"You guys in Chicago are used to improv," sneered the acidic Ben Bailey on Friday night at the opening of UP, the new comedy club at the Second City. "You can smell written material like a pack of hound dogs. You want to hunt it down. You want me to make it all up on the spot."
Well, this is Chicago. But fortunately for Bailey, the caustic, elongated Jersey guy and star of the TV show "Cash Cab," he can move from careful scripting to present-tense interplay with consummate ease, and that made him the ideal talent to top an opening-night bill pulling from both improv — replete with a guest appearance by Colin Mochrie — and stand-up. In triplicate.
UP is a comfortable, flexible, intimate room, but it seems to demand something more than the telling of pre-planned jokes at the microphone.
Maybe it's the aura of the location. Maybe it's the Second City-like set. Either way, it's a very different vibe from Zanies. It will need a particular kind of act. (Disclosure: UP is the new home of the Tribune's "Chicago Live!" stage and radio show, in which Second City is a partner.)
Other than Bailey, the stand-up Friday was forgettable and predictable. But Bailey came armed with a brilliant, Bob Newhart-like routine that began with a desperate job applicant putting his name in the wrong box on the application and proceeded from there into the depths of human despair. Just as one's split sides were healing from that, he launched into another monologue inspired by those digital numbers that count down in crosswalks. Summoning the image of an increasingly panicked guide dog desperately trying to guide his blind owner, Bailey asked the searing question, "how do you tap out '12' with your paw before '11' is already upon you?"
How indeed! Think about that one a bit, think about how the dog would feel (tap, tap, tap, woof, woof, woof, NO! NO!, tap, tap …) and it's quite a profound metaphor for how life ensures we overextend. Bailey had plenty of similarly smart material, including a takedown of inexplicable, conversation-killing Southern rhetoric like "Do what now?" which leaves the Northerner with nothing to say. But the only moment to rival the crosswalk bit came when, deep in the show, Bailey started imitating an audience member's laugh. That's usually a dud for most comics, but Bailey, who looks a lot like a bird of prey, replicated the high-pitched shriek from the woman with the glowing cellphone with accipitrine veracity.
"I don't know what's sadder," he said, angrily, "your laugh, or the fact that this is the first time I've heard it all night." That was a line worthy of any Second City stage.
Earlier in the night, Mochrie showed some formidable improv chops, especially when some joker gave him the suggestion of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" — the name of the TV show that made him a star, but a deathly awful cue on an improv stage.
First Mochrie scowled at the fool, and then he turned it into a riff on airport boarding procedures ("This is my line at the airport") that brought the joint down.
And then there was the bat moment. One of Mochrie's fellow improvisers from the Second City All-Stars made the obvious choice with the audience suggestion of "bat" and took a swing. Mochrie had a different interpretation. "The bat, a warm-blooded mammal," Mochrie said, dryly. "Didn't care for that."
The Second City's UP comedy club, 230 W. North Ave., has shows most nights. For show and ticket information go to upcomedyclub.com.