The closing music for Second City's “Deface the Nation” is the Rolling Stones' “She's a Rainbow,” and that's a good choice: The humor in this traveling show comes in all colors and is aimed at both genders, all political persuasions and any age old enough to wade through the profane language. The jokesters risk offending us, making us uneasy and occasionally shoving the ugly truth under our nostrils as we're snorting with laughter.
But which truth, I hear you asking? Do they preach the gospel of new messiah Barack Obama and heap scorn on John McCain, as right-wingers expect almost everyone in show business to do? Not at all.
Obama comes in for about four times as much ribbing, mostly for trying to be many things to many people. (“Hello, gay Americans. I'm Barack Obama, and I find you all terribly attractive.”) McCain is mentioned just twice in the show, once in a long song consisting of his name repeated to distraction, and once in a woman's offhand remark that “I'm a Christian, so I feel more comfortable having a white man make decisions for me.” Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose gaffes have hung a target on her for humorists to fire at, came up just once Wednesday night – and that was in response to a shout from the audience.
There are many such shouts. The show is a loosely woven series of blackouts, extended sketches done mostly in character, improvisation and audience participation. (“Aha!” shouted a cast member, dashing up and down aisles and shoving a microphone under a startled woman's nose for the second time. “Didn't think I was coming back, did you?”)
You'll never know exactly how much of it has been carefully worked out and how much was whipped up on the spot, and that's part of the fun: It all seems fresh. Some is sweet, some sour, some just bland. But the chefs are always playing with new ingredients: After the show is finished, the “encore” consists of new material being tried out for an upcoming Christmas show. I had a feeling that the places where we laughed would be kept or punched up, while the dead spots would be discarded or retooled.
Though “Nation” has been billed as a political show, that's not always true. The topics include aging, gay marriage or service in the military, religious convictions and the extremes to which all of us – environmentalists included – may go. My favorite song had a student apologizing for bad behavior toward his teacher:
He: “I saw your paycheck – you almost work for free. I saw your paycheck – you shouldn't take any ---- from me!”
She: “You saw my paycheck – see the hunger in my eyes. You saw my paycheck – I've been eating art supplies!” Perhaps members of the N.C. legislature need to watch this production.
It's common in sketch comedy for people to play recurring roles: the nerd, the sexpot, the handsome jerk, the hard case, the weasel, etc. But good troupes (and this is one) don't assign parts so easily; everyone flows from personality to personality. True, three drunken guys at an office party reflect on male misbehavior in the encore, and the three women sing a hilariously unprintable song about politicians' wandering … er, hands. (I can't even quote the title, but the line I like best was “Abraham Lincoln – his wife was crazy, so he must have had something on the side.” Yes, bad taste reigns.)
Even longer sketches consist of shorter, snappier jokes that maintain the rat-a-tat pace of constant laughter. Second City thus sacrifices the pleasures of a slow build but also gets quickly over dead spots; if you don't like that zinger, another will be along in 10 seconds.
The best sustained bit might have been tailored to our area, as two rednecks – sorry, there's nothing else to call them in this context – explain the history of the Middle East to each other in terms their fellow NASCAR fans might comprehend. Another local touch came in references to Wachovia's collapse and the distance from Charlotte to Davidson, both perhaps inspired by the presence of Davidson native Brooke Bagnall in the cast. (And Seth Weitberg, her partner in a bizarre word-association improv, went to Duke University.)
The show even served a civic purpose in the big routine of the first half, when one of the players quizzed audience members about conditions under which people can legally vote. That bit ended with one harsh, metaphoric truth barked at us by the cast – “If you don't vote, you'll die!” – followed by the shout of “Intermission!” This sassy sextet wanted to send us off laughing but also thinking, too.