be Dennis Rodman, maybe in a Chicago cab with Lady Di, or in a world on Prozac. Perhaps in an opera about hosiery.

"I really didn't know where I was going to go with that," Carell says later. "Then I heard [musical director/pianist] Mark Levenson doing this piano thing. He was doing something very dramatic on the piano. I struck a pose, and he went with it."

It comes to that. Toss something into play and play it out. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes just dumb.

Such alternating currents of brilliance and idiocy have been emanating from The Second City since it opened in 1959 in a converted Chinese laundry in Chicago.

You know the group, the people who brought you much of "Saturday Night Live" and much of American comedy for 37 years. A few Second City alumni: John Belushi, John Candy, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

Among the seven-member troupe at the Eisenhower Theater are Nancy Walls, Tim Meadows, Adam McKay and David Koechner, all performers and/or writers for "Saturday Night Live." Carell and Jon Glaser used to be with the "Dana Carvey Show" as performer and writer, respectively.

PD The current show is called "Truth, Justice or the American Way,"

but titles in Second City tradition seldom have much to do with anything. This two-hour collection of bits is virtually the same as a show which ran last year elsewhere: "Pinata Full of Bees."

Glaser plays a guy who makes unconventional pinatas for kids' birthday parties. Not much repeat business, he says. And why not? In this case, the details are left to the imagination. In several other routines in the rehearsed show, they're not:

A football fan bemoans a blown play, hollers from the stands that her dead grandmother could have caught that pass. Not so -- watch and see.

God appears on Earth as the lowliest of all creatures, a temporary office clerk. Her stapler, quite miraculously, never runs out of staples. Quick, cut to a peek inside God's stapler.

A hulking fellow with a voice like a sluggish inboard engine has earned, for his acts of bravery on some nuns' behalf, the privilege of singing "Ave Maria" in church every Sunday. Heavens, what would that sound like? Wait a minute and find out.

Putting it all together

The audience is seeing a comedic bouillabaisse cooked up from scripted scenes, bits of backstage kidding around, and improvisation in rehearsal and prompted by audience suggestions. The Second City's success with improvisation and its emphasis on it has distinguished the company from many other comedy groups.

In this show, the improvisation session is particularly impressive when you consider that these seven actors had never performed together as a group before they rehearsed this show for about a week this spring.

In the improvisation session -- performed after the rehearsed show Tuesday through Friday -- audience members are asked to write suggestions on sticky notes and put them on the stage. No matter how tasteless or idiotic, the suggestion must be used once an actor picks it up.

In a show years ago, says Carell, they got "Kennedy assassination." Ugh. They had to work with it. He says he cannot remember the result. Once they got "Magic Johnson and AIDS." Lovely. He cannot remember that one, either.

When The Second City does its audience-prompted improvisation sessions in Chicago, the routines are videotaped. Actors and directors look at the tapes to see if any nuggets from the improvisation can be developed through rehearsals into full routines. A routine might take weeks or months to prepare or it might hatch in hours, ready to go onstage.

"When we feel it has enough jokes in it, enough something in it, it goes in," says McKay, a performer and writer in the show. "When we feel it won't harm the show."

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