Perhaps, somewhere, a professor is working on a formula for funny.
I know there are people who think about comedy in a serious way, who dissect the elements of making people laugh. That, to me, is like reading the nutritional content of a candy bar before you eat it - if you overthink it, the thing itself is no longer fun(ny).
So, admittedly, analyzing Second City's performance Wednesday night at the Lied Center might be the same way.
For the uninitiated, Second City is one of the premiere comedy troupes in the world. Based in Chicago, the performers mix improv and sketch comedy into a blend that has spawned some big-name alumni.
Wednesday's performance by the six-member troupe lasted more than two hours, with instantaneous transitions between scenes. (The show followed opening act Nick Motil, a singer/songwriter in the vein of John Mayer who had decent guitar chops but whose lyrics sometimes didn't stand up to his playing).
The majority of the Second City show was comprised of scripted sketches. There was a children's hockey coach who went to work with a corporate executive to heckle him in the conference room. There was a heart surgeon with no arms. There was a football player who gave credit to God for getting out of a slump, only to have the interviewer reply with: "During this dark time, why did God abandon you?"
Sometimes, the sketches' comedy was thanks to funny one-liners. But often, it wasn't so much the delivery onstage as the situations into which the actors were placed that were funny.
That changed during the improvisational portions of the program, where the actors were on their own.
The audience held up its end of the deal, especially when a troupe member asked: "What's something you don't care very much about?" Someone quickly shouted, "Missouri." The improv scenes that followed all were based on making fun of Missouri, a sure crowd-pleaser in Lawrence.
Presumably, the audience thought the evening was funny - there was a lot of laughter. Personally, a highlight came toward the end, with a sketch that put a priest and two nuns onstage trying to prepare music for a funeral. Each of the old-time records ends up including hilarious lyrics that we can't publish in a family newspaper.
It's pretty remarkable how entertaining six people can be on a stage with just a few stripped-down props, and rarely relying on shock-value humor.
The actors' energy and versatility also are amazing. They flowed seamlessly from character to character, never getting confused as to the scene or who they were.
If nothing else, audience members could play a rousing game of "Which of These Actors Might Be Famous Someday?" Of the six onstage, my money is on Brendan Jennings, who had a hilarious scene as an advertising writer who either offers boring or over-the-top pitches for TV commercials. Dana Quercioli also seemed to have an unassuming, down-to-earth style about her acting that helped people relate to her characters.
If there was any downside to the evening, it might have been that the show was slightly too long. The comedy was hit-and-miss. If Second City could cut 30 minutes of the misses, it would make the hits that much more effective.
Then again, a hit for one audience member might be a miss for another, especially playing at a place like the Lied Center, where the crowd ranges from high school students to older season-ticket holders.
Was Second City bust-your-gut hilarious? Certainly at times, but overall, I didn't know. Perhaps it's been built up so much over time that the actors are held to impossible standards.
It's so subjective. Either way, I'll keep my program from the evening, just to say, in five years, that I saw the new member of the Saturday Night Live cast on stage.