By Jarod Todeschi
The annual Willamette University Family Weekend comedy show was a hit this year. The multi-generational crowd was full of fun and adjusted well to the light, fast-paced feel of the show, performed by one of the troupes of The Second City Touring Company.
The Second City tours with a variety of comedy shows, filling venues around the country, and entertaining crowds of all size and age.
Saturday night’s production in Smith Auditorium was all about family games. The nearly two-hour improv show pitted the students against their parents through a series of games, and points were collected along the way with a lot of laughs and a lot of audience participation.
The Second City Touring Company is the offspring of the similarly named Chicago based improv comedy enterprise. They have additional bases in Toronto and Los Angeles. The company is well-known as a launching pad for many notable alumni, a scouting ground for Saturday Night Live that started the careers of Julia Louis Dreyfus, Steve Carrell and Amy Poehler, among with many others.
In many ways the audience acted as the seventh member of the performance troupe. The actors either built their bits around audience suggestions or pulled someone out of their seat to build it around them on stage.
The show largely stayed away from direct political reference or critique. It was later revealed that Willamette requested a “clean” show for the late night, largely 18+ audience, perhaps attempting to steer away from offending parents or potentially inappropriate visuals.
In the current divisive political state of the country, touring comedy through red and blue states alike can provide an interesting perspective.
On the topic, Second City performer Gregg Ott mentioned after the show, “just compared to maybe two years ago, it’s insane how much has really changed.”
Ott’s experiences with American audiences are vast, having toured land and sea with The Second City. Of the entire cast, he proved the most provocative during a game.
“My whole bit in one of the games was like to just write down things the president has said or phrases that are inflammatory, but I’m not the leader of the free world,” he said. “Hearing people get so upset, somebody yelled out ‘you’re a racist!’” The choice that garnered the only boo’s of the night.
Fellow cast member Adam Archer added to Ott’s point. “We leave our home base in Chicago with what we think shows us the best and is the funniest show we can give the people.”
The Second City is notorious for social and political satire, and has been for the entirety of it’s six decade tenure.
“We never go with an agenda,” Archer commented.
Ott and Archer went on to explain their frustrations as performers for cross country audiences in such a charged time.
“I think things like irony and subtlety. . .or just mentioning things that have been said or happened, immediately it’s like ‘I can’t read between the lines and separate myself or perhaps enjoy this,’ it’s ‘I have an opinion about this and I am right and you are wrong.’” He added that today’s climate only tends to induce more volatile audience reactions. “One night we were just. . . quoting the president and a guy threatened me with a gun.”
In a phone interview from Chicago, director Tyler Samples expressed the challenges of performing sketch material on the road.
“You’re always somewhere different where the politics are different.” He also reiterated that the improvised shows are dependent on the audience, and only as political as the actors deem necessary based on the eclectic crowds around the country.
Ultimately, the Willamette University Family Weekend crowd was treated to a fun night of entertainment. It is hard to ignore, however, the larger questions at hand. What is the role of comedy and entertainment in a time of political unrest? How can audiences and patrons alike use the material to heal with laughter and open their minds a little further?
One might think that Willamette’s request for a clean show defeats and hinders the potential for powerful critique that art can bring to the public, but Archer confirmed, “most of our college campus tours are requested to be a clean show.”
Speaking of the Willamette audience, Ott concluded, “This was a great show, I had a ton of fun tonight.” Archer added, “This show is specifically called Game Night, it’s for fun.”