So the generally hectic Wednesday night at the iO theater in Wrigleyville was exceptionally frenzied this week, with fans lining up outside starting at 6:30 for the 8 p.m. show and stuffing every seat in the downstairs cabaret. Some of them surely were drawn by the prospect of seeing people they knew from TV -- people who wouldn't even be taking the stage.
The rumors proved true: Longtime "SNL" cast members Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis settled into reserved seats just before showtime, along with co-stars Casey Wilson and Abby Elliott, relative newcomers to NBC's late-night comedy powerhouse. A swarm of writers from the show completed the party.
They watched comedy typical of what iO visitors see most any night. The team 3033 made up and demonstrated various historic phases of improv, all of them preposterous. Bullet Lounge built the suggestion of "banana split" into a poignant scene of a man losing his dying wife, as actors pretended to embellish them with whipped cream and sprinkles. Carl & the Passions made up a school assembly where kids ignored the lessons on refrigerator safety and probed the janitor about his vomit cleaner.
The "SNL" folks laughed, just as they'd hoped to during an outing that was more vacation than business trip.
The group was 18 strong and could have been even bigger; cast members Michaela Watkins and Kenan Thompson dropped out when they got last-minute gigs. Kristen Wiig, one of this season's most prolific "SNL" talents, came for a while but split before the night at iO.
John Lutz, an iO alum and "SNL" writer who put the trip together, patterned it after annual sojourns the show staff takes to Cambridge, Mass. "SNL" writers with roots at the Harvard Lampoon give their colleagues a look at where they come from, and Lutz thought staffers from Chicago could do a similar tour.
"A lot of ['SNL'] people haven't come to Chicago at all, let alone the Second City or iO," said Lutz, who also appears on "30 Rock" as a hapless writer named Lutz. "It's part of 'SNL' history as well."
The comics arrived Monday and hit Second City as well, catching the mainstage show "America: All Better" on Tuesday. Along the way they've made stops on the standard tourist circuit: pizza at Giordano's, ribs at Twin Anchors, drinks atop the Hancock.
"And the orgies!" Sudeikis said. "Oh my God, the orgies have been insane."
It was a homecoming for Sudeikis, who used to perform at iO and with Second City's touring companies. For Elliott, it was a fresh experience, her first visit to Chicago since a childhood trip to the top of the Sears Tower.
She'd heard much about improv here during her training at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre -- a company founded by Chicago-trained comics -- and was excited to see it and study it. That done, she has one more goal to accomplish before heading home on Thursday.
"I heard that Portillo's has a chocolate cake milkshake," she said, "and I am craving that I will get it."