I knew the risk. You never sit in the front row at a live comedy performance unless you want to become part of the show. The chances are just too great that the performers will single you out and that you will become the focus of attention. But I was late arriving and the only seat left in Norwegian Epic's Headliners comedy club was front row center. And how often do you have the opportunity to sit up close during a performance by a comedy institution like The Second City?
The Second City has been the premier incubator of North American comedic talent for more than half a century. To name just a few Second City alumni - - Alan Arkin, Robert Klein, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Candy, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. Indeed, Second City has provided a steady stream of talent that has played no small part in the longevity of the popular American television program Saturday Night Live (“SNL”).
Starting out as a small experimental cabaret theater in Chicago in 1959, Second City now has theaters with resident casts in Chicago and Toronto. It also has training centers in those cities and in Hollywood that offer classes in acting. There are also Second City corporate communications, television and film operations.
In addition to the casts giving performances in Second City's theaters, there are also touring companies. And there are ensemble casts roaming the high seas on the ships of Norwegian Cruise Line.
Second City has its own distinct style of humor. “Second City is known for intelligent comedy,” explained Jamison Scala, a member of the seven person Second City ensemble that were appearing on Norwegian Epic during my cruise.
“It cuts a little deeper, its smarter, it is not just slap stick and goofy stuff. We definitely have goofy stuff but I think a lot of the comedy comes from recognizing the deeper issues.” his colleague Ariel Dumas continued.
Asher Perlman added: “It anchors itself in reality. [We seek] the deeper laugh where someone sees themselves or sees someone they know on stage. 'I know that character.' 'I have been in that situation.”
This style is carried through to the Second City performances done on Norwegian Epic and other Norwegian ships. “The stuff that we do on the cruise ships is the same as what we do in Chicago and Toronto. There are some bits that are tailored for the ships. What you don't see on the ships is some of the local political commentary. We don't want to make it a political show. People are on vacation and they don't want to think about [Chicago mayor] Rahm Emanuel or how the election went.” Ms. Dumas noted.
At the heart of the Second City approach to comedy is improvisation Instead of having a team of writers off in an office typing out routines for the performers, the sketches that the Second City performers do on stage were developed by Second City performers on stage. “What happens is that a cast is put together for [performances in Chicago or Toronto]. They get together for months, for eight hours a day and improvise and re-improvise. They try their bits out on audiences and eventually hone down the best lines. The product is scenes which are almost a sure fire hit.”
The resulting sketches become part of a library of Second City routines. “When [shows for a Norwegian ship] are put together, the director will pull from the archive material - - take this from this show, take this from that show and put it together.” Mr. Scala elaborated.
The Second City cast on Norwegian Epic - - left to right: Seamus McCarthy, Asher Perlman, Jamison Scala, Kristen Studard, Ariel Dumas, and Aaron Bilder. Not shown, Musical Director Aaron Benham.
As a result, the guests on the ships see sketches that were originally created by comic masters such as Bill Murray or Tina Fey. “In our late night show, there is a sketch called 'Grandma's Records' and the original sketch was done by Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, and Horatio Sands. I think this is wild - - these people were saying these things and now I am saying them. I think that is really a humbling moment for an actor and a performer.” Scala confessed.
At the same time, the performers that are on stage are bringing their own take to the material. Ms. Dumas, Mr. Scala and Mr. Perlman all studied at Second City's acting conservatory and are veteran performers. Furthermore, Perlman pointed out: “Every cast, before they board a ship, will work with a director. So even though we have DVDs [of the original performances] and we have all the scenes written out before we even start, we have a director who works with us specifically to make the scenes work for the cast that is going on the ship.”
In addition to performing shows that are based upon sketches, the Second City cast also does shows that are entirely based upon improvisation Audience members are often asked to suggest a place, a situation or just a word and the cast then builds a routine around.
Scientists say that most people find speaking in public extremely difficult. Not only does the cast have to speak in public and think of what to say but they have to make it funny as well. Ms. Dumas confided: “What I always think about is that you are never alone. When you are doing it, you are with this incredible group of warm, funny people. You can do it as a solo person but it is so easy when you are with a group of friends.”
Mr. Scala agreed: “I am never worried because even if I don't have anything to say, I know that the chances are the five other people on the stage will have something to say.”
In addition, Mr. Perlman noted, “part of the training process is [learning the] rules of improvisation Once you are onstage, you don't even have to think about it because it is almost muscle memory at that point. You can just go and trust the training and the people on stage with you.”
Cruise ship entertainment review - - Norwegian Epic - -Norwegian Cruise Line - Second City - page 1