You can always count on Second City to find ways to make you laugh…and to push envelopes…with any of their shows. They have never been a company to pull punches on anything, so it certainly isn’t a surprise when they found a way to get the whole house to give the finger to the Supreme Court over their Roe decision in a holiday-themed show. And the underlying anger that creates such a moment actually pervades quite a few sketches in What the Elf, a show with the supreme frustration of 2022 built right into the title. The new holiday show playing at Up Comedy Club riffs on all sorts of Christmas traditions, including those little North Pole toymakers (with a bit of Hanukkah and Ramadan thrown in), but it’s the title’s homophonic origin that shapes much of the evening. (Please note that I said “homophonic,” not another word that shares most of its letters.)
The talented cast, which consists of Tim Metzler, Javid Iqbal, Bill Letz, Yazmin Ramos, Maureen Boughey, and Jenelle Cheyne, has raucous fun roasting and/or sending up office holiday parties, holiday family dinners, The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, elf on a shelf, holiday songs, and even Christmas cheer itself in a show that is never afraid to be raw, both verbally and visually, or to let that 2022 frustration overflow the stage. Too often, though, that overflowing negativity ends up hurting the show
In one first-act sketch, a mother (Boughey) gathers her adult children to remember their father (who has…passed away? gone missing?). As they get comfortable, she tells them that they should be nice to their younger brother (Metzler) when he arrives. When he gets there, it becomes immediately clear what the warning was about when he comes in wearing a “Flat Earth” hat; the dude is a full-on conspiracy theorist. As annoying as he is, though, his siblings try to stay off his case while his mom desperately tries to keep order. Still, as much as they might want to honor their mom’s wishes, younger brother just won’t stop. One conspiracy theory after another, even the faked moon landing…but nothing about the “stolen” 2020 election. (Too soon?)
Ultimately, one of his brothers (Letz), standing in for all of us in the audience who have to hold our tongues in similar situations every year, just can’t take it anymore. He explodes in a very long string of invective that includes so many hollered f-words that I couldn’t even count. Even if there were nothing else in the whole show, this one very angry moment would kill any thought of a PG-13 rating. But not only are there plenty more profanities to come, but there are also bits that include actors simulating sex with chairs and even walls. Yep: “bits”…multiple. (Maybe leftover pandemic sexual frustration?)
Now I’m not a prude, and these things didn’t offend my sensibilities or anything, but over-reliance on blue stuff is usually a sign that something wasn’t working in the writing stage. Still, a lot of these sketches are very funny. (Several others fall flat, but the ratio of hits to misses is quite strong.) Among my favorites: a hilarious send-up of the elf on a shelf, those creepy red-clad intruders who aren’t Santa Claus, in which the elf keeps moving around and multiplying to scare the homeowner; a bit in which Cheyne, playing an Oliver-like orphan, approaches various audience members to ask them for food—on this night, she made hay with one woman who, having no food to offer, wouldn’t even let Cheyne have her coat; and my personal favorite, a gloriously conceived and choreographed (on rolling chairs) “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” (Cheyne also had tons of fun in a game show called “Who is not an elf?” in which “elves” answered personal questions with innocent joy, while Cheyne’s character seemed to be more of a demonic god of destruction.)
What the Elf, despite its excellent cast, doesn’t measure up to the stronger Second City shows (like the currently running Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not). Still, as I said at the start, you can always count on this company for a lot of laughter, and this show is no exception.
Tickets are available from The Second City; it is performed in the Up Comedy Club in Piper’s Alley (230 W. North Ave, Chicago) and plays through Dec 31. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.