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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Broadway musicals go downtown.

But first, of course, the race for the Democratic nomination for president is serious business, but with one Chicagoan, Barack Obama, and Chicago-born Hillary Clinton, doing battle with each other, the Second City often plays the race for laughs.

NPR's David Schaper takes us behind the scenes of the famed Chicago improvisational troop to see what's fair game in the sometimes tasteless world of political satire.

DAVID SCHAPER: It's not a pretty place, but as you walk up the stars of the old, dark and drafty Second City main stage theater, you're immediately struck with how significant a role the group has played in the evolution of American comedy. Hanging on the wall are pictures of old casts — the very young faces of Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and John Belushi, through performers Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey.

You can recall Aykroyd doing President Nixon, and see that the seeds of Stephen Colbert's truthiness were sown here. So it's no surprise that some of the sharpest takes on the 2008 presidential race are right here.

(Soundbite of Second City Show)

Unidentified Man #1 (Cast Member): Barack Obama is…

Unidentified Man #2 (Cast Member): Barack Obama is…

Unidentified Man #3 (Cast Member): Barack Obama is…

Unidentified Woman #1 (Cast Member): Barack Obama is me. Hello, African-Americans. I am Barack Obama, and I…

SCHAPER: For more than a year now, the Second City in Chicago has been opening its shows with this scene: each of the six ensemble cast members under their own spotlight, each taking a more absurd shot at the hometown's presidential candidate's efforts to appeal to every slice of the American public:

Unidentified Man #4 (Cast Member): Hello white male American, I am Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: And I hope to become your next president. Let's face it, at heart, I am a white man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: After all, my mother was from Kansas, and that's as white as it gets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: The Second City shows no fear in taking on the most sensitive issues in this campaign, including sexism and racism, like in this skit caller "Killer," in which a woman in dark sunglasses tries to hire a hit man.

Ms. MOLLY ERDMAN (Cast Member): (As Sillary Tinton) I need someone taken care of immediately.

Mr. BRIAN GALLIVAN (Cast Member): (As hit man) Who is it?

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) Barack Obama.

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) What's your name?

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) I don't see why that matters.

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) What's your name?

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) All right. It's Sillary Tinton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) All right, so you'll do it?

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) No, I won't.

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) (Screeching) What?

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) I can't kill Barack Obama.

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) (Screeching) Why?

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) I'm in love with him. I think he's dreamy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) You are the 11th assassin I've talked to, and they've all said the same thing. What is it with this guy?

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) He's just the right amount of black.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRAD MORRIS (Cast Member, Second City): That's a line that to me is pretty on the mark for a lot of Americans.

SCHAPER: Second City ensemble member Brad Morris says the recipe for successful political satires is to take a little bit of the truth and push it to the absurd or to the border of being offensive.

Mr. MORRIS: I feel like part of our job is to find the line and then constantly play with the line.

SCHAPER: That line is toyed with more here, as that hit-man scene continues.

(Soundbite of Second City Show)

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) What does this guy have that I don't?

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) He's got a voice that sounds like sandpaper covered in maple syrup and topped with chocolate chips.

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) (Screeching) I have a nice voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ERDMAN: (As Tinton) Your precious boyfriend isn't perfect, all right? He's a smoker. He's done coke. He doesn't have enough experience.

Mr. GALLIVAN: (As hit man) I know all that, but I don't care. Haven't you ever loved a man so much you could ignore his faults?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: You want to hear raucous, you know, cynical, hyena-like laughing, and then you also want to hear, bubbling up from underneath that, some groans, you know — and some, Oh, no! You want to hear that. That means you're doing your job.

SCHAPER: And nothing is as touchy, Morris says, as a scene that jokes about trying to assassinate a presidential candidate, and a black one at that.

Mr. MORRIS: I got to watch Barack Obama watch that scene, which was very interesting, and I have to say he does know how to laugh at himself because I watched, and that's some real dicey stuff. He was belly-laughing, and Michelle was there, and she was laughing at it.

SCHAPER: Obama's campaign confirms that the Obamas enjoyed the show and were not offended by it. So now, Morris and the Second City cast have to write a new show that will open in April and run through the fall, but without yet knowing who the nominees will be.

Main-stage director Jim Carlson says the last couple of months of debates, speeches and gaffes — with candidates getting in and dropping out — offered plenty of good material, but sadly, it's material that The Second City can't use.

Mr. JIM CARLSON (Main-stage Director, Second City): They're probably writing some political things right now, but it's changing so much that by the time we open, things that are happening right now will be long past relevant.

SCHAPER: Carlson and the cast hope the race is more settled after next Tuesday. They're writing and jokes and skits making fun of John McCain, and they can't wait to find out if it'll be Obama or Clinton that they're poking fun at, as well.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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