Making Sketches

Puritan modesty has guaranteed genitalia a place in comedy -- a forum where it's OK to discuss and laugh at the so-called taboo. Thing is, it's been overdone. So when the Second City cast requests audience input for its improvisational riffing, originality is appreciated.

"There's always someone in the audience who wants to yell out 'penis,'" explains Ali Davis, a member of the Second City's National Touring Company, an offshoot of the Chicago comedy theater. "But they are there every show, and they are the least clever one in the audience."

Simplicity is the key. "Stapler" and "two-by-four," for example, were suggestions that were turned into "something great," says Davis, although she can't remember exactly what the cast of six came up with. "That's one of the cool things for me about improv, is that you don't even remember some of the good stuff until someone reminds you of it."

For a piece called "The Dream Song," an audience member is asked: "When you were a kid, what did you dream of becoming as an adult?" The cast makes up a song based on the answer, with each member providing a verse. Just how funny the song is depends on how well the comedians play off of each other. "Audiences can see how we're creating it," says Davis, age 26.

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The show is a mix of improv sequences and scripted sketches written by members of the Second City's main stage company in Chicago, where the group was founded in 1959. The traveling actors are also understudies for the stage company. Among the alumni who developed their comic chops on the road are Bill Murray, Mike Myers, and the late Chris Farley, all of whom moved on to Saturday Night Live, then the movies.

One standby sketch is titled "Pictionary" and features two couples who play the popular party game, women against men. As the game progresses, "they are getting more and more irritated with each other," says Davis. "And it never fails -- it strikes something deep in anyone who has ever dated."

Davis says she can't promise that "Pictionary" will be part of the show the next time the Second City road troupe performs. "We try not to do any one scene too long, because we don't want them to get mechanical," she explains.

A sketch is rarely if ever in danger of going stale when it's a piece of improv. "A really unique, fun part of our show is that audiences get to see stuff made up for them on the spot," says Davis. "They like seeing us get put on the spot and wriggle out somehow."

Davis may be anxiously awaiting her shot at Chicago, but otherwise she's not sure how far improv will take her. "People always ask, 'When are you going to get on Saturday Night Live?' I don't know," she says. "I'm happy where I'm at for now."

-- John Ferri

The Second City's National Touring Company performs Friday at the Hollywood Central Performing Arts Center, 1770 Monroe St., Hollywood. Ticket prices for the 8 p.m. show range from $15 to $25. Call 954-924-8175.

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