TIP OF THE MELTING ICEBERG written and performed by Jim Annan, Lauren Ash, Scott Montgomery, Anand Rajaram and Leslie Seiler, directed by Steve Morel. Presented by Second City (51 Mercer). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 1) for a limited run, Tuesday-Sunday 8 pm, late nights Saturday 10:30 pm. $20-$28. 416-343-0011. Rating: NNNNN
Second City has been making comedy history for the past year and a half, and the man at the centre of it all is taking the laughter very seriously.
Anand Rajaram is the first performer from a South Asian background in any Second City mainstage cast.
"When I began, I intellectualized it a lot," says Rajaram in the Second City dressing room a week before the troupe unveils its 59th revue, Tip Of The Melting Iceberg.
"If I played no race politics, it would look like I was co-opted," he says. "But if I stuck within the paradigm of the Eurocentric framework, it would look like the same thing."
He pauses, maybe to let all those Eurocentric syllables sink in.
"In the end, I realized the only way I could do it would be to play strong characters from a variety of backgrounds, with different accents, so you could never peg me."
Rajaram's first sketch, back in the fall of 2005, was a brilliant bit that featured him as a local cab driver who wore a turban but spoke with a Scottish accent.
"I knew what the audience was thinking, and the scene subverted that immediately," he laughs.
In two revues, he's played a number of suspected terrorists, but he's also breathed life into some generic husbands and office workers.
There are still nights, though, when he feels like the token ethnic guy. After one show, an audience member came up to him and said just that.
"One guy came up and said it was great that the company made room for 'one of you up there.' Another said he knew what to expect when he went to Second City: the tall guy, the short guy, a couple of women and the token ethnic."
Lauren Ash joined the Mainstage cast at the same time as Rajaram, and though she logged years with SC's touring company, some mainstage audience comments about her gender have startled her.
"The highlight came during an improv set when someone shouted out, 'Show us your boobs!'"
The gritty-voiced Ash has pulverized female stereotypes in her sketch work with the duo CORY (her comedy partner, Leslie Seiler, is a new addition to the SC cast), and she's held her own as one of the in-charge women in the improv hit Sass In The City.
"You have to keep pushing and hope that the satire wins out in the end," she says. "But then something like that Christopher Hitchens article comes out [about why women aren't funny] and you think, 'How and why are we spending time talking about this?'"
Tip Of The Melting Iceberg deals with lots of hot-button topics besides race and gender.
"Environment is a big one, it's so huge in the news and in our lives," says Ash. "But we've also noticed common themes that have just arisen during the show, ones that were completely unplanned. There's a lot about loneliness - being alone in the world. And the title suggests that with a lot of things we're only seeing a small part of what's really a very big mass."
One subject that's becoming increasingly difficult to make funny is the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
"It's a hard nut to crack," says Ash. "Does anyone in Canada support it? Do we know why we're there?"
"Public opinion isn't clear," adds Rajaram. "If there were a clear push for the war, we could find a strong way to oppose it, and if there were a clear push against it, we would support that view but find a way to balance it."
"And if you're in the middle of the road," says Ash, "you just stand there teaching and don't accomplish anything. That's not funny."
Additional Audio Interview Clips
On audiences and laughter