When members of the Second City visited the offices of Slate in New York City and Washington, D.C., last winter, the publication’s entire politics staff agreed on one thing: There was no way Donald Trump would become the Republican nominee for president.
“Things have evolved since that time,” Slate culture editor Dan Kois deadpanned recently.
“We didn’t know it was going to be this fruitful so quickly,” added Matt Hovde, who directed Unelectable You, a comedy revue about the 2016 presidential election coproduced by the comedy troupe and the online magazine.
The show, which wraps up its debut run in Chicago on Aug. 28, will tour the country with the first stop in Elyria, Ohio on Sept. 13 and the last in Riverside, Calif., on Nov. 5. (The full tour schedule is here.) While the Second City focuses “a little more on politics” every four years, Hovde says they wanted to approach this campaign season from a journalistic lens.
News and comedy have many ties, from the Weekend Update segment on “Saturday Night Live” to other late-night shows like “Last Week Tonight” and “The Daily Show.” But live comedy about current events is relatively rare. Hovde said he was attracted to Slate’s style of “argumentative journalism,” and each show will feature a Slate editor or writer, either in person or by Skype, talking about the news of the day.
“Slate has always had a philosophy behind it that we are unafraid of miserable failure,” explained Kois, the show’s creative consultant (and a one-time playwright and stage director). “We like to really make a case for the unconventional wisdom and we aren’t afraid to be wrong.”
“And obviously that goes hand in hand with the improvisational philosophy,” Hovde added.
“In improv, mistakes aren’t mistakes—they are opportunities,” said Kois.
While the show was in rehearsals, American Theatre spoke with Hovde and Kois about politics and comedy, the fertile ground of this election season, and how the show will respond to the news.
The tagline for the show is “The Second City’s completely unbiased political revue.” As a web magazine and a comedy troupe, how do you deal with the notion of bias?
Matt Hovde: Particularly talking about that subtitle, I just like that it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of preparing people to see some opinions on the stage. Not everyone enters a comedy show knowing that they’re going to be talked to about smart issues. A lot of comedy shows appeal to more base comedic sensibilities, and this is not a show that’s going to shy away from being specific and talking about these specific people and what [the news] might mean.
Dan Kois: Slate’s feeling has always been that we are less concerned with bias than we are with avoiding the simple or stupid explanation or argument for things. Like many news organizations, we definitely have more left-leaning writers and editors than right. Unlike most news organizations, every four years we declare who every staffer is voting for as a way of working toward transparency. But we also encourage our writers—and find that our writers are very willing—to take positions and make arguments that go very against the dominant grain, even of their political beliefs.
Hovde: Comedy by its nature is biased because the laugh comes at some expense. Laughter is generally about bringing people together, because people often laugh when they find common ground. If we’re making fun of Trump taking himself so seriously, I think even a Republican can understand and acknowledge, “Yeah, he does sometimes take himself seriously,” and they can find the common laugh between us.
From my understanding, Second City revues tend to be created through a lot of improv but end up fairly scripted. With the election, there are new headlines every day, so how do you incorporate those into the show?
Hovde: We’re building in many segments of the show that can be reactive to the day’s headlines. Specific scenes will set, based on those headlines, and improvisational structures are in place so that whatever the audience is thinking about or reading about or whatever Slate is writing about, we’ll be able to incorporate. In addition, the Slate personalities that come on-site will be talking about what they’re working on right now and what themes they’re playing around with. Then we have ways that we can address the content of those interviews and bring it to life onstage.
Kois: We really want to reward audience members who are tuned into the news, who come into a show knowing that there’s been one story that they’ve been talking about all day. We don’t want them to go away feeling like, “Oh well, it was good, but it felt kind of canned.” We want them to feel like the show is responding to what’s on their minds as well.
This election has been very over-the-top and out of the ordinary. Does that make it easier or more difficult to parody?
Hovde: There’s challenges for sure, because a lot of comedy comes from finding the one absurd detail and exaggerating it. So when you have candidates—and really both of them in their own way—who have these qualities that are already known to be exaggerated in some fashion, it does put a little bit of a harder onus on us to find the angle that makes this fresh and funny to see. We’re also competing with a lot of other agencies that are making fun of these people at the same time, so we have to find different ways of bringing this to life than you would find in maybe “The Daily Show” and the way that [Stephen] Colbert is handling things. Our medium has to be a little bit more intimate, a little bit more character-driven, because we want it to feel like it’s an experience that you’re only getting through the Second City lens. The stuff that’s working tends to be the clever stuff that tries to extract themes more than just make a simple joke about an obvious punchline.
Kois: It is true that every day something happens, and I think, “If this was in a comedy show, I would be like, ‘Nah, that’s too much.’” But at the same time, what the craziness of this campaign has created is an environment in which every voter feels like things are going a little bit off the rails. It feels a little bit uncertain and nervous and weirded out by this whole process, and that feeling is very fertile ground for comedy. You have two candidates who, more or less, prove that in 2016 there’s essentially nothing you can do that is disqualifying. The bar has been set so high. You could be Secretary of State yet not even be able to control any classified information. You could just literally call a huge percentage of the American population rapists. It doesn’t matter. All bets are off.
Let’s talk about the performative nature of this election. Trump is a reality star from “The Apprentice,” and Clinton has been criticized for her stiffness in front of a crowd. To what degree do you think “performing” has been important on the campaign trail?
Hovde: I think there have been ample grounds for satire on that front. Reality shows, remember, are engineered. They’re produced. They’re edited. When we say “reality TV,” we’re not talking about real-life TV. We’re talking about a storyline that’s been prepared and set up and framed and repurposed, and so it should come as no surprise that politicians are using the same strategy of entertainment. They’re crafting storylines and their objective may or may not be even to win office, as we even questioned whether Trump actually wants to govern. What he likes to do is be the winner, so everything he’s doing is trying to spin this image that he is the winner. That’s how he ran “The Apprentice” and that’s how he runs his businesses and that’s how he’s run his campaign. That’s a strategy that’s meant to be his reality TV character—it’s the same character.
I think Hillary has struggled in that way. She gets attacked a lot for her career politician-ness, as many candidates in the past have been. But she’s trying to play the character that she wants to perceived as, which is: I want to be perceived as presidential. Some of her gaffes come from her underestimating or maybe overestimating her ability to pull off that character. When she tries to ad lib an off-the-cuff joke about Pokémon Go, it rings untrue. She’s trying to play a role that she wouldn’t get cast as.
Kois: I’m intrigued, Matt, by your characterization of this campaign that’s currently a campaign between a really good actor and a not-that-good actor struggling to find her role. The history of people who are not actually that good at playing the role who have managed to get elected president is pretty slim. There have been some anti-charismatic presidents who never really settled into that role, but there weren’t that many of them, and this election, in a way, is going to end up being the ultimate arbiter of Americans’ willingness to vote for what appears to them to be presidential as opposed to necessarily the person who is the most qualified for the job.
And that’s also affected by how the media is covering this election. It almost feels like some of the op-eds are performance reviews—theatre reviews of politics, if you will.
Kois: Because every news magazine, web magazine, and TV station is searching for things to cover every minute and every moment, it’s really easy to fall into the pattern of just covering what and how the last thing came out from Trump. You review each one like a little drama that has occurred that you then can sum up for your readers. The struggle with that, of course, is it flattens the stories, so that everything feels equally big and important so they all seem sort of unimportant. So an actually substantially insane thing like the email scandal or people shouting in the Republican National Convention to arrest Hillary and line her up in front of a firing squad—those are legitimately crazy, huge news stories that get covered with the same essential ephemerality as Melania plagiarizing a speech or Hillary seeming really unnatural when she drops a Beyoncé quote. Because we’re covering everything so quickly and with the same kind of blanket coverage, everything feels essentially equivalent—even things that are not equivalent at all.