Winter in Pittsburgh can be brutal, with polar vortexes, lake-effect snow, slippery streets, and gray skies. We could all use some comic relief, and the cavalry has arrived—from an even colder place, no less. Players from Chicago’s legendary company The Second City are performing through this Saturday, Jan. 10 at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater.
For over 55 years, not only has The Second City been producing some of the world’s best sketch and improv comedy, it has also been training—and introducing to the stage—new generations of comedic talent. Second City alumni who’ve gone on to fame in their own right include Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Pittsburgh native Joe Flaherty.
The show at the O’Reilly is called N’at’s All Folks! It is a humorous take on our beloved city of Pittsburgh, in which sketches about our politics, accent, local culture, and sports teams are acted along with classic Second City routines of a more general nature. The performers are Lisa Beasley, Alan Linic, Scott Morehead, Liz Reuss, Marlena Rodriguez, and John Thibodeaux. On opening night they all proved to be talented comic actors who sing, dance, and possess very quick wits.
Lampooning Pittsburgh, Second-City Style
N’at’s All Folks opens in a familiar setting—a Steelers pre-game party—with all cast members on stage and pretending to drink Iron City and I.C. Light beers. When a guest asks Rodriguez for some salad she promptly retorts, “We only have fried foods here.” One of the guys proudly states, “I started drinking this morning and there’s only 75 hours ’til the Steelers game.” Three minutes in, the first usage of our vernacular word “jagoff” occurs, and it’s off and rolling from there.
Some skits are very brief, only a minute or two. There’s a registered sex offender “door knocking” to announce his presence in the neighborhood who then also notes that he’s the local congressman, a PNC Bank teller line, and a pair of football announcers previewing the big smackdown (replete with Monday Night Football music) between two titans—Highmark and UPMC.
Other quick hitters that recur throughout the show are fake TV news teasers for “Severe News 11.” Two cast members sit in chairs and deliver teasers such as: “Are people who are trying to make Prantl’s Burnt Almond Torte at home creating a fire hazard?,” “Everyone born before 1900 is dead,” “Should Pittsburgh Dad be forced to take a paternity test?,” and “Are zombie aliens created by George Romero causing all the area’s landslides?” Topping it off is the newscast’s slogan: “The Horror of It All.” KDKA-TV anchor Ken Rice’s eyebrows garner a mention in a different skit.
Another highlight is a “Pittsburgh Dance” with a surprise happy ending. And what would a comedy show about Pittsburgh be without a song parody of former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl? Alan Linic plays and sings Luke brilliantly; we’ll spare you the lyrics to avoid spoilers.
Fun with Nuns and the Joys of Improv
Among the non-Pittsburgh-specific pieces, one standout is a sketch about two nuns and a priest preparing a memorial ceremony for a recently deceased Mother Superior. Reuss and Rodriguez play the habit-wearing nuns in marvelous deadpan while the priest (Linic) rummages through the late Mother’s collection of old records, looking for a song to play as a tribute. Each song begins sweetly, then segues into shocking, sexually explicit lyrics. The recordings are creatively simulated by the three remaining cast members: Beasley crinkles cellophane to produce a scratchy old-record sound, Morehead sings through an orange traffic cone like a speaker on an old gramophone, and Thibodeaux plays a small guitar (or maybe it’s a ukulele).
Part of the show is improv, with the cast asking questions of the audience to provide start-up material for the routines. On opening night the players built great improv segments around “cousins,” a dentist’s office, “photosynthesis,” and “I hate blue cheese.” Other fantastic routines were built around specific audience members. The cast made tons of good-natured fun riffing on Jessica, who said she’d grown up wanting to be a marine biologist, and Dave, who gave his occupation as “student.”
During the improv sketches, new actors insert themselves into the performance by tapping an existing actor on the arm. Oh, hold on a minute: Entertainment Central’s theater reviewer Mike Vargo, who also attended the show, is tapping my arm. I’m going to let him into the story now.
Let’s Get Physical (says Mike)
This is Vargo speaking and I’m here to add scholarly context. A basic question in comedy is: What’s funny? For one thing, it is well known that we laugh instinctively when somebody falls down or bungles a physical task. That’s why epic-fail videos are popular on the Internet and why slapstick has been around for ages.
But physical comedy is more than the art of the flop. It can be any use of the face and body that breaks from what we normally expect of people—such as exaggerated reactions (think of Lucille Ball in the old “I Love Lucy” episodes), or movements that are just plain silly (as in Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks”).
The comic actors in this Second City troupe excel at both. For example, their modern-dance routine “in honor of Pittsburgh” is a fine bit of silly movement. It works because the principal dancers, Liz Reuss and Scott Morehead, dance well to begin with, and on that basis they’re able to ham it up. Elsewhere in the show we have Lisa Beasley’s imitation of a catfish, a feat that is rarely attempted let alone done so well …
(Back to Rick Handler)
Thank you, Mike. I should note that almost all of the sketches won gales of laughter from the opening-night crowd. Cabaret tables and chairs were set up around the stage, and drink service was available from friendly waitresses. Mike has a few more things he’d like to share with you…
We have to mention the carnival fantasy sketch. It’s where the entire troupe takes physical comedy to amazing heights, through mimicry.
John Thibodeaux is dreaming, in a daze, that he’s at a carnival. On the midway he tries the horse-race game, with other cast members playing the toy horses that gallop and galumph along as water is squirted into their tubes. When it’s time for him to choose a prize, those others strike poses to become absurd-looking stuffed animals and dolls. Next the actors depict a merry-go-round, by turning themselves into crazy ride-upon creatures on a spinning carousel.
There’s more, nearly all done without props. And it is hilarious …
(Back to Rick)
Ahem. Music director Dave Halvorson provides piano accompaniment for N’at’s All Folks! Pre-recorded music and sound effects are piped in when warranted …
(Mike, One More Time)
Timing! Comedy depends on timing, which isn’t only a matter of speaking a punch line at the right instant. In ensemble sketch comedy, the whole rhythm and flow of the piece has to sing. When Actor A does something, Actor B’s reaction has to crackle at its heels—but not step on it. The cast must sense how long to sustain a bit of monkey business for laughs (but not milk it dry), and so on.
And time and again on opening night, the Second City team found the right rhythms. Director Anthony LeBlanc had the cast hitting on all cylinders. I’m telling you, these guys and gals can really …
Yes they can. It’s time to wrap up the review by saying that this is a great opportunity to see some of the country’s best up-and-coming comedic talent. For showtimes and tickets, visit The Public or call 412-316-1600. Yinz are gonna like it.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.
Rick Handler, founder and executive producer of Entertainment Central Pittsburgh, is a lover of good comedy.