Speakeast with - Second City's T.J. Shanoff commutes to Atlanta

The Second City: Too Busy to Hate ... Too Hard to Commute, playing at the Alliance Hertz Stage through Oct. 26, will test Atlanta's ability to laugh at itself. The comedy revue combines new material about Atlanta with classic sketches from Chicago's legendary Second City troupe, for decades an incubator of future comedy stars from Fred Willard to Mike Myers to Steve Carell. Second City veteran T.J. Shanoff describes how he and co-writer Ed Furman visited the ATL from June 5-8 to mine local color for comedy gold.

How did this show come about?

The development process began with Second City Vice President Kelly Leonard, who came up with the idea to work with regional theaters to develop customized Second City shows. Last year Ed and I did a customized show for Pittsburgh, and went down there for a weekend for research. The Pittsburgh show was really good, but it was a learning experience for Ed and me as well.

What did you learn that you applied to the Atlanta show?

In the Pittsburgh show, when every single thing was about Pittsburgh, there was a sense that by the second act, the audience thought, "OK, we get it." A lot of the touristy stuff, we realized, the locals don't really do. We didn't want to be oblivious to cultural touchstones for Atlanta – we have references to Coke and CNN – but we wanted to offer more than what we could get online or from the Atlanta travel guide. The Pittsburgh experience told us that it was important to go to the tourist spots, like the Gone With the Wind museum here, but also to pay attention to what our tour guides were saying. One of the musical numbers is a big song about Shirley Franklin. We talked to 10 to 11 people about her and they said, "We love this woman; she's one of the best mayors we've ever had; we're $140 million in debt; we think she's great."

What did you do when you were here?

We felt like the Beatles, going from car to car. We had great tour guides who wanted to drive us around a lot, to say, "This is the existence of Atlantans." One of the most eye-opening experiences was going to Stone Mountain. There were African-American families and white families enjoying a laser show with Confederate leaders carved into a mountain. That gave us the impetus for a great scene at the Stone Mountain gift shop. You don't go to a gift shop in Chicago and see the Confederate flag.

What else did you find funny about Atlanta?

We're here to celebrate Atlanta through satire, not rake it over the coals. One of the things that we love, that we tried to make a bit of a through-line in the show, is this notion of Atlanta being inhabited by so many transplants. We struggled to find Atlanta natives who lived inside the Perimeter. We found people who say five to six years, who love the city, but if you ask them where they're from, they'll say "Seattle."

How much of the show is original material, and how much are sketches vs. songs?

The Second City format is a revue. It has some recurring jokes, but each scene is its own entity. About 60 percent was written expressly for the show, the other 40 percent is classic Second City material retrofitted for Atlanta, or strong enough to stand on its own. There's about five songs in the show. For the most part, it's stayed pretty much the same since we submitted the material. We had Atlanta natives verify and validate the decisions we made. There will be some post-show adjustments after the first preview, but for the most part, the show is the show.

How much of the show is improvised?

When you have a rhythm of original scenes and songs going, it's kind of tricky to break into an improvised game, like "Whose Line Is it Anyway?" We have one part called "Love Letters" that's a classic improvised structure with a Civil War twist. A husband's off fighting the Civil War and writing letters to his wife at home, with the audience making suggestions. It's a Mad Libs kind of thing.

You're the composer of the show and specialize in musical comedy. How do you approach funny musical numbers?

We try to stay away from parody. There is a parody song in this one that we developed with the cast, but 95 percent of the songs aren't. No offense to someone like Weird Al Yankovic – song parodies probably paid for his houses. In terms of theater, I'm a rock guy, but my favorite composers are Gershwin and Irving Berlin. We try to make the lyrics a bit stronger and the music to evoke a particular style rather than a straight-up parody. Our Piedmont Driving Club song has an antiquated feel, to evoke what's alleged to go on there. The big number that closes Act One has Gov. Sonny Perdue's idea to solve the drought and has a megachurch feel. It becomes this big, improvised musical gospel number.

Why has Second City been such a consistent proving ground for comedic talent over the decade?

One of the great things is that it's in Chicago. It doesn't have the glare of New York or Los Angeles. People who come there aren't focused on making it big in New York or L.A., they think, 'All I want to do is work in Second City.' It gives you a very safe environment to make comedy. The only time people get stressed out is when Lorne Michaels comes to see a show. Also, you know you're following in the footsteps of Chris Farley and Bill Murray and, more recently, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. That really inspires you to do the best you can.

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