Second City debuts virtual sketch show 'Helter Shelter'
For two months, Second City stages, like all Chicago-area stages, have been dark in response to the stay-at-home orders Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the writer/actors, directors, musicians and technical experts who make up Second City's Chicago and Toronto ensembles have not sat idly. The sketch comedy masters have continued to do what they have always done: hold up a mirror to reflect the absurdities of modern life, and craft a joke to make the absurdities a little easier to bear.
The show goes on. Except now they're doing it online.
A couple of weeks after Pritzker's orders went into effect, Second City debuted Improv House Party, a livestream series whose latest addition is the weekly virtual comedy show "Helter Shelter," co-directed by Anneliese Toft and Anthony LeBlanc. It runs at 7 p.m. Thursdays via Zoom.
"It's a fun way of us saying we're going to come and play. We're going to do what we do and we're going to bring it from our home to your home," said Toft.
Performed by cast members from the Chicago and Toronto resident ensembles, the adults-only "Helter Shelter" combines improv, audience interaction and videotaped bits loosely based on themes such as cautious optimism, responsibility and power. Thursday's premiere, which centered on the theme of "paradigm shift," included a clever video featuring a Chicago sewer rat (Asia Martin) rapping about how much easier life is when humans shelter at home. Another sketch starred co-host Alan Linic as a human resources manager interviewing job applicant Sarah Dell'Amico, whose online resume included several embarrassing links. Other sketches featured ensemble member Chris Wilson sharing deep thoughts on self-isolation as well as Martin and co-host Mary Catherine Curran opining on quarantine fashion.
"Helter Shelter," which also includes co-host Nigel Downer, grew out of a desire to showcase "wonderful satirical minds" sidelined by the coronavirus, Toft said.
"We have so many talented performers from resident stages in Chicago and Toronto ... (who) don't have a home to perform," said Toft, adding they were eager to get back to work.
"There's a reason they're sketch comedians and not stand-up comedians. They want to work with others," she said.
Considering it may be a while before performances of any kind resume, it benefits everyone to learn to create in this "hybrid world," she said, adding "hopefully we'll get a little better every week."
They also hope the House Party shows -- including Tuesday's female-centered "Girls Night In!" and the all-improvised "Scriptless" on Saturday -- become appointment viewing.
They may already have. According to Toft, between 1,400 and 2,500 viewers tune in weekly to "Girls Night In!" and "Scriptless." She's optimistic "Helter Shelter" will fare as well.
"Buckle up," she said. "We're trying experimental things ... I'm excited to keep growing (the show) every week."
That said, creating and producing virtual sketch comedy poses challenges. For one, everything takes a little longer online, Toft says. And the actors don't have the luxury of entering a rehearsal room and shutting out the rest of the world. Performers working from home have real-life intrusions from kids, pets and landlords, she said. But it's worth it.
"There's power in having this moment that's communal at a time when communal events are otherwise impossible," Toft said. "Even though we're all alone, we're all together."
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"Improv House Party: Helter Shelter"
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays
Where: The Second City creates the show online via Zoom. Register for shows at secondcity.com.
Tickets: Free, but donations are accepted at secondcity.com/alumni-fund