Susan Messing and Rachael Mason sit on the highest rung of Chicago’s improvisational comedy scene. They are currently performing their racy show, The Boys (what remains of improv all-female supergroups Children of a Lesser God and The Playboys) – the tag line for which is “The Faint of heart need not apply” - at Chicago’s world-renowned The Second City theatre.
These two comediennes are indisputable forces in their industry, but if you ask them it’s not because they are women. While they give props to trailblazing women like Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey, who Ms. Mason says “proved women just had different body parts but could do the same work,” Messing and her don’t seem necessarily interested in being the poster girls for gender equality in Chicago comedy.
“I guess that it’s still a male dominated industry if you broke the numbers down,” she says, “but I do not see it that way. The challenges that women face seem to reveal themselves only when subjects like this continually get broached so that we can’t just be comedians. We have to be ‘womyn’ comedians, which frankly blows wads over all of the hard work we have done for so many years to make this a fairly moot point.”
From Ms. Mason’s point of view, it’s only about having female body parts when it works, or doesn’t, for a performance. She says, “I think the simplest difference [being a woman comedian] is reference level.” Continuing the lesson, she explains, “I can do ‘period/my little pony with a lady’ scene partner with no resistance. A challenge might be a ‘meathead dude’ scene partner who bullies in a scene. A rookie would get thrown by, ‘Honey is dinner ready?’ but I’d respond with ‘I don’t know. Ask my chief of staff and get out of the oval office.’ Or if he bullied by telling me I was the worst hooker he’d ever met, I’d take all the power back and be the worst hooker he’d ever met.”
Ms. Messing and Ms. Mason honed their razor-sharp, fast-paced wit and unapologetic yes-we-went-there humor over years of incessant devotion to the craft of comedic improvisation. Ms. Messing graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in theatre, and since then has gone on to be a director, actress, author and a founding member of The Annoyance Theater. Ms. Mason, a Skidmore College English Literature graduate with a concentration in Shakespearean Studies, came to Chicago to study with improv royalty, Del Close from The Second City who taught all of the best-known comedians from Dan Akroyd to George Wendt.
In addition to appearing weekly on the hottest comedy stages in Chicago, Ms. Messing and Ms. Mason both teach throngs of actors and comedians eager to drink from their fountain of improv knowledge and wisdom. Ms. Mason is Head of Advanced Improvisation at The Second City, and Messing teaches improvisational comedy for the iO Chicago (formerly ImprovOlympic), The Second City (where she was a mainstage performer) and The Annoyance, as has also taught at DePaul University, The University of Chicago and Loyola University.
Although they may be disinclined to have their success defined by their womanhood, Ms. Messing and Ms. Mason have a self-reliant approach to their careers and sex-positivity stance to their shtick that is reminiscent of the early 1990s Riot grrrl movement that sought to give women the power to control their voices and artistic expressions, and to create their own space to make statements about the issues women face in society.
Their fearless former show, The Playboys, included sketches with a mom at a bake sale who says, “I’m sick of hearing about your cancer” to a mother who brags about her 14-year-old daughter who had the initiative to start a lucrative porn club at school. Ms. Mason admits they will ‘go blue’ in a heartbeat; not just for shock value, but “in service of a bigger thing in a scene.”
Lesser comedians of either gender would shrink from getting laughs from icky sticky subjects like porn and breast cancer, but Ms. Messing and Ms. Mason view tangling with tragedy as an essential component of comedy. Ms. Mason makes the point by asking, “What did Eleanor Roosevelt say? ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ It reminds me that I have all the power. But if I don’t, it’s a good thing great comedy comes from being the victim.”
The Boys runs on the third Sunday of every month at The Second City on 1616 North Wells Street. Ms. Mason also performs with The Second City Improv All Stars on Monday nights. You can catch Ms. Messing every Thursday night in her critically aclaimed show, Messing with a Friend, now in its sixth year, at The Annoyance Theatre at its new location at 851 West Belmont Avenue, and also every Tuesday night with Blaine Swen in Blessing at the iO Chicago.