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Chicago City Limits: America Idles
by Beth Herstein

Photo: Carol Rosegg
In improvisation, says Paul Zuckerman, actors "work a little like jazz musicians work." The performers pay attention to content, but focus on their relationship with the creative idea and with emotion. "When you're doing it right, it's like hanging out with a group of friends on a Saturday night and having a rollicking conversation, a rollicking good time," he says. Furthermore, the audience becomes a part of that good time, for improv is a shared, interactive experience.

Zuckerman is co-founder and longtime Artistic Director of Chicago City Limits - which, despite its name, is one of New York's most renowned improvisation troupes. The group did originate in Chicago. In the 1980s, Zuckerman studied improvisation with Chicago's famed Second City. "Lots of comedy groups formed out of those workshops," Zuckerman says. But they were short-lived, lasting for a few shows, then breaking up and re-forming into another group, for another show. Ultimately, some of these groups morphed into Chicago City Limits.

For a while, they toured nationally, on what Zuckerman calls "The Never Ending Tour." Around 1988, the company began to enjoy greater success, making a name for itself out west in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Before long, the group landed in New York, where it set down permanent roots. However, the show also stays on the road by way of its national touring company.

America Idles is the title of the latest CCL production. Zuckerman, who stopped performing with the group after 18 years, is the director of the new show, which currently features New York cast members Rob Schiffmann, Tara Copeland, Joe De Gise II, and Michael Leffingwell. Frank Spitznagel serves as the musical director and pianist.

What is the significance of the name America Idles? According to both Zuckerman and Schiffmann, the titles of CCL's shows set forth their overall themes in only the most general sense - providing the performers with some focus, and giving the audience a hint as to what to expect. Even those who create the shows don't try to pin down their meaning too much. Zuckerman stresses the word "idle": according to him, the title refers to "the other side of the idea of the Great Society. It's headed a lot of places but going nowhere." On the other hand, Schiffmann states that the name stems from the company's original intent to focus on the media and its role in our society. Schiffmann adds that over the course of the its development, the show lost this focus, becoming far more generalized. Another performer, Michael Leffingwell, offers insight into that evolutionary process. The cast got together regularly in advance of the opening performances in order to work out the set pieces. "We come in with our ideas unformed," he explains, and allow them to be shaped by the whole group. In the end, therefore, the pieces reflect "everyone's sensibility."

During the course of America Idles, the performers alternate between their set pieces - that is, their pre-written comedy skits - and improvisational exercises. The set pieces center on national and New York affairs, with a surprising number of them focusing on the latter. At the show I attended, there were jokes about the local budget crisis, the cigarette smoking ban, and the MTA. In addition, one improv piece featured a mock Mayor Bloomberg (De Gise) leading a mock Town Hall Meeting. It's not clear how deeply these jokes resonated with the out of town portion of the audience; but for the most part the audience seemed to go along for the ride regardless.

The most engaging parts of the show are the improvisational numbers, which provide the cast with the opportunity to stretch creatively and show off their talents. At the same time, these pieces illustrate the most exhilarating part of an improvisational comedy show - because the cast takes its cues and shapes its improvisational pieces around audience suggestions, the audience members have the chance not only to watch the actors create comedy before their eyes, but to participate directly in the creative act.

Due to the nature of improvisation, some of the skits aren't as successful as others. The Town Hall meeting, for example, went on far too long. However, even at these times the cast's cleverness and enthusiasm were evident. One highlight, near the start of the show, occurred when cast members Rob Schiffman and Michael Leffingwell created a sketch that started and ended with unrelated phrases supplied by the audience. In another, apparently a long-running routine, the cast created a mini-musical based on an audience member's anecdote. The night I attended, this musical revolved around one man's disappointing experience at a friary singles party and his subsequent, more successful experience e-dating. There was something touching about the resulting skit. The incidents in our own lives feel to us larger than life, and here, they are presented, albeit teasingly, as such. This also showed the underlying gentleness to CCL's comedy. As Schiffman explained, CCL steers clear of the current trend among improv groups to "batter the crowds" that come to see their shows, rather than to respect them and to value the ideas they contribute.

Michael Leffingwell, Joe de Guise II, Rob Schiffmann, and Tara Copeland
Photo: Austin Cadore
The cast members seemed to be working toward a groove, and occasionally stepped on each other's jokes or lines during the improvisational numbers. At other points, however, the cast's chemistry was evident, as was their enthusiastic appreciation of the skill of their colleagues. Schiffmann states that establishing group chemistry is difficult. When people have to work together so closely and remain so open and vulnerable in the process, he explains, it's impossible not to be driven crazy at times by each other.

The current ensemble hasn't been in place for long; last year, a cast member left to pursue a film career. According to Schiffmann, the current members approach improv from different angles. Leffingwell, who studied theater and improv, also is writing a collection of sketches and essays; Copeland has experience in sketch and improv comedy and can also be seen in Upright Citizens Brigade; De Gise trained in improv, has numerous acting credits, and has written for other comedy troupes; and Schiffman, who co-founded the acoustic rock band The Hillary Step (in which De Gise also plays) and who started with CCL as its musical director, has a background in music and theater. It took everyone a while to adjust to these differences. Schiffmann says the ensemble is starting to "really mesh," and to find an exciting creative cohesion.

It seems that audiences are reaching this conclusion as well. So far, states Schiffman, America Idles has been well received and is selling well. It has an open-ended run; but, in light of its success, Schiffman estimates that it will continue for between six months to a year. The cast will not rest idly on these laurels, however. After about six months, the company will start brainstorming in preparation for its next production.

Chicago City Limits: America Idles
1105 1st Ave New York
Tickets online and current performance schedule at
For more information, visit

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