The subject for debate is whether Second City’s high-energy, intense 107th Mainstage Revue, “Algorithm Nation or The Static Quo,” justifies its energy and intensity with consistent comedic value. The sketches’ premises often operate on the edge of believability, where satire turns into caricature, and an arena for commentary turns into an echo chamber. In a show where Charlie Brown murders Lucy with a concealed pistol, and the emcee of a Women for Trump rally senses the Chief’s appearance when he has fully absorbed a cheeseburger into his rectum, many have accused the cast of trading substance for flash.
They have a point. From the get-go, the show is wildly intense, with tragedy intervening on comedy in a way that will prove recurrent. The show opens with cast member Jeffrey Murdoch stumbling onstage, clad only in multicolor spandex, gagged with a bandana, black electrical tape “X”s over his nipples. Fellow cast member Nate Varrone, joins him, and begins addressing the audience as if nothing’s happening. As Murdoch — who we understand is a hostage — protests more and more loudly, Varrone pulls a fake gun on him, and orders him to be silent. Varrone then returns to casually addressing the crowd.
The scene culminates in Varrone shooting Murdoch in the head, at which point the other cast members enter with guns and shoot each other. Shortly thereafter, Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” begins to play, and dancing ensues.
It was an effort to handle the unfunniest of issues — gun violence, mass shootings — with absurdity. Absurdity is an appropriate choice here because it takes us out of reality and into a parallel universe, where tragedy and comedy are one and the same. But it also makes you bite your lip. Even if you hadn’t experienced gun violence, you know the sketch may have set a disastrous tone for those who had.
“Algorithm Nation” takes a similarly blunt instrument to the Republican party writ large. As referenced above, Ryan Asher’s Trump rally emcee is a blinding character, delivering an exquisitely written monologue at breakneck speed. Likewise, White House interns in a GOP-themed escape room complete several heinously immoral tasks — among them separating a Latino child doll from its doll parents, and putting it in a metal cage — in order to leave with their lives. In “Algorithm Nation,” all things right-wing are napalmed.
Second City’s audience is mostly liberal, so the jokes land in spirit. But there’s a moment when you know it’s sheer lampooning, and not strictly commentary, that takes some bite out of the punchlines.
The cast takes a similar tack on the closing audience participation sketch. The show’s conceptual framework, a Facebook-sponsored algorithm ostensibly calibrated perfectly to the audience’s comedic preferences, glitches, and gets violent. The cast, controlled by the malfunctioning algorithm, takes an audience member hostage. While the sketch culminates in the audience member delivering a refreshingly light “hostage address” to the rest of the audience, the sketch is driven by a dark conceit, and based on a lackluster conceptual framework.
The algorithm framework is the weakest part of the show. That mega-corporations like Facebook twist our digital lives in favor of clicks is disturbing, and the fact that we have “digital lives” at all is laughable. But the show’s sketches rarely relate back to the algorithm, and when it reappears, it operates as boilerplate commentary at best. All ideas cannot be revelations, but from a vanguard like Second City you hope for a higher strike rate.
Perhaps because they lack the burden of commentary, the sketches not based around a polarizing political topic are the most enjoyable. An astrology rap, helmed by Asher and newcomers Kimberly Michelle Vaughan and Emma Pope, is a terrific tribute to/sendup of the astrologically inclined. Vaughan also shines as a distraught bride, dancing her heart out to “The Cha-Cha Slide,” as Tyler Davis switches back and forth between enthusiastic DJ and moral supporter. Asher and Murdoch are a hit as a tremendously uncool stepdad (Murdoch) who attempts to bond with his tremendously disinterested stepson (Asher).
The third-act improv set is a blast — pure delirious fun. After a long, intense show, fraught with absurdity and violence, the pure silliness of seasoned improvisers made for a palate-cleanser. Perhaps this was due to the difference between improv and sketch: In improv, you expect looseness, and are thrilled by spontaneous cohesion, whereas in sketch, you expect cohesion, and are downed by shoddy plots or premises. In any case, it’s uproarious, and well worth the price of admission on its own.
Conceptual framework aside, the struggle to strike a balance between satire and caricature in “Algorithm Nation” points to a dilemma for comedians in general. In a world where tragedy seems to outmeasure comedy, how do you stay funny? How can you take an issue like gun violence, or sexual assault, or institutional racism, or Trump, for God’s sake, and give it the treatment it deserves, while also keeping it palatable for an audience hoping for an escape?
It’s far from simple. The are a number of high points in “Algorithm Nation or The Static Quo,” and each cast member has moments of brilliance. On the whole, it’s a show in search of a workable political tone, with moments of insight challenged by heavy-handed caricature.