The Second City Does Arizona, Or Close But No Saguaro Proves There's Plenty of AZ to Poke Fun at Outside of SB 1070

The timing, of course, couldn't be better. A show that spoofs the profundities of Arizona's many weaknesses — our weather sucks for about half the year, our sheriff is a jag-off, our budget is in the toilet — has premiered so soon after our latest national disgrace that there was no time to create a musical number saluting the horrors of Senate Bill 1070. But because The Second City Does Arizona, Or Close But No Saguaro is about the Grand Canyon State, there's still plenty to riff on.

The show, commissioned last year by Arizona Theater Company, skewers us in song and sketch and is rife, of course, with wisecracks about brown people and immigration reform. The Arizona-centric material, much of it culled from interviews done earlier this year with a group of locals (full disclosure: New Times Managing Editor Amy Silverman was among them), is written by Second City members Tom Glanigan and Ed Furman, who've kept a keen eye on selling our formidable frailties without soft-pedaling them. And that's no mean feat. In order to really appreciate a show made up entirely of streamlined private jokes, one must first be willing to overlook the very formula that creates such a show. Second City makes this pretty easy, in good part because the writers have pulled few punches, and because the material is so affably enacted by members of this venerable improv troupe.

Sure, there are, in both sketch and in song, a lot of easy laughs about how hot it is here, how screwed up local politics are, and how our two favorite pastimes are "golfing and pretending we're not from Arizona." But there's also enough edgy stuff (a long sketch about ways to stereotype and denigrate white people, a Mormon guy from Mesa named Joseph Young who loves hooch and cigarettes) to mitigate the cuteness of bits about driving while wearing oven mitts or the apparently very amusing Ostrich Ranch at Picacho Peak.

An opening number titled "Arizona is Perfect" is followed by a series of sketches about Sheriff Joe's Tent City, border vigilantes, and an ongoing spoof of traffic cameras. Every other moan-worthy stereotype about our state is knocked off in a long sketch set at a press conference, and much of the material before and after it is topical enough that any out-of-towner who's picked up a newspaper in the past several months can laugh at about half of it. (You don't have to be from here to appreciate an exchange that goes, "Where's your gun?" "I must have left it at the bar.")

Occasionally, even our state's shortcomings aren't enough to keep a gag afloat. A longish sketch about an old widower who moved to Arizona ("the do-over state") to increase his chances of getting laid falls flat, and "Big John," a jug-band musical number about John McCain set at Rawhide, is a hummable near-miss despite opportunities to rib both Sarah Palin and J.D. Hayworth. The show, therefore, is padded with some of Second City's greatest hits. There's a somewhat tedious skit about a spelling bee; a hilarious sketch about a man and his blow-up sex doll; and an ingenious bit in which the hyper-talented six-person troupe improvs a musical number about an audience member. (On opening night, this was a mining consultant named Bob, whose life story prompted cast member Andel Sudik to sing, "Bob, when you're not mining / Are you your-ing? / Are you our-ing?")

These commissioned comedy shows are a risky affair. The thing that makes them funny is the very conceit that risks sinking them: The material can play like it was written by tourists who've done a good job with their homework. The challenge is to turn a simple target practice into an affable send-up, in which jokes about Bisbee and references to former governor Evan Mecham come off as something more than no-brainers. It's a challenge that — despite an inexcusable rap number about wild javelinas — the Second City has pulled off completely.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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