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Review: 'Second City' at the Dallas Theater Center
by Jerome Weeks 14 Sep 2012

We’ve all experienced those episodes of Saturday Night Live when ‘Weekend Update’ is the best thing in the show — and too much of the rest just seemed to fill time. No, Second City Does Dallas isn’t that middling. But it might remind you of it at times.

CTA TBD

The opening scene, promising more confrontation than the show actually delivers: Scott Morehead, Frank Caeti, Martin Garcia, John Sabine. Photos by Karen Almond

The Second City, the legendary Chicago comedy troupe, is opening the Dallas Theater Center’s new season with the show, The Second City Does Dallas. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says except for a few sharp jabs, Second City has trouble really connecting.

  • Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
  • Critical Rant and Rave review
  • KERA radio review:
  • Expanded online review:

There’s clearly an eager audience all over the country – not just in Dallas – for watching your hometown get a comic roasting on stage. Second City has been doing this for several years now. They tour a small unit of experienced writers and performers who craft a new show for each city. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Denver, even Rochester, New York. They visit beforehand to find likely targets and local details. Then they mix that material with classic improv routines and some tried-and-true sketches, sketches that can easily be re-fitted for new locations. This scene finds a woman appalled that her boyfriend is proposing to her in an Applebees:

Liz Mikel: “I love you very much. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. But I don’t want the last words I hear as a single woman to be ‘Double the meat.’ [laughter] You need to take me to some place romantic.”

Frank Caeti: “But honey, we live in Plano.”  [laughter]

Amanda Davis and Liz Mikel

Does it matter that this same sketch was done four years ago in Atlanta? Over the course of a whole show, yes. Ironically, Plano, Dallas and Irving are headquarters for a dozen corporate eatery chains like Chili’s and Chuck E. Cheese – but, as it happens, not to Applebees. So the marriage-proposal sketch doesn’t say anything particular about Plano. It’s just about generic restaurants in generic suburbs. It could play anywhere.

And when the humor isn’t generic, it’s occasionally and oddly out-of-date. Seriously, when was the last time you saw Dallas women with big hair? Or how fresh is the rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth? That feeling of a Texas reference being slotted in when it’ll get an easy laugh of recognition or that feeling of a joke just missing its mark because it’s past its snark date – those feelings loosen the grip Second City otherwise has on our attention. Some of the show’s more entertaining bits actually involve physical humor – like an office chair ballet. Or a showcase for Dallas performer Liz Mikel’s thunderous voice and impressive presence. Obviously, these make no real comment on Dallas; they’re just fun, and the cast is often good at them.

But a main selling point of The Second City Does Dallas is watching the pros from Chicago take some well-deserved whacks at Dallas. This is the stage company whose members have gone on to the big leagues of topical humor like Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report. But it doesn’t feel like the pros are really throwing heat here. There’s adult language and there are confrontational moments – like the opening scene, in which Dallas is charged with swanking it up, not caring about the rest of the country’s economic sufferings. Or later, when actor Scott Morehead plays Big Tex from the State Fair. He cracks jokes about how Dallas wants to be a world-class city; we just don’t want anyone from the rest of the world actually living here.

But those occasions are mostly just set-ups to spray one-liners at a lot of quick-hit topics. To dig into some uncomfortable, more complex point, you need characters being drawn and something of an argument being laid out. You need comic sketches. And it’s only in the second half that the sketch humor really starts paying off. There’s a scene about planning the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination next year, how Dallas will want to make it tasteful and safe and dull. But the planning meeting repeatedly breaks down. One clueless member, played by John Sabine, keeps coming up with tasteless, money-making ideas.

Sabine: “I got a buddy who designs bobbleheads. We could design JFK bobbleheads! Everybody likes those!”

[laughter]

Amanda Davis: “That is completely inappropriate.”

The accepted wisdom about Dallas and satire is that the JFK assassination and our tarnishing as the ‘City of Hate’ made the city extremely skittish. There’s some truth to this, I’m sure, although I also suspect our fearfulness over public controversies hurting a happy business climate predated 1963. But as for whether we retain a heightened sense of anguish over November 22, well, fifteen years ago, a comedy troupe flourished here called the Grassy Knoll Players.

In short, there are plenty of area theatergoers who’ve no problem with this kind of comic approach. Complaints about it will always be around — there were critics who were offended. But what did people think they were going to see? From the company that’s given us Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short, Tina Fey and Steve Carrell? You can listen to my audiotape of opening night, if  you wish. There are the occasional shocked ‘Ohs!’ But, if anything, the overall response was pleased and surprised. If anything, it was too forced-hearty for the OK quality of much of the material.

To my mind, the JFK scene is one of the strongest in the show, partly because it risks offending, partly because it effectively followed its premise in classic fashion to an outrageous conclusion. Where I might — might — draw the line is with the sketch that makes fun of Klyde Warren because his dad ponied up millions to have the Woodall Rogers Park named after him. Making fun of Dallas’ combination of swagger and insecurity or mocking our nouveau riche social climbing or our oil barons or our wealthy right-wingers or our city government: All of these are prime targets. But Klyde Warren is nine years old; he’s just a kid. He didn’t pay for the park.

I have all the respect in the world for Second City — members of the company taught my brother improv and one of his teachers just joined Saturday Night Live. So I was glad the company risked some real jokes here. I’d rather have them doing that than providing more generic humor from a generic, imported comedy team.

Especially one that, because it’s at the Dallas Theater Center, can charge far more for its medium-grade laughs than the domestic-brand laugh troupes we already have here.

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