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Center Stage

Transmitting the Comedy Virus


When I lived in Chicago, the best cheap date was on a Monday. On that night you could catch the “greatest hits” of Second City, ground zero for improv comedy since 1959. The troupe has launched dozens of stars, from John Belushi to Tina Fey, but the headliners usually skipped Monday’s grab-bag — they gave the second string their chance. Among these, often, were players back from a tour.

“The Best of Second City” Temple Theater, Des Moines Performing Arts Tues.-Fri., Feb, 3-6, 7:30 p.m. Sat., Feb. 7, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 8, 3 p.m.

“The Best of Second City”
Temple Theater, Des Moines Performing Arts
Tues.-Fri., Feb, 3-6, 7:30 p.m.
Sat., Feb. 7, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 8, 3 p.m.

“Well, I’d say the touring company is every bit as hilarious as the one in Chicago,” declares Nick Rees, one of those bringing “The Best of Second City” show to Des Moines.

He pauses, timing it expertly.

“Of course, I might have some bias…”

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He might. But for Rees, his job is no less than a dream come true. Coming from Sioux City and studying at University of Iowa, he wound up living at his father’s home by the Missouri border, in Amish country.

“The gas station had a hitching post for buggies,” he said.

Still, the arrangement allowed Rees to save for a move to Chicago. After years of scraping by, he caught on with Second City, and he’s played the main stage. Actually, though, he enjoys what he calls “transmitting our comedy virus everywhere.”

Rees claims the three men and three women coming to Des Moines were all “desperate to tour.” Their stops have included places like Vienna, Austria, but they get a kick out of playing “small places you wouldn’t ordinarily visit.”

But then, he adds, inventing gags on the fly is “never really work.” The company has an immense archive of material by now — skits of all kinds — but every night on tour these are put through unexpected changes.

“We turn it over to the audience,” Rees explains. “We ask them what direction we’d like to take things.”

This openness helps provide the Second City magic. With next to no props, a few lighting changes and musical flourishes (handled largely on computer by an unseen music director), a few players will create an entire world.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Rees says. “It just captivates the imagination.”

That impact has everything to do with putting a variety of talents onstage. Rees says all six members of his company “bring their own off-the-wall energy. Everyone can claim something that’s all their own.”

This includes one skill that he himself lacks — singing.

“This show looks to be pretty musical,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of voices that make me want to hide under the table.”

Nonetheless, said Rees, if a skit develops in a way that calls for him to sing, he intends to give his all.

“Hey, if the audience wants to hear me do Polish reggae, I won’t hold back,” he said.

That, too, is part of the magic, he adds.

“Knowing one of us is bound to fail — knowing the risk — that’s part of the fun.”

Overheard in the Lobby: Tallgrass Theater launches its latest, “The Elephant Man,” this Friday, Jan. 30.

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See

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