Last summer, Second City Chicago writer Seth Weitberg and head writer/director Matt Hovde were on a mission: Find out what’s funny about Atlanta so they could create a show for Alliance Theatre audiences. I sat down with them to talk about what they love, find funny and admire about Atlanta.
Tell me about this trip. How do you go about gathering materials and finding things you want to parody?
Matt Hovde: The Alliance has such a good relationship with our producers back in Chicago, they teamed up to provide us with what we’re calling an immersion experience that has enabled us to talk to a really broad swath of people in and around Atlanta that are involved with the mayoral race, education, the clergy, older Atlanta citizens and younger Atlanta citizens. We’re really getting an opportunity to interact with the community in many different ways, which is important to us, given the breadth and depth of social and political issues that we want to incorporate into the show.
Seth Weitberg: Matt and I had some input. It was important to both of us to have conversations and a number of experiences where we were actually engaging with the community as Atlantans would. It’s a show that will be happening during the holiday and yet we’re here in August, so it’s important for us to have opportunities to try and understand the broader holiday traditions of the region and this city, specifically.
So what are some of your impressions of Atlanta?
Hovde: We’re definitely interested in some of the political issues that are hitting the town right now. We’ve talked to a lot of people about the mayoral race, about what issues [outgoing Mayor Shirley Franklin] is leaving for the next mayor to solve and what issues she’s solved. One of the things we’ve dealt with on this trip is the Beltway Project, which is really interesting due to its length and complexity.
Weitberg: Everyone seems to have an opinion on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” so we need to learn more about that. One thing that the show dealt with last year that we’re still witness to is the transitory nature of an Atlanta citizen and how many folks are not native Atlantans and what that does to the cultural ethos of a city. Understanding that balance and how that plays into the traditions is really important for us to grasp. There’s a lot of frustration about certain parts of Atlanta, like the transportation system or the inability for the city to get things done when it says it will, and yet there’s a profound affection for the city. That’s the very thing that enables the city to have the sort of spirit that it does.
Have you ever thought about having an Atlanta-only cast of actors or having local writers help you write the show?
Hovde: Blending the two communities is a huge goal of ours, and I think we’re even closer to that this year. Last year, we hired two local actors and brought four from Chicago, and one of the Chicago actors was from Atlanta, originally. This year, we’ve brought three Chicago actors, including [Tim Stoltenberg, an Atlanta cast member who moved to Chicago after last year’s show], and we’re hiring three local actors. Mixing the actors enables us to keep our stylistic voice and intellectual/blue collar satire point of view. I think you loose a little bit of that if you use all local people and try to mimic the Chicago flavor.
How do you take all this material you’ve gathered and make a sketch comedy/improvisation show out of it?
Weitberg: If you were witness to a Second City process in Chicago, you would see six actors and a director working with what’s going on in the world [and] writing the show from scratch. This show is being developed in a slightly different way. It will have some archive material, but also have material that Matt and I are writing. We are here to immerse ourselves so … we can develop material that feels of the city. Once we head into rehearsals, we will tweak some of the writing so it will feel more in the voice of the cast, [who] will have input as well.
Hovde: A Second City show is put together like a giant puzzle with different scenes and different actors with their own distinct styles talking about completely unrelated topics. Each scene has a unique length, and the goal is to build a two-hour show that keeps moving, keeps every actor visible, showcases different strengths and still keeps the audience guessing what comes next.
Are there any plans on opening a satellite Second City theatre here in Atlanta?
Hovde: Right now there is not. Maybe that’s something the producers have in the back of their heads, but the model of visiting for a few weeks and then letting it cool off a little bit, allowing the interest to rise for a second year is already a new model. It’s the first time we’ve returned to a city so quickly after planting our roots here. So, I don’t think there are any plans to open a new space, but I hope this is a long-term relationship. I know that that’s something we are interested in. Obviously, cost wise, it’s a lot riskier to open a building and not every community is ready to send people six nights a week to see that show. There might be a saturation point we hit, or don’t hit. Last year, the [Alliance] run did so well, we extended it by a couple of weeks, and the extension did so well that when we left there was the feeling of “we can’t wait to come back.” The community wanted a little bit more and that’s a great position to be in. Here, the community seems ready to see our show again; we’re invigorated and ready to write a new show and to bring all the material to the show. That’s something you can’t do if you’re here all the time. So this model is the preferred model right now.
Was there anything in the show last year that you were sure was going to kill but instead just sort of fizzled? Or something that went over great that you didn’t think was going to go over so well?
Hovde: I feel like we ended up with a show that worked. People laughed a lot at the local stuff. There were several elements of race that went over well. Some of it was kind of silly and jokey, and some of it was more provocative perhaps, but I felt that most of the material worked well.
Weitberg: I think a challenge for us is that there’s going to be an awareness on the part of the audience that this show was not written by Atlantans, and so we have to strike the balance between wanting to provide somewhat of an objective perspective — because that is what I think that’s progressive and important — while maintaining an air of respect and appreciation for the city. The second an audience member feels that we don’t respect this town is when we lose them. They have to know [what] we love before they can hear what we want to criticize.
Hovde: One reason why this immersion is so important is because we’re not writing comedy off of Wikipedia. We’re not just taking stereotypes and writing comedies about those stereotypes; we are trying to go deeper than that. That’s one of the reasons why the staff at the Alliance is so influential as to where we go, [what we] see and who we talk to so that we’re not just like, “Atlanta’s more than just Coke and CNN” — one of the lines used last year. That’s why we’re trying to talk to more people, and I think the scenes will go deeper than what a tourist might see in a day of zipping around.
Anything else you want to share with me, before we go?
Weitberg: It’s an exciting city to learn about from the point of view of a New Englander who has spent very little time in Atlanta, and to see how rich the cultural fabric is here. To understand it and to learn about the city in a way to write comedy about it is profound. I am of the belief that the truest history of our country is told in our satire, and for us to come here and do that requires a profound understanding and appreciation of Atlanta, which the city makes easy to do.
Hovde: One of our goals is to find universal truths; it’s not about us coming in and writing funny jokes about Atlanta, but finding things about Atlanta anyone can relate to and are true all over. That’s why archive material can play so well. We did so well last year with the show because the audiences that show up aren’t just looking for Atlanta Braves jokes, but also about human things we’re all experiencing, concerns about national issues we’re all experiencing. That’s one of the reasons why it’s possible for us to come in from the outside and still offer those perspectives, because everyone is looking for truth and human behavior/slice-of-life stuff. [That’s also] why tourists can come to Chicago and see a Second City show and not feel on the outside of a bunch of inside-Chicago jokes. There are scenes about relationships, underdogs fighting a machine and cultural values — that’s [what] we’re hoping to capture in this show.
Weitberg: In my two days’ experience my immediate answer is Chick-fil-a. I went to school in North Carolina, so I love Chick-fil-a. One thing I really appreciate is the Atlantans’ self-awareness of their relationship to their city and what they get out it. That relationship is enriching. And they also recognize the drawbacks of where they live. I have been all over the country and met people who are unconditional advocates for where they live [or] people who only see the problems and rail against where they live. Being willing to be critical leads to progress, I have found.
Hovde: I love how warm and smart the people we’ve met have been, including the people we worked with last year. Everyone is so inviting and willing to share their time with us, give us their point of view, and everyone seems genuine and selfless. That feels really great and it’s one of the reasons we came back [and why] I wanted to be involved this time, too. Anyone that we’ve asked, “Hey, do you have a few minutes?” is like, “Of course, yes, come in, can I get you something?” It’s been great. And the Varsity — I love a good burger.