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Comedy in Las Vegas: It's a Tough Room

Stand-Up: Second City's talented performers are surviving the competition that Sin City has to offer.


LAS VEGAS — Sketch comedy is never an easy way to make a living, but if an improviser should ever die and go to hell, the ultimate torture would be a gig on the Las Vegas Strip.

For the last two years, Chicago's Second City has been plugging away doing a Vegas show in rented space at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel. Even though crushed on all sides by themed mega-resorts, the Flamingo (formerly the Flamingo Hilton) is a timeless kind of old-line joint that never has journeyed too far away from the spirit of Bugsy Siegel, the fellow who once owned and operated the place.

It's reflected in the clientele. The California hipsters congregate down the Strip at either Mandalay Bay or New York, New York; the wealthy go to Bellagio; conventioneers hit the Venetian. The Flamingo, where the neon is iconic and the only theme is funny-looking pink birds, attracts a lot of tour groups and mature dollar-slot players.

Gladys Knight, the hotel's resident headliner, gets the tony room with the flashy entrance. Second City finds itself in the former home of "Forever Plaid," a strangely shaped room separated from the main casino only by an unlikely combination of windows and curtains. As the performers do their thing, one can hear the unmistakable clatter of slot machines and the collective bark of the craps table, both competing with the piano player. It's a tough room.

It's clear from the pre-show chatter that Second City doesn't mean much here. Its greatest practitioners may have cult-like status in Chicago, but for the past two decades in Vegas, the word "improv" has been a simile for stand-up comedy. Second City's uniquely theatrical form of unified sketch comedy--with its recurring themes, interwoven narratives, intense character development, quick-fire blackouts and inherent subversion--might as well be from a theatrical Mars.

Second City is used to playing to tourists in Chicago, but it can usually rely on a core audience that enjoys seeing the paper tigers of everyday Midwestern life brought down to their knees. In Vegas, the audience comes from all over the world and shares few common experiences--which is why David Copperfield learned to speak some Japanese so he could interact with his volunteers.

Vegas may be the only thing these folks have in common, but that doesn't mean they want to see it attacked. By definition, gamblers are not rationalists. And one does not journey to a fantasy environment in a desert to have that very fantasy shattered right in front of your tired eyes when you've just gotten off a plane.

That explains why the Second City Vegas show does not feature any local fare--skits about the guys handing out the escort magazines or the horrors of losing have all been removed from the show, victims of a lame audience response. Instead, Second City is offering a collection of generally decent archival material that features a lot of improv and tries to gently coax its audience into understanding its modus operandi.

Even as its Chicago companies do comedy about terrorists and racism, Second City Vegas plays it safer than the house edge. There's the scene where a family goes back in time; the song created from the job of an audience member; the freeze game.

The five-member Vegas group is made up of solid hard-workers such as the droll Seamus McCarthy and the smart-witted Jason Sudeikis. Standout Kay Cannon is an especially vibrant presence. By the end of the intermissionless show (another inviolate Vegas convention), the audience was warming to the act. For all the inherent problems, the house was packed at 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night.

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