The company’s How To Kill a Comedian strikes a side-splitting blow for freedom of expression.
How To Kill a Comedian
The Second City (51 Mercer Street)
Runs through June
Nobody ever says the words “Charlie Hebdo” in The Second City’s new spring revue, How To Kill a Comedian—but they don’t have to. The horrific January 7 massacre of the French weekly’s fearless satirists by Islamist terrorists has clearly informed this show and inspired its writer-performers to create some of their edgiest and funniest material.
The first indication that we’re about to witness a lethal riposte to censorship is the show’s uncharacteristically aggressive title (the press package for media on opening night even contained a plastic pistol). Then there’s the opening number, “Please Don’t Kill Us,” in which the six-member ensemble sing, “It’s just a little light satire, there’s no need to open fire.” And having uttered that plea, in the anything-goes spirit of Charlie Hebdo they proceed to make fun of religion, racism, beheading, anti-terrorist legislation, violent sexual behaviour, and Maple Leafs fans (well, it is a Toronto Second City show, after all).
Not all the satire is in-yer-face, mind you. With classic Second City sophistication, the company finds creative ways of alluding to topical subject matter. Its sly dig at ISIS’s favourite form of execution comes in the context of a medieval/reality-show spoof, with an evil queen (Kristen Rasmussen) auditioning new court jesters and slicing off the noggins of those who don’t measure up. One jester wannabe (Kyle Dooley) manages to avoid the chop by telling a pretty good Prophet Muhammad joke. Another (Kevin Whalen) offers a hilariously bad pun about Axe body spray.
At other times, however, their target is front and centre. The show’s most wicked and welcome parody (at least for the ex-Catholics among us) is a musical send-up of Pope Francis and his “rock star” image, in which the lovable hipster pontiff (Whalen), flanked by nun backup singers, raps about his new progressive attitude. That’s put to the test, however, when the Pope takes confessions from audience members and we get an ugly reminder of how, in some respects, Francis and his church remain just as fascistic as ever.
The past year’s celebrity scandals fuel a couple of sharp skits. The Bill Cosby rape allegations spark a heated marital argument over whether it’s possible to still enjoy artists after their abhorrent behaviour has been revealed. And Jian Ghomeshi’s strange idea of consensual BDSM is the unspoken subtext during a witty scene in which a dating couple (Ashley Botting and Etan Muskat) discuss their ground rules for sex.
John Tory, like Charlie Hebdo, is never mentioned, but the mayor’s notorious “white privilege” remark hovers behind an apt sketch about a new board game in which the player with the white token (a grinning, laid-back Dooley) gets all the breaks, while the guy with the brown token (Muskat) winds up being detained by CSIS. Poor Muskat, a master of the hangdog look, is shafted again in an equally apt—and even funnier—reverse-sexism gag that has him playing a male scientist doing a media interview and being belittled with the kind of personal questions and condescending remarks usually endured by women.
There is typically a high ratio of hits to misses in any Second City revue, but this one scores nearly every time. Even the sillier bits are a treat thanks to the innately amusing cast. Whalen’s squirmy facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission—especially when playing a painfully repressed male or an unloved supply teacher. Botting, meanwhile, often seems to be channelling the ghost of the great Gilda Radner. When she and a delightfully geeky Rasmussen do a routine as a pair of overzealous Shoppers Drug Mart employees, it’s like watching some classic character skit with Radner and Laraine Newman from the original Saturday Night Live.
Botting and Rasmussen are also teamed for a cleverly written number skewering self-absorbed, selfie-taking millennials, while Rasmussen and the sweetly disarming Leigh Cameron plumb further depths of shallowness as a pair of best friends who put everything second to their giddy fraumance.
Directed at a (wise)cracking pace by Kerry Griffin, How To Kill a Comedian belies its title, leaving you in the opposite of a murderous mood. You exit The Second City rejoicing that smart, irreverent comedy is still alive and tickling in Toronto. Never mind the ghost of Gilda—you can imagine the spectres of the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, those martyrs to satire, gazing down upon this show and giving it an ethereal thumbs-up.