If you're looking for a way to escape the nastiness of the current political campaign this weekend, we nominate "Second City for President," a performance of sketch comedy presented for three shows at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown.
The show, featuring a touring troupe of Chicago's finest improvisation comedians, pokes fun at political parties with everything from broad swipes to pointed barbs. It's the first of The Public's "Made in America" series, which will feature seven more productions written by American authors and set in cities across the United States.
The Second City, which served as the launching pad for so many top comedians, is celebrating more than 50 years of edgy satire with a new generation of bright performers. Appearing in Pittsburgh tonight and Saturday will be Daniel Strauss, Kellen Alexander, Eileen Montelione, Cecily Strong and Alex Kliner.
"We have five actors on stage and a musical director who will be playing the piano and several other instruments along with us," said Mr. Alexander, who is one of the newer members. "This show will be a classic Second City revue, made up of scenes that have been written for the Second City. Some of these are classic scenes, written by some of our famous alumni including Stephen Colbert or Steve Carrell. You'll be seeing sketches that were created through the use of improvisation, which is what Second City does."
Improvisation is key to Second City's success. But it is very different from sketch comedy.
"An improv performance is usually done in a group," Mr. Alexander said. "They will take a suggestion from the audience to inspire their performance and usually create an improvised comedic play right there in front of you on stage. Everything is made up -- the dialogue, the changing of one scene to another."
Mr. Alexander, 27, got his start doing improv. A native of Strongsville, Ohio -- suburb of the very funny city of Cleveland -- he traveled to Chicago for college. One night, he and a friend went to see The Second City.
"I was a freshman in college when I went, and I was watching and I was just blown away," he said. "It looked like so much fun, and I knew it was something I could do. I'd never done improv before, but I knew I could do it.
"My situation is pretty common among performers with Second City in that I only discovered it when I saw a Second City show. Ask any Second City performer and they'll be able to tell you what the first show they ever saw was. I know there is one person in our group who actually [started after seeing] one of these touring shows that came to his hometown."
The Second City offers classes in which comedians learn the basics of improv. (Everyone knows you have to be prepared for improvisation.)
"You learn the most important rule of improv is that you say, 'Yes, and ...' " Mr. Alexander said. "What you're doing is agreeing to the reality that the scene partner has created for you, and it's basically an important rule to follow in life. To agree."
You can't argue with that.
"The best way to prepare for improv is to connect with your theme partner before the show and try to get on the same wavelength. Practice listening to them and making eye contact," Mr. Alexander said. "A lot of what's going on in improv is the relationship between you and your scene partner. So the better in-tune you can be, the better the scene will be."
Chicago has a number of improv clubs, and Mr. Alexander started performing in them while working a day job for an advertising research company.
In October, he became one of Second City's new recruits. The transition to sketch comedy was complete as he prepared to perform "Second City for President."
"I have such a respect for the Second City material that it really is an honor and it's so much fun," he said. "The scenes are so funny. What we're doing are mostly scenes that are some of the best ones from Second City's 50-year history.
"I love doing the scenes that have already been written. But having been trained in improv, and having such a love of the thrill of it -- not knowing what you're going to say and having to live in the moment. I also love doing the improv stuff."
Mr. Alexander said all the scenes in this weekend's show involve more than one person at a time.
"It's always more entertaining when the actors seem like they're working together," he said. "In a lot of these successful scenes that we're doing, the laughs will come from the relationship between the two people. A lot of the laughs are set up by one person and the punch line will come from someone else."
The tour returns to Chicago after Saturday night's show, then heads to South Carolina next weekend.
"Every audience is definitely different, and some things hit harder in some parts of the country than in others," he said. "Luckily, we're working with scenes that have proven to be successful and almost universal. You'll be seeing a show that's more politically geared. We'll be covering a lot of issues that are important to everyone."
It's intelligent humor. But there's always room for mugging.
"Every time my dad comes and sees me perform he says, 'Make more faces,' " said Mr. Alexander, who is not shy about using his expressive countenance to get a laugh. "Whereas a lot of us performers like to pride ourselves on being witty and intelligent and quick, my dad's like 'Forget all that and make a funny face.' "
Audiences can be demanding. But for the most part, everyone attending "Second City for President" will be able to just sit back and laugh.
"There are points in the show where we ask for audience participation and -- ideally -- we're very clear about when we want the audience to participate," Mr. Alexander said. "But you'll definitely have the opportunity to contribute."
Showtimes at the theater at 621 Penn Ave. are 8 tonight and 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range from $28 to $48 -- or $15.75 for students and those 26 and under. Cabaret seating at tables of four is available on the stage for $220. A cash bar will be open during each performance.theater
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe, go to http://old.post-gazette.com/trypress/