A choir girl stands alone at center stage. The lights fall low upon her face. She begins to sing in the treacly tone of the kind of gospel music that closes episodes of the 700 Club: “I feel safe when I’m around you and lost when I’m without you. That’s why I believe in the power of …” We wait for her to invoke the Creator. “… of Guns.” She brandishes a pistol, only she doesn’t finish her song. The rest of the cast emerge with handguns to finish the verses and each other off.
Second City’s America, It’s Complicated! carries on in this cruelly wacky fashion. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn try to speak jive to stay relevant with the young. A trio of Nazis admire how deftly America has erected the Fourth Reich. A grandmother enlists her daughter to boost her Tinder profile. A tour guide tries to show DC’s landmarks to a bus full of tourists who mistake Washington’s monument for Washington’s monumental member.
A six-person cast of rubber-faced harlequins makes the lunacy come to life and keeps it from hydroplaning out of control. To say Second City’s DC crew is merely very funny borders on slander. Dan Cody stands out for his vicious, yet warm, manner of eviscerating everyone he portrays. And Holly Walker proves the old adage that imitation is the severest form of battery. They leave no target unbruised.
The Best Medicine?
And yet something still bothers me about this show.
Maybe it is the unfriendly fact that sitting in the Kennedy Center, many of us probably employees of the government, laughing at the madness of America, we walked away feeling somehow above the nincompoops and nimrods that gave fodder to the jokes. Never mind that the arrows are aimed right at our backs. Or maybe it is the show’s claim that equal-opportunity ribcage elbowing will reawaken our better senses. But the show only works by making itself the very image of insanity. With kaleidoscopic window lights, explosive sound effects, and jump cuts, the whole structure of the show blunts our senses with a simulated schizophrenia.
Thus, satire differs from documentary in name only.
I noted this during the centerpiece bit. The bellow-voiced Jordan Savusa welcomes us to a fictional commentary program called, “We’re Not Talking About That.” (Imagine Reggie Watts hosting Tucker Carlson Tonight.) Savusa welcomes his guests—a feminist academic in the vein of Andrea Dworkin and a conservative think-tanker modeled after Sean Hannity—and challenges them to talk about unicorns, pancakes and how their day was. But no politics. The second partisanship rears its talking-pointed head, he cuts in: “We’re not talking about that.”
The set-up was novel enough, the execution hysterical. But the moment the performers went off book from the scripted bit into improv as suggested by the audience, they fell flat. They seemed unable to improvise something more clownish than the reality they mocked. Perhaps it was an off-night. I doubt this. More than three-quarters of the bits prospered, especially one where two ICE agents rove around a food court to interview anyone speaking Spanish. They asked a Spanish-speaking member of the audience to translate. It was the most joyous moment of the show.
All of this is to say that America is indeed complicated. Comedy wrings laughter from simplifying what horrifies us. America, It’s Complicated! is at its best when sympathizing with our confusion, and dramatizing our efforts to be good people amidst the chaos.
Only when it insists on teaching us something does it deflate. Worst of all, that’s when the laughter stops. This is thankfully rare. You don’t even need an interest in politics to merit buying a ticket. After all, we’re not talking about that.
Kyle Dunn is a writer and critic. He works on Capitol Hill.