I’m working on a new edition of Something Wonderful Right Away. Here’s an excerpt of a new passage:
The satiric voices that first were heard at Second City once made mock from the sidelines. Today, satiric comment from Second City alumni is often at the center of the public dialogue. This is particularly evident in the relationship between alumni and the presidency.
The White House Correspondents Dinner was traditionally the occasion for gentle spoofing of the sitting president, but Stephen Colbert’s performance in front of George W. Bush at the 2006 edition was decidedly ungentle. Under the guise of praising Bush, Colbert (who trained and worked at Second City in the early nineties) meticulously deconstructed the mendacity under Bush’s public show of amiability. As Bush was known to go to great effort to shield himself from discouraging words, the routine made headlines, including widespread criticism from conservative pundits who attacked Colbert for ridiculing the president to his face. Playwright Christopher Durang compared the performance to Hamlet presenting The Murder of Gonzalgo in front of Claudius. Some years later, another Second City alum, Adam McKay, made a feature film called Vice that did a thorough demolition job on Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and McKay was nominated for his screenplay and direction. Alum Steve Carrell (whom Colbert had once understudied at Second City) played former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The president who followed Bush, Barack Obama, hailed from Chicago and he and his wife, Michelle, had been part of Second City’s audience. One Second City performer, Keegan-Michael Key, made a specialty of playing Obama in sketches onstage and on TV. As part of the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner, Key performed a routine with the president in which he played the Obama’s “anger translator,” articulating the irritation that Obama himself was famously too cool to express in public. (Obama also did comic bits on TV with Colbert.)
These days, the New York Times deems Colbert’s political commentary sufficiently newsworthy as to report on it regularly. Saturday Night Live, whose actors and writers frequently are replenished with Second City alumni, also regularly makes news with its attacks on the current administration. Donald Trump has complained publicly about both Colbert and SNL, darkly suggesting that he might try to find some way of punishing them for being mean to him.