The Playgoer: Comedy vs. Theater

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Comedy vs. Theater

By Suzy Evans

Here in Chicago, we have almost as many improv and comedy groups as we do theaters. Okay, there might be more theaters, but with the prolific work of The Second City and other notables like the iO (ImprovOlympic) and Annoyance Theatre, Chicago definitely has its name on the comedy map.

Earlier this week, I saw the latest Second City mainstage production America: All Better and my companion posed an interesting question: Do theater critics review comedy shows in Chicago? While I wasn’t reviewing this show, I do cover shows by Second City and other improv companies. (The site I write for doesn’t have a comedy specific writer; however, I think we’re looking for one so maybe that arena will be taken from me.) Chris Jones, at the Tribune reviews the comedy fare but Time Out Chicago gives theater and comedy different categories. Writers can crossover between the sections though.

But aside from being a live performance in a theater, in terms of dramatic flow, are sketch comedy and theater really all that similar? Second City revues are scripted, but there’s not usually a plot. Instead, the show comprises a series of sketches relating to a general theme. In America: All Better, it’s the tongue in cheek idea that President Obama’s election erases all our problems. I suppose this is similar to the structure of any theatrical revue, but other comedy groups can put on a night of different sketches by multiple companies with no common thread. Or one company can improvise the entire evening. Is this something that can be categorized as theater?

We do have enough theaters and improv clubs in Chicago that putting them in separate categories might insure more press coverage. But at the same time, some comedy shows are closer in structure to “basic” theater than others. So where do you draw the line? Or does the line even need to be drawn?

1 comment:

Kerry said...

Great questions, Suzy!

Ryan Hubbard, a freelancer (and former staffer) for the Chicago Reader, routinely covers sketch and improv shows, and also will do critic's choices for upcoming stand-up gigs (stand-up comedians are generally doing one-night or one-weekend runs, and are hence not easily covered after-the-fact for papers that generally follow the "no post mortems" rule for reviews in the performing arts section).

But you're correct in pointing out that there is a division -- the Reader, just like TOC, also has categories in the performing arts listings for "Improv/Sketch" and "Stand Up" as separate from "Theater/Performance." However, from my three-plus years as the "listings gal" for that section, I'd venture to say that the division was done for the sake of audience convenience. People who know they want to find a comedy show -- stand-up, sketch, or improv -- probably appreciate having those entertainment options separated out from Brecht, LaBute, Ruhl, Simon, Shakespeare, and experimental physical performance pieces, particularly when there are 200-plus shows in the online listings (the Reader has drastically cut its print listings, sadly). I don't think it's meant as a ghettoization of comedy performers. However, I also agree that the line can become a little difficult to distinguish, and it definitely isn't just about "scripted vs. nonscripted." (Fun fact: David Mamet came up with the structure for "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" out of the "blackouts" that were the predominant structure for Second City at the time -- he had been a busboy there for a while. David Mamet as a busboy should probably be a play unto itself. But I digress.)

We had the same problem at the Reader when we used to pull "performance art" as a separate category. Initially, one of the qualifications was that a self-scripted, self-performed solo piece qualified as "performance art." Well, for Karen Finley, that worked. For "Defending the Caveman" -- not so much. So we eventually abandoned that distinction and put it all in "theater." Except for a few soloists that are more overtly "stand-up" in nature. It is an imperfect system, but one hopes it provides some guidance for people who have a pretty good idea of what they want to see -- and are equally adamant about what they want to avoid.

Also, there was a bit of an ongoing debate at the Reader for a time about whether "spoken word" belonged in the lit or performance sections. Slams, poetry open mics, and such ended up being in a subcategory under the performance listings, with readings from established authors and poets staying in lit. Make of that what you will.

I will say, based on my experiences covering theater in the Bay Area, Chicago covers sketch and improv far more reliably than the performing arts critics in San Francisco do. Not naming names, but I had conversations with a couple of critics there twelve years ago or so who seemed openly averse to the idea of having to review improv. If you don't have at least a cursory knowledge of various improv training programs and philosophies in Chicago, you'll probably get called out on it at one point or another, esp. since everyone and their dog seems to do an improv or sketch show. And of course, don't confuse improv with sketch, unless you want to catch an earful! I've always said improv people are virtually talmudic in their adherence to certain precepts.

Having a 50-year-old cultural behemoth like Second City in your midst tends to have a lot of influence as to what gets covered, of course.