The Second City, the legendary Chicago comedy troupe, is opening the Dallas Theater Center’s new season with the show, The Second City Does Dallas. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says except for a few sharp jabs, Second City has trouble really connecting.
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- TheaterJones review
- FrontRow review
- Mixmaster review
- Critical Rant and Rave review
- Pegasus News review
- Dallas Voice review
- Star-Telegram review
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
There’s clearly an eager audience all over the country – not just in Dallas – for watching your hometown taking a little comic bruising on stage. Second City has been doing this for several years now. They’ve basically been touring a small unit of experienced writers and performers who craft a new show for each city. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Denver, even Rochester, New York. They visit beforehand to find likely targets and local color. Then they mix that material with classic improv routines and some tried-and-true sketches, sketches that can easily be re-fitted for new locations. This scene finds a woman appalled her boyfriend is proposing to her in an Applebees:
Liz Mikel: “I love you very much. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. But I don’t want the last words I hear as a single woman to be ‘Double the meat.’ [laughter] You need to take me to some place romantic.”
Frank Caeti: “But honey, we live in Plano.” [laughter]
Does it matter that this same sketch was done four years ago in Atlanta? Or that the inflatable sex-doll routine was performed in Arizona? Ironically, Plano, Dallas and Irving are headquarters for a dozen corporate eatery chains like Chili’s and Chuck E. Cheese – but, as it happens, not to Applebees. So the marriage-proposal sketch doesn’t say anything particular about Plano. It’s just about generic restaurants in generic suburbs. The inflatable sex doll bit is about … inflatable sex dolls. These could play almost anywhere.
And when the humor isn’t generic, it’s occasionally — occasionally — oddly out-of-date. Seriously, when was the last time you saw Dallas women with big hair? Or how fresh is the Dallas-Fort Worth ‘rivalry’? That feeling of a Texas reference being slotted in when it’ll get an easy laugh of recognition or that feeling of a joke just missing its mark because it’s past its snark date – those feelings loosen the grip Second City otherwise has on our attention. Some of the show’s more entertaining bits actually involve physical humor – like an office chair ballet. Or a showcase for Dallas performer Liz Mikel’s thunderous voice and impressive presence. Obviously, these make no real comment on Dallas; they’re just fun, and the cast is often good at them.
But a main selling point of The Second City Does Dallas is watching the pros from Chicago ‘roast’ Dallas. This is the company whose members have gone on to the big leagues of topical humor like Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report. But it doesn’t feel like the pros are scorching many people here. There’s adult language and there are confrontational moments – like the opening scene, in which Dallas is charged with swanking it up, not caring about the rest of the country suffering economically. Or later, when actor Scott Morehead plays Big Tex from the State Fair. He cracks jokes about how Dallas wants to be a world-class city; we just don’t want anyone from the rest of the world living here.
But those occasions are mostly just set-ups to spray one-liners, to go through a lot of quick-hit topics. To dig into some painful, more complex point, you need characters and something of an argument being laid out; you need sketches. And it’s only in the second half that the sketch humor really starts paying off. There’s a scene about planning the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination next year, how Dallas will want to make it tasteful and safe and dull. But the meeting repeatedly breaks down. One clueless member, played by John Sabine, keeps coming up with outrageous, money-making ideas.
Sabine: “I got a buddy who designs bobbleheads. We could design JFK bobbleheads! Everybody likes those!”
Amanda Davis: “That is completely inappropriate.”
The accepted wisdom about Dallas and satire is that the JFK assassination and our subsequent tarnishing as the ‘City of Hate’ responsible for his death made Dallas extremely skittish about the city’s public image. There’s some truth to this, I’m sure, although I also suspect our fearfulness over public controversies hurting bidness predated 1963. As for our heightened sense of anguish over November 22 — fifteen years ago, a comedy troupe flourished here called the Grassy Knoll Players.
In short, there are plenty of Dallas theatergoers who’ve no problem with this kind of comic approach. Complaints about it will always be around — there were critics who were offended. But what did people think they were going to see — from a company that’s given us Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short, Tina Fey and Steve Carrell? You can listen to my audiotape of opening night, if you wish. There are the occasional shocked ‘Ohs!’ But, if anything, the overall response was pleased and surprised. If anything, it was too forced-hearty for the medium-grade quality of much of the material.
To my mind, the JFK scene is one of the strongest in the show, partly because it takes chances, partly because it effectively followed its premise in classic fashion to its crazy conclusion. Where I might – might – draw the line is with the sketch that makes fun of Klyde Warren because his dad ponied up millions to have the Woodall Rogers Park named after him. Making fun of Dallas’ combination of swagger and insecurity or our nouveau riche social climbing or our oil barons or our wealthy right-wingers or our city government – all these are fair game, prime targets. But Klyde Warren is nine years old; he didn’t pay for the park.
I have all the respect in the world for the company – members of Second City taught my brother improv and sketch writing and one of his teachers just joined Saturday Night Live. So I was glad the company risked the jokes here. I’d rather have them doing that than providing more generic humor from a generic comedy team.
Especially one that’s been imported and is charging more than the domestic varieties we already have.