A Sudden Attack of Laughs
Four wildly different comedy shows are coming to Milwaukee.
October stretches our comedy muscles to the outer limit. It also puts Milwaukee smack in the middle of a cultural debate: Is comedy a way of escaping from life or a way of looking into life and laughing about it?
Milwaukee has several legendary doctors of modern mirth descending on us. Second City takes over Downtown’s Marcus Performing Arts Center for two days, Oct. 10 and 11. A block away, one of the nation’s most famously acerbic men of standup, Lewis Black, invades the Pabst Theater on the same nights and at the same 8 p.m. times. A homespun riot of giggles, John McGivern, revives his Shear Madness farcical romp at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s Northern Lights Theater, 1721 W. Canal St., October 9 to November 15. Even UW-Milwaukee is getting into the act when the Peck School of the Arts opens its season October 9 with an all-female spoof of a small Texas theater trying to do Chekhov.
Second City is using three companies (Red, Blue and Green) to speed around the nation in its 55th anniversary tour, which unlocks the vaults of some classic routines, dips into its current repertoire of skits and creates new topical material with talented young touring performers who polish their skills regularly in Chicago outings, where the company has long operated theaters. Milwaukee gets the Green to show off the newly refurbished Wilson Theater (465 seats, tickets start at $38) of Vogel Hall.
The stuff from the vaults could be particularly delightful. Going back decades, Second City boasts a who’s who of greats developing solo and group routines, growing out of improvisational comedy rules and forms outlined by master teachers. The late Paul Sills and Del Close continue a dominant influence on modern stage comedy and Internet video today through the Upright Citizens Brigade, SNL, College Humor, Funny or Die and other outlets. Their lessons of spontaneity on modern events and improvised or polished barbs born from social realities grew out of a Chicago company that featured Mike Nichols and Elaine May and became Second City.
Who will be the new greats? There are always new names arising through Second City, said executive VP Kelly Leonard confidently in an interview.
“The touring companies evolved in the late 1960s by performing classic sketches so young players could learn how to time a beat, why a scene works, and then they step out with their own inventions,” he said. “Even today each tour director picks some material and works with the company for several weeks developing their own, and they play Chicago almost every week before they take it on the road.”
“We spend a lot of time helping talent grown — and then we kick them out, so a next generation of artists always has a place to step in.”
The truth is not that simple: many comedians are individuals who chafe at restrictions and left Second City on their own volition, to spread their own wings or because they were offered major road gigs or TV spots.
Leonard is convinced the Second City method will be part of America’s comedic future. “Our creative eco-system here is to give notes, do a little more hand holding with young performers, but move them past these primary controls as they prove themselves,” he said. “There is also a tremendous amount of creative freedom.”
“The Midwest is our sweet spot. We know the humor that works in Chicago will work in Milwaukee.”
Now the Second City name is spreading coast to coast with the tours. The core audience is 18 to 35, but that means constant change of audiences since people age and issues adjust. There are also nostalgia buffs as well as people of all ages who may be drawn to the shows.
Second City is careful with the vault material and encourages touring companies to name the originators when they use the old bits. Some are unused because they are clearly dated, Leonard said. “Our skewering of the Eisenhower (or Kennedy) administration would not play today,” he noted.
But few remember this Second City highlight because “Lone Canoe” is now forgotten. Topicality can be hurt by long-term social changes. Leonard recalled how “from about 1965 on our skits were full of guns – prop guns that went off for laughs, but today’s society has made so many of those skits unfunny – people are scared when a gun goes off. We have to toss them out.”
What is truly amazing, however, is how much of the early Second City humor endures and how many talents the organization nurtured. When the Green Company sets down in Milwaukee, don’t be surprised if a few years from now some of them — Lisa Barber, Paul Jurewicz, Christine Tawfik, Adam Schreck, Rachel LaForce and Nick Rees — turn up as E-Bay memorabilia.
An Attack Dog of Standup Comedy
Lewis Black is amused to be known as the grand old man of concert stage humor. “I didn’t even start on the road as a standup comic until I was 40,” he recalled during our interview. “I was working as a playwright. If you think it’s tough to make it as a comic, try it as a playwright. It’s like being the dog left sitting in the SPCA kennel while all the other mutts are finding homes.”
More than a comic, Black is also a social critic and an avid spokesman for national voter rights efforts. So he was highly aware he is entering a state “that goes against the national trend in its court opinions since other decisions mainly support voter rights – and don’t think I won’t do a few minutes about that.”
“You are the state of Bob La Follette and he must be rolling over in his grave about what your government is doing to his legacy.”
Even as a playwright, Black was hardly mellow or hesitant about expressing his opinions and taking risks. He knows how unusual his career has been. “I might have had one of those typical normal lives if good things had happened to my writing career before 35 – but I sure don’t mind now how things worked out.” Today, in his late sixties, good things are happening in droves – and he is a hit with the young people, drawing an enthusiastic new audience from regular stints on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” as well as constant national gigs and TV and radio outings.
“I basically try to be as crazy as I can be and I don’t think anyone cares enough about my opinions to heckle me because they know what I’m going to say is twice as crazy as anything they’ve got,” he said. He has been known to get so worked up onstage that audiences think he is having a mental breakdown.
“Part of what keeps all this in perspective for me is people know I am saying what I feel,” he said. “What I love about standup is that there is nothing between you and the audience. That’s for me.”
McGivern Keeps On Cutting
Through TV shows, outrageous costumes, gender bending and jesting stage routines about growing up gay in Milwaukee, John McGivern has become a surprisingly comforting local celebrity, with variations in his repertoire that keep bringing the familiar back. Now he’s offering by my count the fifth local revival of Shear Madness.
Milwaukeeans actually think it is HIS farce, and though he started the crazy hairdresser whodunit mystery in Chicago and with many troupes, Shear Madness actually began some 50 years ago as Scherenschnitt, written by German playwright Paul Pörtner and its Boston company has celebrated more than 30 years on stage. The play may by now hold the world record for longest constantly running farce.
McGivern is a master of this stage formula — a mystery game where the guilty party changes every show, the audience asks questions and helps solve the murder and the actors improvise quips and contemporary references around farce set pieces. But McGivern as the outrageous hairdresser doesn’t do it alone. Much of the troupe that regaled audiences in previous outings is being reassembled through November 15 at Potawatomi, including notable local actors Norman Moses, Mary MacDonald Kerr, Jenny Wanasek and Patrick Noonan. Tickets range from $40 to $49 at (414) 847-7922.
Laughs From Chekhov
Busy local actress Raeleen McMillion is also a full time teacher at UWM and is directing its opening comedy romp on the Peck’s Mainstage October 8-12 – Anton in Show Business — at the theater building on the UWM campus. Check arts.uwm.edu/tickets or the (414) 229-4308 box office for fuller details.
It is a backstage comedy replete with auditions that go awry, revolving crazy directors and inflated theatrical egos. Jane Martin’s comedy is hardly new – the high energy farce has been dashing around the nation since 2001. It imagines what madness erupts backstage as a small theater attempts to cast and direct Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.