The Second City, the renowned improvisational comedy theater based in Chicago, has produced some of America’s finest comics, including Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Mike Meyers, Tina Fey, Jordan Peele, Chris Farley, Aidy Bryant, Amy Poehler, and plenty more. Now, six members of their new guard have once again stormed the Kennedy Center (am I allowed to make insurrection jokes?) for The Revolution Will Be Improvised. The show offers a blend of political humor and just plain silliness while all the time presenting a refreshing message to treasure during our apocalypse: All we can do is our best.
The show consists of a series of improvised sketches, executed by six formidable Second City performers: Sarah Dell’Amico, Sayjal Joshi, Yazmin Ramos, Adam Schreck, Jordan Stafford, and Brittani Yawn. Under the direction of Director and Head Writer Frank Caeti, the cast executes nearly two hours of improvised (and some scripted) sketches. Per how many improv shows are structured, many of the sketches seem to be built within a basic pre-planned format and/or with an end goal in mind for each storyline, while audience recommendations influence how the cast arrives at those ends. The show, after all, does list writers under its cast and crew separate from the six actors: the sketches we see were originally designed by Edgar Blackmon, Peter Grosz, Allison Reese, and “the casts of the Second City,” with the help of Musical Director and Sound Designer Stuart Mott. Mott also provides original songs for the show, which might not be earworms but serve their purpose thanks to the cast executing them with relish. While Dell’Amico, Joshi, Schreck, and Yawn consistently steal the show whenever they’re given a leading role, Ramos and Stafford feel underused in spots, and I would have loved to have seen their takes on more of the show’s main characters.
The Revolution Will Be Improvised offers audiences a fine buffet of political and apolitical comedy. As a rare blessing, the show’s most original, poignant, and comically effective pieces fall into both categories. One sketch that deserves the frequent callbacks it receives throughout the show is a campaign ad for an audience member who the cast declares is now running for office. The sketch then leads into a negative ad starring the audience member’s opponent. Dell’Amico plays this contrarian character as a fact-averse, star-spangled-fedora-sporting cowboy — whose look is well-enhanced by Wardrobe Stylist Sarah Albrecht’s choice of a blue denim jumpsuit — and somehow manages to make the character’s “underlying” (note the heavy air quotes) anti-Trump commentary fresh and quite funny. This is achieved primarily through her all-in performance style and the quick-witted writing of her character. And the fact it’s impossible to tell which jokes were potentially prepared before the show or improvised by Dell’Amico is a credit to her comedic ability. This sketch’s immersive quality — it really feels like you’re inside a political ad, watching Dell’Amico embody a self-consumed, totally hubris-driven buffoon — is enhanced by the stage management of Rebecca Talisman and the flashing colors of the light-up stage, conceived by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills.
Another strong sketch shows a prospective couple — played by the effortlessly charming and sympathetic Schreck and Joshi — purloining audience members’ résumé bullets to inform what personalities they claim to have on a first date. Another standout, perhaps the show’s most effective piece, is a conversation held decades in the future between a member of Gen Z, now elderly, and her grandchild, whose activism is certainly passionate but uninformed and practically misguided. The Jewish New Yorker grandmother, played by a crotchety Dell’Amico, and her grandchild, played by Ramos, being pitch-perfectly gloriously irritating per what the character demands, argue over which of their generations committed the most political sins and which did the most to help fix their society given the resources available to them. The pair ultimately arrives at the conclusion that each generation is indeed responsible for major cultural and political sins, but collective blame is emotionally harmful and ultimately impractical, and all we can do as individuals to improve our world is to engage in the best faith we can with the issues of our respective times.
This message is one I have heard from the wizard Gandalf — who, as people who like motivational Instagram posts will know, once said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us” — but so far as I can remember, never from comedians, or many activists, for that matter. I’ve mostly just heard it from my pastor. I applaud the Second City for not only finding an original message for their political comedy show to lean on but also for sharing a profoundly true message that will bring great comfort to the demoralized citizen who seeks simply to operate in good faith during these times.
This particular sentiment is echoed throughout the show, but the grandmother-granddaughter sketch feels like the night’s clearest and most memorable embodiment of the night’s thesis — even more than the show’s extensive beginning and ending number, which centers around one millennial’s search for truth in Washington, DC. This number (the pieces individually and the two as a unit), in its attempt to be a laugh-a-minute overture for the show’s sketch-comedy feel, feels scattered and unfocused and lacks the ideological clarity of the key grandmother-to-granddaughter centerpiece. Of course, it’s a big ask for the show to be both a comedy variety show and enlightenment for the downtrodden in catastrophic times, but the show very nearly achieves both with flying colors anyway.
Per the norm for political comedy shows, the show is at its best when it makes original arguments like the one described above for how individuals should handle the crisis-swamped, social media–drowned world we live in. The show is at its weakest when it takes easy shots at the usual suspects and standard punching bags, like Trump, Joe Manchin, and Netflix’s new show Is It Cake? And it goes without saying that these things deserve to be punched. Each of them equally. Where was Is It Cake? host Mikey Day on January 6th?
Per the norm for comedy shows in general, some of the sketches don’t land quite as well as others or will be for an acquired taste. The show’s sketches about conception and abortion seem to rush and skirt around serious issues for an easy one-off laugh when a broader philosophical (while still comedic!) discussion could have been had. As proof this is possible, I’d point to what Trevor Noah just did in a Between the Scenes segment of The Daily Show around abortion from June 2022 (that I was in the audience for).
I had the pleasure of seeing a Second City troupe perform America: It’s Complicated at the Kennedy Center in summer 2019. This year’s show felt stronger. While it is easy to take shots at Trump, and it is easy (and healthy, in moderation) to moan about how truly awful the times are, it is another thing to offer real solace and original solutions for our despair through comedy. And that is indeed revolutionary.
Running Time: 115 to 120 minutes, including intermission.
The Second City’s The Revolution Will Be Improvised plays through July 31, 2022, presented by The Second City performing at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($59–$65) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for The Second City’s The Revolution Will Be Improvised is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.