Famed comedy club seeking laughs in Chicago's past

Associated Press
In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 24, 2011, Kelly Leonard, left, vice-president at the Second City comedy club and Liz Garibay with the Chicago History Museum, sit within a display highlighting Chicago's Jazz and Blues history at the museum in Chicago. Second City, famed for its parody and improvisation, has partnered with the museum to turns its wit on Chicago itself. The finished product, "Second City's History of Chicago," previewing in late November, will likely touch on familiar subjects like the historical cast of political characters,the miserably cold winters, and the woebegone Chicago Cubs. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Imagine a city where winters are frigid enough for polar bears, where a baseball team is so woebegone it hasn't won the World Series since Model Ts puttered down the streets and where electoral shenanigans are summed up in the cheeky phrase, "vote early, vote often."

Find any of that funny?

How about a city where a disgraced governor swiveled his hips and crooned an Elvis tune at a street fair? Where a mayor, staging a debate during the Roaring '20s, placed live rats in cages to represent his opponents? And where the late columnist Mike Royko, referring to the tradition of political chicanery, once suggested Chicago's motto, Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden), be replaced with Ubi Est Mia (Where's mine?).

Laughing yet?

Pick a topic: Winter. Traffic. Sports. Politics. Most definitely, politics. In Chicago, all are good for a joke.

And soon the Second City comedy club — famed for its satire and improvisation — will use this fodder, as it turns its wit on the city itself. It has partnered with the Chicago History Museum, consulting with curators, performing a series of workshops and soliciting suggestions from audience members to shape a script that will touch on the present and the past.

The finished product, Second City's History of Chicago, previewing in December, will likely lampoon familiar territory, such as the weather, notorious traffic jams and some famous modern-day names: The mayors Daley. The new boss, Rahm Emanuel. The California-departed Oprah.

The writers will also explore places and characters that have defined Chicago over the decades. Al Capone, of course. But others best-known to the locals, such as Mathias "Paddy" Bauler, the top-hat-wearing, alderman-saloon keeper who left his mark with his cri de coeur: "Chicago ain't ready for reform!" And Bughouse Square, a park that became famous as a public soapbox for leftist orators.

The cast is pondering ways, too, to find yucks in the Haymarket labor-police clashes of 1886, silliness in the Great Chicago Fire, maybe even a joke about — ready for this? — Daniel Burnham, the architect who shaped the city's lakefront.

No matter what makes the cut, the show will reflect a brand of humor unique to Chicago, says Kelly Leonard, Second City's executive vice president.

"It is all about the intersection of high brow and low brow," he says. "It's a place in which Mike Ditka and the University of Chicago have basically equal standing, and the smashing together of those two make Chicago such a funny place to live in. If you think about some of the quintessential Second City characters — Bill Murray, George Wendt, John Belushi — they all have a kind of blue-collar wisdom to them."

"It's a very no bull---- city," he adds.

There's another truism about Chicago. Misery is something of a badge of honor.

"Chicagoans kind of wear their imperfections," Leonard says. "The Cubs are horrible. The weather is the worst. Our politicians are corrupt and we keep electing them. You either weep and go into a fetal position or you laugh. And we choose to laugh."

To prepare for this show, Second City cast members rehearsed at the History Museum, just a few blocks from the comedy club. They invited the public and tour guides to watch, solicited suggestions and added their own ideas after poring over exhibits in the museum.

Claudia Wallace, the only cast member who is a Chicago native, says the experience introduced her to events she knew little about — the 1919 race riots and Haymarket riots, for instance. Not great material for comedy, and yet ...

"You put a spin on it and try to find the humor," she says. "All we can do is put it in front of the audience and they can tell us if it's funny or not."

Liz Garibay, the museum's public programs manager, agrees.

"I think all tragedies can be funny, once you give yourself a little time to be sad or mourn," she says. She briefed the Second City cast on Chicago's long history of protests, starting with the Lager beer riots of 1855 when the mayor renewed a measure to close taverns on Sundays and the cost of liquor licenses went up. The mayor was job hunting the next year.

It's these little-known episodes that might end up in the all-Chicago show, though skits about the city have often been in revues. The comedy club was founded 52 years ago by a group of intellectuals, mostly from the University of Chicago. The shows draw heavily on topical humor, satire and improvisation — often with a political bent.

Over the past half-century, the club has served as a college for hundreds of comics and actors ranging from Alan Arkin and Joan Rivers in the beginning to decades later, Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

A few classic Second City skits have featured Chicago. One in the early '60s poked fun at the incongruities of introducing football into the rarefied intellectual air of the University of Chicago. It has a professor teaching the sport to three brainy students, dutifully explaining "we have a left guard and a right guard, but no Kierkegaard."

More recently, Second City produced "Between Barack and a Hard Place," just as Barack Obama was catching fire as a presidential candidate from Chicago. Both the president and Michelle Obama saw the show, and according to Leonard, enjoyed it.

And a surprise hit was "Rod Blagojevich Superstar," a parody of "Jesus Christ Superstar," which mocked the helmet-haired former governor, then accused of federal corruption charges, as a greedy narcissist. The cast serenaded him with the lyrics: "Are you as nuts as we think you are?"

In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment, Blagojevich — who has since been convicted of trying to sell Obama's former Senate seat — joined the cast on stage one night, appearing with arms outstretched as if he were being crucified (befitting the original musical).

When the audience cheered, he responded: "Where were you when I was impeached?"

He then sat down and watched himself be skewered. "It was surreal," Leonard says.

The idea of tailoring a show to a city and its history started about four years ago when Second City developed "How I Lost My Denverginity" in Denver. Shows followed in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Laguna Beach, Calif., Rochester, N.Y., Louisville, and elsewhere.

Writers visit the city to immerse themselves in the culture and history and gather material.

"We're not there to criticize your city but we wouldn't be Second City if we weren't making fun of it," Leonard says. "There's a very fine line between those two things. So what we end up doing is sort of creating what I call a dysfunctional love letter ... where we're making fun of the infamous characters but we're also celebrating a lot of their imperfections."

It doesn't always go smoothly. A skit on Francis Scott Key as a bungling military planner fizzled in Baltimore, where he wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." And critics in Boston weren't impressed by a bit about the Red Sox.

Chicago will present its own challenges. "There's a fair amount of political fatigue," Leonard says. "There's more to Chicago than our corrupt politicians."

Such as? Daniel Burnham.

Huh? What's so funny about a visionary who helped create Chicago's sweeping lakefront?

Leonard pauses for a moment for comic timing, then declares: "I still haven't found that out."

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