Two young performers are on stage in Chicago's comedy mecca, The Second City. She's white. He's African American.
HE: I thought we were soul mates, but now I find out you watch Fox News! (Laugh from audience.)
SHE: There's an election coming. We ought to be informed.
HE: I don't have to be informed, I'm black. (Big laugh.) I mean, I'm black, Obama's black. The choice is obvious.
SHE: Oh? So why not vote Republican? Mitt Romney loves Jesus, black people love Jesus ...
HE: That's a totally different Jesus! (Huge laugh.)
It's edgy stuff, and to visitors such as us it reveals the city's zeitgeist. The performers are excellent and we're thinking, "I wonder if they'll make it in film or TV some day?" They may be thinking the same thing. It can't be easy being an artist in Chicago. No sooner do you get a start here than you're tempted to move east or west.
Charlie Chaplin worked here until the film industry chased the sun to California. Louis Armstrong played Chicago through the early 1920s before moving to New York. John Malkovich attracted attention as a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble. The aforementioned Second City, "the Harvard of American comedy", has spawned a host of famous alumni.
"We say we don't care, but we all hope we'll get to New York some time," says David Amaral, whose company, New Beast Theatre Works, performs original "semi-operas" in tiny storefront venues. And do New York performers hope they'll make it to Chicago? I ask. "Er, no. Crazy, isn't it?"
It is crazy. New York and London are probably the only cities in the world that tourists visit specifically for their theatre. OK, maybe Milan, too. Yet judging from the week we spent exploring Chicago's arts scene, the city stages many more interesting shows than some raking in the tourist dollars on Broadway.
In Chicago we saw productions unlike anything we've seen anywhere else. They haven't run for years and become jaded; they're fresh, they're fun and they're different. And they tell us something about the modern US.
We'd heard the city was at the cutting edge of architecture and art. The Chicago Architecture Foundation's tours and river cruises are legendary, for good reason, we discovered. The guides' pride in their city was palpable. The term "Windy City", incidentally, comes not just from the weather, but was coined to describe the hot air rising from Chicagoans as they talked up their town. They've got plenty to boast about.
Significantly, Chicago's most recognisable icon is a modern artwork. New York has the Statue of Liberty; Chicago has "The Bean". Anish Kapoor's sculpture Cloud Gate (he hates its nickname, incidentally) was installed in 2006. It's an enormous, um, leguminous, highly polished sculpture that attracts all visitors to Chicago to take distorted shots of themselves, with the city skyline as a backdrop. This is more than a fairground mirror - it is a truly beautiful object in itself.
It stands in front of the spectacular open-air venue the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and a little further along Michigan Avenue is the Art Institute of Chicago, which is up there with the world's great galleries, a worthy rival to New York's Museum of Modern Art.
The crowds were flocking to the Impressionists - more Renoirs, Monets and Gauguins than you'll ever see in one place. For me, though, the standouts were two paintings by Russian-born American Mark Rothko. A Rothko sold for $US87 million in New York while we were there. It seemed a lot for some fuzzy blocks of colour, until I saw his work for real. He's worth the money.
In New York people book their tickets to The Lion King with their holiday packages. It's a high-class show, but it was also high class in Sydney, several years ago. In Chicago we had a dazzling assortment of new productions to choose from. We took a chance on a mix of mainstream and quirky, and if they didn't all hit the bullseye, it made for an intriguing week.
Chicago Opera Theatre produces works you won't see elsewhere. We saw Handel's Teseo, whose male roles are scored for countertenors (men with voices higher than the Bee Gees) and whose eponymous hero is played by a contralto, like a principal boy in a panto. It was certainly not your run-of-the-mill opera production.
Next night we were in more conventional theatre territory with Steppenwolf. Anyone lucky enough to catch its award-winning production of August: Osage County in the Sydney Theatre will know it is one of the world's great companies. We saw its newest production, Frank Galati's stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's civil war novel The March.
It was an ambitious epic, not entirely successful in engaging our emotions, but technically and visually impressive. The company was mixed in race and age, but slightly disappointingly the Steppenwolf audience was disproportionately white and older; it's happening to mainstream theatre everywhere, unfortunately.
Chicago Children's Theatre was clearly doing well in cultivating new audiences. The very young, very mixed-race crowd was out in force when I took the trip out to the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre. It's a theatre with a past - gangster John Dillinger was gunned down outside it. There was no such drama to scare the kids at my show - they were happy laughing at The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has much in common with Shakespeare's Globe. Not just the repertoire, the open-thrust stage and the three-tiered balcony seating, but also the location in a popular entertainment area - in Chicago's case, Navy Pier.
On a wet Friday night we pushed through a seething mass of young people hovering around the souvenir and junk-food shops and eventually found our way to the theatre foyer. It felt like a people's place rather than a temple for the elite. We saw a stylish production of the seldom performed Timon of Athens, starring British actor Ian McDiarmid. The thrust stage encouraged audience interaction and, though we didn't wander in and out, Elizabethan-style, to buy burgers and popcorn, we almost felt we could have if we'd wanted to.
On our final night in town we found a show with beer and snacks, coming and going, a young, multicultural crowd and a hell of a lot of fun at The Second City. For 50 years performers have been climbing onto these stages and improvising, honing their skills in making people laugh. Their pictures are on the foyer walls - Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Don Adams, John Candy, Steve Carell, Mike Myers, Dan Castellaneta, the Belushi brothers, Dan Aykroyd and dozens of others.
Also proudly posted are abusive letters from those outraged by performances - accusing them of being "lewd", "moralless", "profane" and, worst of all, "anti-American". It may not be the place to come if you're easily offended, so don't say you weren't warned.
We found it hilarious and educational. While some of the references to current Chicago public figures went over our heads, it was fascinating to get an up-to-the-minute glimpse of young Americans' concerns, with no sacred cows and no holds barred.
Sketches about the wallflower Korean girl at a nightclub, the woman taking up roller derby as a hobby, embarrassingly stupid photos spread by smartphones and a re-elected Barack Obama turning into a super-dude with megalomania: all were new and revealing to us.
We tipped what the performers called "the hardest-working waitpersons in Chicago", who had been ferrying food and drinks to our tables, giving them "that little bit extra to spend on trivial things like rent ... and insulin". It was a memorable night out.
A week in the city was too short. We missed far more than we could see. We skipped the big productions. There were dozens of storefront shows we could have gone to, and countless smaller galleries we could have visited. We didn't even make it to the music.
We'll have to come back to Chicago soon. There'll be new shows, new exhibitions, hits and misses, and a new crop of actors. Some of those we saw will have moved on to fame, fortune or disappointment. There's every reason to think the new ones will be good, too.
The writer was the guest of the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.
Three other things to do in Chicago
1 Music Chicago has famous jazz clubs and some of the best classical music you'll find anywhere.
2 Rent a bike Many kilometres of car-free bike trails lead along the shores of Lake Michigan. Chicago may be windy but it's also flat.
3 Check in to the CAF (Chicago Architecture Foundation) for one of its daily tours by bus, foot, boat, bike or Segway.
Chicago Architecture Foundation tours, architecture.org.
Art Institute of Chicago, artic.edu.
Chicago Opera Theatre, chicagooperatheater.org.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, chicagoshakes.com.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company, steppenwolf.org.
Chicago Children's Theatre, chicagochildrenstheater.org.
The Second City, secondcity.com.