Comedy Reruns

20 March, 2005 at 10:33 pm (uncategorized)

Be forewarned: I shall be waxing speculative about High Concepts in this entry. Feel free to ignore anything remotely philosophical and simply look at the pictures.

The Upright Citizens' Brigade and the Second City touring companyRight. What with Spring Fever and all, I was feeling that I rather needed to get out of my bleedin’ apartment and shake some of the cobwebs loose from my rafters, so I was pleased to find upon reading The Valley Advocate, my local free (but invaluable) entertainment tabloid, that the Second City touring company was going to be in Keene, NH the next evening. I had found out about a SC troupe performance in Manchester last year in even more immediate circumstances, and tickets to good seats had still been readily available, so I wasn’t overly concerned that I would be able to gain admission on such short notice. What did worry me was whether the show was ready for me to see it again so soon. It had been about 45 weeks since my attendance at their previous performance, and my hand hovered over the “confirm ticket order” button as I tried to guess how much repeat material I was signing myself up for,

In an interview with Steven Wright I once read, he said that in the sixty-odd shows he performs each year, he adds about eight new yokes to his routine, discarding an equal amount. In this way, he replaces about a third of his act each year. I saw Wright in 2000 and again in 2002, and in the interim he hadn’t rotated out enough jokes to keep my interest during the second performance. So I worried, would the Second Citizens be doing enough new material to keep me laughing? Or would I be a chilly spot of jaded in difference in the Colonial Theatre mezzanine? I decided to gamble on the being sufficient potential to risk it, based on my need to get out of the house and my awareness that a significant portion of their act was improvisational… and that material is never likely to be repeated.

I turns out that there are three different touring troupes from the Second City, color-coded blue, red, and green in an thankfully unpatriotic sidestep. Despite this, I ended up seeing the same troupe I had seen in Manchester: Green Company. Of this I was glad, as it allowed me two luxuries: the ability to better judge how much skit rotation had gone on in the interim, and the chance to learn the names of the comics. For a organization with such a rich history of performers and writers, the Second City doesn’t seem to go out of its way to provide its audiences with the ability to recognize and track their alumni/ae. There are no programs given out and no introductions made, so if Megan Grano or Mike Bradecich go on to national careers in the footsteps of Joe Flaherty and Tina Fey, who will know? No one from New Hampshire, I’m guessing.

Steven Wright, Phil Jupitus, and Jon StewartAll in all, I’m guessing I only saw six repeated skits between the two performances, an excellent track record for a two hour show. And most of those repeated skits were what Second City calls “blackouts”, short comic strip-esque skits, with a set up, a punchline, and a general exeunt omnes in the space of between 15 and 45 seconds. A marvelous technique, and one that probably requires a great deal of practice, as each one has a lot to do with acting as much as comic timing, as the participants need to establish relationships and characteristics in body language, stance, and vocal tone almost instantly. Good improv, like the classic Freeze exercise, emphasizes this technique: within a pair of lines, the actors need to have clearly communicated to the audience and to each other the necessary information for the skit to continue. That level of speed in craft was unfortunately absent in recent performance of The Upright Citizen’s Brigade I saw recently. The casual, gregarious atmosphere that the UCB members seemed to be trying to instill in the room and their audience was nice, and interesting, but it didn’t lend itself to the sort of sheer laughter and enjoyment that Second City was able to accomplish with their accelerated timing.

And I think that timing must make the difference between being willing to hear a joke repeatedly and being bored. When Jon Stewart performed at The Bushnell in late January, I had been regularly watching The Daily Show for about two months, and so every time he cribbed from a broadcast in his stand-up routine, I remembered. And because of Stewart’s pacing of his delivery, complete with reflective pauses and minor tangents, I had the ability to settle back in my chair and wait for him to change topics, to move on to fresher pastures. Towards the end of his set, he was riffing on the lack of connection between Easter and eggs, and I was able to compose whole paragraphs about the history of the word “oestre” and its relevance to the topic at hand because of his casual pacing. For me, that could have been a deadly joke to end his routine on, as it didn’t cover anything that I considered to be inventive or worthy of commentary (he was able to redeem himself, by the way, with the concept of “the Judas Egg”). And as inventive and jaw-droppingly clever as Steven Wright can be, his deadpan deliver and timeclock pacing was deadly to someone who knew the jokes. I still think I need to wait another year or two before I can see him live again.

And yet I still don’t know how to distinguish between the mood state that makes one joke predictable and one joke anticipatory. My first ever venture into live stand-up comedy was in watching Phil Jupitus in London. I was drawn there by watching clip of him do a routine on the character of Chewbacca in Star Wars. And when he worked his way ’round to that part of the script when I was watching him live, I giggled cheerfully in the pauses as he set up the joke, ready for him to say it, like it was a favored movie I was watching on video, ready for that perfect line that I could recite by heart. I have always dismissed the incessant repetition of great lines from comedy films as behavior based more around the experience of solidarity than in actually revisiting the funny moment. People quote Python or The Simpsons or whatever Michael Myers/Will Ferrel/Owen Wilson film is current in vogue amongst the proletariat not because the lines are fiercely funny out of context, but because they are recreating the context with their friends in The Know. But last night, there were scenes when I knew, I was certain what was going to be said next — without ever having seen the skit before — that were funnier because the audience had to wait for the actor to take his time, savouring the delivery of the punchline. And the expectation of those lines made it better, as it made even the long, awkward silences part of the note-perfect metronomic timing.

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