This weekend at the Fox Theater in Riverside was the final stop on a 25-city tour for a show called “Unelectable You.” The Second City comedy troupe from Chicago teamed up with the online magazine Slate to create what they called a “completely unbiased political revue.”
Second City is known to many fans as a training ground for famous faces including Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. And while the troupe’s comedy has a liberal bent, the jokes from this show were strictly non-partisan. No one was spared in the two-hour satirical roast of Democrats, Republicans, and everyone in between.
If the great turnout for the show was any indication, it appeared Southern Californians crave a way to find the funny in this election. That’s exactly what the cast aimed to deliver.
Backstage before the show, cast members Cody Dove and Ian Owens talked about their experiences on tour. Owens, who plays President Obama and other prominent black politicians, said the previous night they had played the conservative town of Mesa, Arizona, where folded arms and dirty looks were plentiful. To combat the serious vibe, the actors made sure to research the towns where the show is performed to tailor-make the comedy for each city.
“We have the advantage as improvisers where the audience gives us a suggestion,” Dove said. “So we have that advantage to be like, ‘Okay, this is what is appealing to you or a catalyst to you—so we’ll take that and run with it.’ Then they feel ownership in the show. They feel like it’s their night and experience. And as the emcee, I’ll do political research of the state as a whole, how people are leaning. I’ll find moments to work that in as well so people don’t feel like [in robotic voice], We are here. Tonight. Now. We. Leave.
"We’re like, Hey, Arizona is the state of Goldwater, this is the State of Sheriff Joe and Jan Brewer and all this insanity so we’re going to call you on that so you might as well come with us! And a lot of times they come with us.”
Most every time, the actors said everyone laughed at all Hillary Clinton jokes for some reason, no matter where the show played. It turns out the both sides of the aisle can chortle at any Clinton joke. Yet Trump jabs tended to receive a more lukewarm response.
Perhaps it comes down to how people view and select their candidate of choice. To illustrate that very personal process, the ensemble did a fun routine in which a random audience member is chosen to run for President running against Trump and Clinton.
Here’s how it works. The actors pull someone up on stage and give the person a quick style make-over, a social media presence, and they quickly create some negative attack ads starring the oft-befuddled audience candidate. Once that's done, the audience votes with live polls taken right in the theatre to gauge voter support over the current Democratic and Republican tickets.
"What I’ve been surprised by audience members is when sometimes when we go to the polls and we are celebrating this person," Dove said. "We don’t say they are Republican or Democrat. We bring them up there and [have] a small interview process at the top where they might say, I’m a truck driver, [as was the] guy last night in Arizona. Then we’ll go to a [different] audience member and say ‘How much do you support this person?’ And I’m blown away! Sometimes a fellow audience member will say, ‘Nah, not very much.’ They don’t even know this person!”
“Based on nothing!” Owens added. “Nothing! And we’ve pulled up some octogenarian retired teachers. And to hear the vitriol!”
“It’s maybe someone making assumptions like, Ah, unions!" Dove said. “They just make weird assumptions and they run with it.”
Riverside, however, was totally different. The audience candidate quickly became a fan favorite, signing autographs and taken selfies after the show.
He was a shy, soft-spoken small business owner named Jim Davidson. He and his husband run a shop called Riverside Rubber Stamp & Engraving Co. The men had no idea what they were getting into. It turns out they're season subscribers at the the Fox Theater, so they attend every show.
To put it mildly, Davidson did not want to get on stage. It took some coaxing from the actors. While he did seem a bit tongue-tied once he was in the spotlight, something funny happened: the less he said, the more people liked him. His platform was a mere two-word slogan — "More wine.”
But that was enough to do the trick and then some. With 100 percent support, the Riverside audience elected Jim Davidson as President during the faux-election. Joking aside, Davidson said he voted early because he has a clear political opinion.
“It’s more personal for me because I’m gay,” Davidson said. “So I’m going to go for Hillary, because Trump wants to put people into the Supreme Court that will overturn same-sex marriage. But we should respect each other. Everyone has a right to vote for who they want to vote for.”
Political issues also took a ribbing in the show. The actors pointed out that making political and social change can be tough in our democratic process. So several invitations were extended to make instant change inside the theater. For example, folks sitting in the cheap seats got to switch chairs with the top dollar front row folks, while two gents literally sitting across the aisle from each other were encouraged to embrace one another, offer compliments and even make-out if they wished. They declined, much to the disappointment of the audience.
And the audience got to demand change from Congressman Mark Takano, who represents Riverside. Led by cast member Cody Dove, the audience called Takano's office and left a voicemail.
Despite the healthy supply of laughs, a serious side to political issues surfaced as well. A wonderfully smart group of students from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, a town just west of Riverside, demanded that the audience pay attention to a particular sensitive issue.
“I think racial profiling is a really big deal that needs to be solved in America, especially because it’s ridiculous," said Kaelyn Gordon, a 16-year-old African-American student, “Stop-and-frisk — that’s ridiculous. That’s just making an excuse to be racist. And it’s giving people and adolescents the wrong message that it’s okay, and it’s not. We look to people like Donald Trump because they’re older and they’re supposed to be giving us advice, and that’s the kind of message that he is sending and it’s not okay. I don’t think that’s something that’s talked about enough.”
Gordon was there with her history class. Their teacher, Amanda Sandoval, said the students have been blogging about the election, following it closely and on Tuesday they’ll stage a mock election. So they're looking very seriously at the process. Yet Gordon insisted that a comic lens is equally useful.
“It’s important to laugh about it,” Gordon said. “It’s good to be serious, but it is also good to make light of it because it is easier to understand when it’s not such a serious topic. It’s harder to talk about something like that, especially when you are black or when you are a minority. And then when you laugh about it, it makes it easier and it makes it more comfortable and it makes it more natural to talk about it. And then it’s this big scary topic or elephant in the room.”
While the Riverside show marked the end of the tour, the Second City members said each city offered new insight — whether the audience members left as comedy fans or not. Ensemble member Claire Linic recounted how several audience members walked out of the show in Columbus, Georgia— even before they got to intermission. So the cast was left playing to a rather empty house.
On the flip-side, there were moments of coming together and an awareness of how people are more often alike than not. One show that stood out for Dove happened in Schenectady, New York, where two audience members fainted during the performance and everyone pitched in to help.
“I was glad when we came back from the intermission,” Dove said. “I said [to the audience], ‘It’s interesting. We’ve played all these markets from all around country — from smaller towns, rust belt cities, liberal vibrant cities — and when it comes down to it, in that moment when that person really needed help, everyone literally reached across the aisle to help this person.’
"So at the end of the night, if people can look at each other and laugh and [say], Yeah, our beliefs are a little silly. They are kind of insane sometimes.’ Remember, it’s the good of the country, of the people that live here. And maybe comedy is that bridge at the end of the night to be like, We are not really all that different. Let’s find way to bring civility back to what we’re doing.”