In the end, with tears in their eyes, they piggy-backed, kicked and shot one another with fake lasers one final time, until the lights went black and the packed house shot to its feet. And so completed the seven-year run of Cook County Social Club, the longtime Tuesday-night house improv team at iO that will go in the books as one of Chicago's most adroit and successful troupes.
The night felt like a coda for this class of Chicago improvisers, comics that enrolled in Level 1 improv class in the early-2000s, found friends among classmates, and rose their way to a permanent weekly time slot. In the last year, iO has seen three such house teams disband: The Reckoning, Michael Pizza and on Tuesday night in the sold-out Cabaret Theater, the quintet that was Cook County Social Club. All three teams sought more fertile comedic pastures in Los Angeles and New York.
It was inevitable, too, in that Cook County had reached a ceiling in Chicago. Tim Robinson was scooped up by "Saturday Night Live" last fall as a featured player, while Greg Hess, Mark Raterman and Brendan Jennings have a sitcom pilot deal with Comedy Central called "Schlub Life."
Tuesday night's last hurrah wasn't among their top-shelf performances (on nights when everything clicks, there's no stronger team in town). On this night, scenes only loosely coalesced, with abrupt Pythonesque transitions. If anything, the set was rather meta for the mostly improv-nerd packed audience, catching one last glimpse of a team so in tune with one another that Uri Geller would be impressed. They made references that only those steeped in this improv world would get: intentionally breaking character, shoutouts to iO founder Charna Halpern, and at one point, essentially suggesting out loud that a scene should end. It was their last show anyway, so protocol be damned.
But it wasn't so much about these specific set of scenes as it was the style of teamwork that they've contributed to the improv canon. (The one-word audience suggestion was, appropriately enough, "graduation.") Unlike the slow-burn tempo of TJ & Dave, iO's most popular show, Cook County's style has always been built on physicality and kinetic energy. Which is different from calling it fast-paced — their scenes can run long, with comedy derived from repetition, patterns and callbacks. There's little time for quiet moments of introspection. They milk scenes for every last drop, sometimes to the point of dead-horse beating — but this is where the team gets good, because they learned all the rules of play year ago, and now are comfortable enough to ignore them.
In the first day of improv class, students are taught the art form's maxim: "Yes, and ..." — meaning always agree with your fellow actor's premise, then build on the idea to further the scene. With Cook County, seven years of performing with each other affords you the right to color outside the lines. To disagree with your partner. To be handed an imaginary microphone and ask why he just gave you a pepper grinder. It's the kind of move that trips up lesser improvisers. But I remember watching past Cook County shows where they intentionally sabotage each other, almost as an inside joke to see if they can wriggle free of the predicament. And because they've operated on the same wavelength for so long, they're able to take a squirm-worthy moment and spin it into gold. They recognize that inconvenience and disagreement, even at the expense of each other, can be a funny thing. One scene Tuesday had Hess demand that Robinson recite his top 10 favorite Bible verses — the lull while watching Robinson dig for lines was hilarious in that cringe-inducing way.
What's made this group gel is that each fulfills a different personality trait on appearance and voice alone. You know exactly what character they play the moment they open their mouths. Mark Raterman does sardonic well and would make a good drill sergeant. Greg Hess is tall, lean, a blithe quality — he looks like the reasoned one. Bill Cochran has a high voice and round glasses and can play perpetually scared or nervous. Brendan Jennings, a name you should remember, is a leaner Chris Farley incarnate, hilarious when playing the creepy frat dude. And Tim Robinson is the wild card, a physical, anything-goes actor with an always-unpredictable stage presence.
By the end of the nearly hourlong set, things got sentimental and real. The last scene was all five onstage in a gun standoff. Before they shot each other, they would say their last words. Each riffed on variations of living life to the fullest and always staying best friends. The tenet of finding truth in comedy never resonated more in that moment.
Of course, before any monologue got too emotional, someone else would kung fu chop them and steal the gun. From the audience, you could see quivering lips on the actors, desperately trying not to break. Which seemed to be the point of it all, from the day they met in improv class to their Tuesday finale: Cook County Social Club was just five buddies trying hard to make each other crack up.
Twitter @pangCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun