Daniel Raymont (with Krysten Ritter) plays an idealistic screenwriter in “Buzzkill.”
Updated: March 13, 2012 8:05AM
Considering the A-list talent it has nurtured, Second City must have had any number of opportunities over the years to sell out. But unlike, say, the National Lampoon, whose once iconic brand is now slapped on raunchy direct-to-video frat-boy fare (the latest: “The Legend of Awesomest Maximus”), the Second City name, by design, has been restricted to its theater enterprises and the odd television show (“SCTV”)
Which is why “The Second City Presents Buzzkill,” a satirical black comedy available Tuesday on home video and video-on-demand, might cause a double take. It’s the first film since “The Monitors” in 1969 with which Second City has been associated and the first with its name featured above the title.
Second City is the most enduring and influential name in comedy. Its alumni have graduated from the company’s stages to revolutionize humor in movies and on television both in front of and behind the camera. Protecting its good name while expanding the business, said Second City CEO and executive producer Andrew Alexander, is “the biggest challenge I have on a daily basis. I’ve been very careful.”
Films or TV would seem to be a natural avenue for the Chicago-based institution to pursue. “It’s not my passion,” Alexander said. “It’s such a huge process and a complicated, difficult business. I don’t have the infrastructure with writers and producers to shepherd a project.”
“Buzzkill” was brought to him by co-writer and director Steven Kampmann, a former ensemble member perhaps best-known as Andrea Martin’s buttoned-up husband in “Club Paradise.” He also co-wrote the Rodney Dangerfield comedy “Back to School.”
“I liked the script and enjoyed the movie,” Alexander said. “When he asked me if we would consider putting Second City’s name on it, it made sense. It is a dark, edgy social satire consistent with the Second City attitude.”
And then some. “Buzzkill” stars Daniel Raymont as Ray, an idealistic screenwriter whose latest script is deemed too depressing. “I will never sell out,” he proclaims to those who think he would be better served writing more commercial fare, like a comedy called “Black Santa.” But his script does find one champion: a serial killer (Darrell Hammond) who has stolen his car and finds the script.
“Buzzkill” was made for a little over $1 million, and Kampmann’s Second City improvisation background served him well for the kind of guerilla, low-budget filmmaking that would require the state of New Jersey to stand in for the rest of the United States as Ray drives cross-country for a meeting with a Hollywood producer.
He recruited several Second City veterans for parts, including Lance Kinsey as a quite demented driver who at one point picks up a hitchhiking Ray, Audrie Neenan as a waitress, and Richard Kind, Martin Short, and Andrea Martin, who lend their voices to three key, unseen characters. Kampmann’s wife, Judith Kahan, an accomplished actress and writer, has a memorable bit as an ingratiating rental car agent.
“With Second City people, you know what you’re going to get,” he said admiringly. “As a screenwriter, structure is very important to me, but when you’re on a set with these accomplished actors who can improvise, it’s the perfect formula. If they go off the dialogue or add something, they inject life into a very tedious process that can kill spontaneity.”
Raymont was the last actor Kampmann auditioned for the lead. In addition to the comedic look and improvisation skills Kampmann was looking for, he also had a British accent, which put a fish-out-of-water spin on the character that Kampman enthusiastically embraced. “We were all happy we found him,” he said.
It was after Raymont was cast that Kampmann learned his star wasn’t British. “He never gave in for one second,” Kampmann laughed. “He did the entire audition with that accent and he didn’t drop it when I introduced him to the producers. I never got an answer why.”
Kampmann sees “Buzzkill” as an opportunity for Second City to affordably branch out into movies. He has a five-film plan. Each would be produced for about $250,000. Kampmann envisions ensemble comedies like “Car Wash” or a sketch anthology like “The Groove Tube” or “The Kentucky Fried Movie.”
The vagaries and expense of film distribution might prohibit a theatrical run, but Second City’s marketing channels would allow the films to find their audience and, it’s hoped, earn enough of a profit to build on their success. “Start small and prove yourself,” Kampmann envisions.
Alexander is intrigued as long as the films embody the Second City sensibility. The fallen state of the once mighty Lampoon empire is a cautionary tale. “They are the prime example of how to destroy a brand,” he said. Still, he added, “I respect [Kampmann’s] passion. He really seems to be determined.”
For information about purchasing “Buzzkill” on DVD, visit www.secondcity.com.
Donald Liebenson is a local free-lance writer.