Improving Improv

Frank Caeti spends much of his time on the road: living in hotels, hanging out in airports, traveling in buses and inciting audiences to bust their guts. As a member of one of three Second City Touring Company ensembles that orbit the Second City Theater Company's home offices in Chicago and Toronto, Caeti performs sketch comedy and improv scenes that can be almost nauseatingly funny. But the Chicago native, who went to high school in Broomfield and studied speech and theater at Colorado State University, says his goal is to leave audiences with something other than a side cramp. As an antidote to all the Draconian doomsday talk from government leaders, Second City's topical themes, satire and political lampooning are crafted to make you think.

"This kind of theater is a really smart art form," Caeti says. "You're not going to just be critical of something or just make light of it; you have to sort of be critical in order to be able to make light of it. Of course, we all do our poop-and-balls jokes sometimes, maybe just as a release. But for the most part, we do topical stuff and political issues in a pretty intelligent way."

Second City's roster of smarties is famously star-studded: Since opening in 1959, the company has been a comedic mecca for everyone from Ed Asner and Bill Murray to Mike Myers and Julia-Louis Dreyfus; in the '70s, it spawned both SCTV and Saturday Night Live. And while members of the early casts were known for penning sketches about coneheads and particularly social bumble bees, they also produced acidic pieces on political figures, social scandals, sex and celebrity; many of those are still part of the company's repertoire. Caeti and the seven other members of his touring cast are currently on the road performing a revue-style show that draws from Second City's storied 43-year history, with an emphasis on archived material. A third act comprises wholly improvised scenes, with audience participation encouraged. And while some of the company's early humor hasn't aged particularly well -- don't expect any scenes involving, say, Richard Nixon, bra-burning or Moonies -- some of it has a timeless ring.

"Sex, politics and religion: Those are things that are pretty much the same through the times," says Beth Kligerman, Second City's senior associate producer in the Chicago office. "It's stuff that reflects humanity through the ages."

"We would look ridiculous if we pulled a politically themed scene from 1963, because not only have the topics changed, comedy has changed," Caeti says. "Some things are universal, though, like the power struggle between a superior and a subordinate in a work setting, or family relationships. And some of the sketches are just flat-out funny without necessarily delving into the American psyche."

Such as...?

"We have one sketch we're doing in Boulder called 'Helium.' It's basically two clowns who get together and, to escape the drudgery of their everyday lives, they sit around and suck helium balloons. It escalates and finally culminates in a little theme song. The last time we did that one, we had a doctor in the audience actually come up to us and say, 'You know, it's really not a very good idea to be sucking on the balloons like that.' Who knew?"

Caeti says the cast does consider, sorta, the sensibilities of a given audience, especially while on the road. When the crew recently visited American troops in Kosovo, Bosnia and Germany, for example, it was clear early on that the crowd would be a little bit different from those normally encountered at home.

"It was the first time in my life that I performed for an audience where everyone had guns," Caeti says. "I think it warped me. When we go back on the road now, I'm going to expect everyone to turn up with some sort of weapon or heavy machinery."

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond