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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when performance groups churn out their big end-of-the-year moneymakers, since theater and dance companies know everyone needs something to do to avoid having to sit at home and talk to loved ones. In past years we’ve done Messiah Smackdown, Choral Christmas Smackdown, Nutcracker Smackdown, A Christmas Carol Smackdown, and Cabaret Christmas Smackdown. This year we turn our attention to improv comedy, with Washington Improv Theater’s Seasonal Disorder at Source vs. Second City’s Holidazed and Confused Revue at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse. Let’s see how they stack up.
Spontaneity: Admittedly, this isn’t a perfect comparison because WIT’s show is all improv, while Second City’s is roughly half scripted and half improv. We’re going to handicap this in WIT’s favor because improv is hard to do, and the type that WIT does—long form, with 20-plus-minute bits—is especially hard. Second City does short form improv, stringing together one-off gags at a lightning pace. Comedy writers, I’m told, look down at this type of stuff, as it doesn’t require building a narrative on the fly, just nailing a good joke. Which Second City does very well. WIT’s show is more high concept, which is risky, because the golden rule of improv is you have to go along with whatever the last person came up with, so one bad idea can build into a drawn-out, painful experience (though the Source audience shares the blame for Thursday’s “Krampus the itchy squirrel” story). But when it works, as in Bombay Vindaloo’s Bollywood bank robbery tale involving syphilis (note to performers: improv audiences love syphilis jokes), it’s a Christmas miracle. Point: WIT
Professionalism: Second City is unquestionably the more polished of the two, with a storied history of companies in Chicago, L.A., and Toronto, and famous graduates including Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert. Their sketches are well written and perfectly timed, and the improv comes off more smoothly too. WIT has a roster of amateurs, in the noblest sense of the word: not in it for the money but love of the craft. Seasonal Disorder is made up of two or three rotating groups of five to ten performers, some of which are better than others, and all of whom are more likely to finish their careers as K St. lawyers than the next Late Show host. Nothing wrong with that, as many of D.C.’s best cultural exports, from hardcore to go-go, have a proud tradition of keeping your day job. But Second City is the company that made SNL funny, back when SNL was funny, and few can compete with that legacy. Point: Second City
Jokes: Second City’s show is chock full of them, one after the other: Thanks to the fast pace, if one gag falls flat, it’s quickly forgotten. Most sketches are built around a single joke, blacking out after the punchline. The most hilarious are often the simplest: a guy pantomiming one of those inflatable air dancers at a car dealership; the guy visiting his girlfriend’s Eastern European family and putting up with increasingly bizarre old world Christmas traditions; no one knowing what the hell Kwanzaa is. WIT’s jokes were more uneven, given the unevenness of the different improv groups. The highlight Thursday was the aforementioned Bombay Vindaloo, starring Shravan Amin, Coonoor Behal, and Sabahat Chaudhary among many others, doing an inspired story of an Indian American going to India to get married, complete with Bollywood dance numbers that come out of nowhere. Second City botched their pandering to the locals with a predictable Marion Barry joke (you’d think a company based partly in Toronto would be more sensitive about crack-smoking mayors), but still comes out on top. Point: Second City
Audience Participation: The dread plague of holiday shows. You’ve settled into your chair with a peppermint schnapps, and suddenly there’s a light in your face and some coked up comedian is squawking at you to sing or snap your fingers or tell everyone what you bought your daughter for Christmas. And then making fun of you for it. Perhaps this is revenge for the terrible audience suggestions (again, “Krampus the itchy squirrel”). WIT keeps the pestering to a minimum; other than asking you for prompts, you’re pretty much left alone to your minty booze. Second City leads you on a Bataan death march of audience participation, enlisting the entire Drafthouse in a rendition of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Point: WIT
Getting that Loot: Let’s be clear, all holiday shows are a bit of a scam. Some companies are just more crass about it than others: See, for example, the 200 kids the Washington Ballet crams on stage for its annual Nutcracker, guaranteeing ticket sales from mommies and daddies and grandparents, who are then bugged into buying dance lessons for them at the Washington Ballet school. Much like the Church of Scientology, comedy groups operate in a similar manner, with shows serving as advertisements for their classes, where aspiring comics pay to come up with material for future shows that advertise for future classes. Both shows appear to be doing well—Second City has sometimes three sold-out performances a day. But WIT is local, so at least your money will go to the hometown cult. Final point and winner: WIT
These are two different shows appealing to different crowds. While both are good, WIT’s more ambitious, longer narrative improv is more impressive than spit-take funny, and probably appeals more to aspiring comedians than the average Joe or Jane. Second City goes for the easy laughs and gets them. It will appeal to general audiences who don’t go to comedy shows, and can’t get enough “in-laws are the worst, amirite?” jokes, which is most of us. Also despite the title of WIT’s show, “Seasonal Disorder,” there’s little of WIT’s show that’s holiday-specific, while Second City makes more of an effort to be festive: as one sketch puts it, “Whether you call it Ramadan or Kwanzaa or Chanukah, it’s still Christmas.”
Washington Improv Theater’s Seasonal Disorder continues through Dec. 20 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. $12 – $30. Second City’s Holidazed and Confused Revue continues through Dec. 27 at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, 2903 Columbia Pike, Arlington. $30.