Northwest by North Wells/Honey, I Shrunk Your Head | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Northwest by North Wells/Honey, I Shrunk Your Head 

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Second City E.T.C. Company


North Avenue Productions

at the Roxy

It may surprise some people to learn that improvisational comedy, that staple of modern American performance humor, did not begin as a comic form at all--or even a performance form, for that matter. With the decline of vaudeville in the mid- 1920s, the more wholesome comic artists adapted their acts to the new motion-picture format, from which our television situation comedy derives; those whose humor was of an earthier nature moved into the cabarets, into what would be known by the 1940s as burlesque, which eventually became what we now call stand-up comedy. But "improvcom" as we know it traces its origins to the 1950s and the theater games of Viola Spolin, which were inspired by the instructional techniques of Stanislavsky and designed as training exercises for actors. Students, individually or in groups, were assigned interpretive tasks based on the structure of familiar childhood games--a verbal equivalent of tag, for example, with a password or phrase substituting for the physical contact. A band of irreverent student-artists from the University of Chicago who went under the name of the Compass Players took Spolin out of the classroom and onto the stage in short sketches satirizing what they deemed a repressive and overcomplacent society.

At this point it is worth noting that (1) the improvisation exercises of Stanislavsky and Spolin were designed to develop skills in all types of theater--not exclusively comedy, (2) the exercises were designed as warm- up activities for the studio and were never intended to be seen by a theater audience, (3) the Compass Players were highly educated U. of C. undergrads, and (4) satire does not automatically imply jokes, and many of the early Compass pieces were performed straight-faced, with nary a recognizable "gag."

One need only consider how Severn Darden's "Metaphysics Lecture" would go over on Saturday Night Live to see how improvcom has changed. Generations of improvcom neophytes, wanting to attract a paying audience and recalling only the punch lines of the classic routines, escalated it to a form whose goal was nothing but punch lines--where every moment would be one in which the audience would burst into a solid chorus of laughter (this is known as "feeding the beast"--if the beast is kept laughing, it won't eat its owner). That level of intensity being difficult, if not impossible, to sustain, improvcom has been frequently reduced to a free-for-all in which each member of the team speaks louder and faster in a frenzied attempt to generate "excitement"--presumably to fool the "beast" into thinking that nutrition would soon be forthcoming.

This could only go so far before even the performers stopped laughing. If the current offerings of the postpuberty Second City Northwest and the fledgling North Avenue Productions companies are any indication, the pendulum of improvcom's influences is beginning to swing back to satire, to a performance theory based on intellect over adrenaline, craft over inspiration. Though widely divergent in experience, the creators of both shows display a constructive impulse toward the society their satire is intended to correct and a strikingly humane view of the people who make up that society (with the exception of middle-class parents, who continue to be caricatured harshly by performers young enough to still be embarrassed by their filial ties).

Northwest by North Wells is a retrospective of Second City Northwest material performed by Second City E.T.C. Though the show begins with a song promising that "You won't have to use your brain on the comedy train," and though the skits have the usual failure-to-communicate themes, there are moments of genuine insight and surprising wit within the substantial restrictions of the improvcom form. (The joke that made me laugh the loudest was actually a reprise of an earlier one; a reprise was unexpected because comedians rarely trust an audience to remember a gag for any length of time.)

The most original premise for a sketch involves two assassins vacationing in the wilderness who are reformed by their closeness to nature (a romantic notion dating back at least to Emerson and Thoreau). Serious commentary is provided by a toy-weapons race between two children, and by a sequence of wry observations on the changes in the life-styles of naive but worried heterosexuals (a dating couple blathers about "commitment" and "mutual respect" while their libidos yearn for the promiscuous old days; a man in a clinic greets the news that he has syphilis with relief). There are also possibly unintentional comments on the state of our culture: two sketches end with a wife looking as if she might stay but then leaving, but none finish with her prepared to leave and then at the last minute deciding to stay. And there is the unquestioned assumption that all pets hold their owners in contempt and desire above all else to escape their dependency (but always return to the nest--rather like teenagers and their parents, hmm?).

The show also pokes fun at the conventions of the improvcom form--as when the five Caucasian performers despair of doing a sketch on the topic of racism when none of them can convincingly play a representative of a racial minority (Ron West's announcement "Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite movie" to the Lebanese Rose Abdoo having been declared unsatisfactory). Outstanding individual turns include a doo-wop song extemporized by West, Steven Carell, and John Rubano (who has a fine singing voice, displayed elsewhere in the B-52's style "Big Hair" song), Kevin Crowley's disturbingly accurate line of authentic southern gibberish, and Carell's impersonation of a stealth bomber, which must be seen to be believed.

It is perhaps unfair to compare North Avenue Productions' Honey, I Shrunk Your Head with Northwest by North Wells, which had, after all, three years' worth of material from which to select. NAP seems not so much an ensemble as a group of free-lancers keeping in condition between projects. They introduce an exercise entitled "Guess the Phrase" as if we couldn't recognize it as the old party game charades, but it is to their credit that they rarely engage in the improvcom cliches so prevalent among the Roxy's usual fare. Only once was the dialogue obscured by everyone shouting at the same time, and there was only one stuffed-brassiere gag and only one ethnocentric gag (and that one supplied by an audience member who couldn't get over the sight of two Asian American comedians). One short sketch, possibly inspired by Russ Flack's "Harry Dump" routine, exhausted every buttock joke that could have been used later. NAP's humor is praiseworthy not simply because it avoids negatives, however. Greg Nishimura, though seeming rather distracted by his responsibilities as director and producer of the show, has a nice offbeat humor (upon hearing that several witnesses have reported seeing God in a shopping mall he mutters, "I wish I was Catholic so I'd understand what's going on here"). So does John Slankard ("Arguing with my ex-wife made my leg break out in a rash").

The idea of improvisational comedy as a performing art has always been difficult for me to take seriously. Like any schoolroom, improvcom may be an adequate universe for a time, but it's no surprise that its artists eventually tire of its confines and move on to roomier art forms in which to showcase their talents. Still, if the student comics are to graduate, their progress must be tested before an audience.

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