Here's a story about Mick Napier that doesn't necessarily illuminate how he became one of improvisational comedy's guiding lights, a revered Second City director and the Annoyance Theatre founder who's about to open a spankin' new facility at Clark Street and Belmont Avenue. But it's not boring, and being not boring is a core Napier principle.
Born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, his dad a coal miner turned construction worker, a young Napier became obsessed with the Bible and read it in its entirety twice, one chapter every night, a process he says takes about four years. He'd keep a deck of cards in one pocket and a little Bible in the other, and he'd stick to his reading pace no matter the circumstance.
"If I forgot my Bible, and I was on a hiking or camping trip, I would walk however long it took me out of the woods to find a light and knock on a stranger's door in the middle of the night and say, 'I'm a Boy Scout, I am camping over there, I read the Bible every night, and I forgot my Bible. Can I come in and read a chapter of your Bible?'" the 51-year-old Eagle Scout recalls. "I did that six times."
Napier no longer is religious — he calls himself "a devout atheist" — but he does still carry around a deck of cards for shuffling or doing tricks, and pretty much everyone who knows him says he's an all-in kind of guy when it comes to commitments and fearlessness.
One of Napier's chief commitments is to what he views as the truth. Brutal honesty. No b.s. — the unabbreviated term comes up often in discussions about him.
"He knew what was (b.s.) and what to discard," says Amy Sedaris, who worked with him at Second City and on the mid-1990s Comedy Central sketch show "Exit 57" with fellow Second City alumni Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, Jodi Lennon and Mitch Rouse. "He always knew the thread to follow. You could trust him with that."
Napier's M.O. is to allow any performer to try anything while working up material. "Mick was all about courage and not listening to your fear," recalls Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" before he moves to CBS' "Late Show" sometime next year. "Don't try to sneak in through the window. Just come boldly onto stage, like come right through the door with your choice. Kill the judge in your head and just take action."
But once you take that action, Napier offers his unvarnished opinion.
"He doesn't pull his punches," says Tim Kazurinsky, a Second City veteran of the late 1970s who worked with Napier on a project years later. "And he gets away with it. Other people get punched out for saying what he does."
"I would say, 'Not only is it not working, but it's the single worst piece of comedy that I've ever seen in my life. We should cut it immediately. I hate it,'" Napier says in his deep, smoky, drawly voice as he takes sips from a bowl of Thai soup in a storefront Lakeview restaurant. "And I don't mean it in a mean way. I just like to really be real with myself and be honest to myself."
"It's great for comedy," says Conner O'Malley, a former Annoyance student/performer whom Napier championed with dramatic results. (More on that later.) "No one's sensitive. It makes you develop a thick skin. He could say, 'I thought that (expletive) sucked,' and I'd say, 'Me too.' It was this straightforward, frank way to work, and it made everything more efficient."
Another story, with some background first: The Annoyance, as befits its name, is a scrappy, often confrontational North Side comedy improvisation/theater company; its longest-running show (11 years) was a musical called "Co-Ed Prison Sluts," and other popular early productions included "Miss Vagina Pageant" and "That Darned Antichrist." The scheduled May 25 opening of the new Lakeview space is intended to mark a great leap forward for this 27-year-old, still-mostly-underground organization.
The Second City, as you're more likely to know, is Chicago's premier comedy institution, an improv/sketch company that launches famous careers and packs houses with tourists and locals.
Napier is able to navigate between these two worlds as well as anybody, understanding that each place has distinct needs. But that doesn't mean he won't push back against established norms.
When he directed his first Second City mainstage show in 1996, "Citizen Gates," he was determined to cast an equal number of women and men. Up until that point, the typical Second City cast was made up of four or five men and two women, a template that carried over to the e.t.c. company next door and troupes in the suburbs and traveling the country.
"It was always difficult to find a scene with women in it, let alone a scene that represented a female point of view," Napier says. "So that became important to me."
Napier had just returned from two years in New York, where he directed on "Exit 57" and David Sedaris' Obie Award-winning off-Broadway show, "One Woman Shoe," so he wasn't quite up to speed on the local scene.
"I had to hire a woman, and I didn't know many women, so I just saw tapes of people, and some scant performances," Napier says.
The woman he cast to establish gender parity on the Second City mainstage?
Second City has presented equal-gender casts ever since, which Napier considers his biggest accomplishment there. "Now I'm excited that I just directed the first mainstage show that has the most gay men in it," he adds, referring to the recently opened, well-reviewed "Depraved New World," which features two gay male performers, John Hartman and Mike Kosinski.
Thanks to what Second City executive vice president Kelly Leonard considers Napier's "stunning skill" of being able to read people quickly and offer sharp feedback without seeming negative, the Annoyance founder oversees many Second City auditions. At one, Napier encountered unpolished, 19-year-old O'Malley, who didn't make the Second City cut. But when Napier saw him at the Annoyance soon afterward, he pulled the young man aside and told him he had a real future because he was doing things that the director hadn't previously seen done — another core Napier value.
"It was that moment in my life when I decided to make comedy my career," O'Malley recalls, noting that he made the Annoyance his second home.
O'Malley was overweight at the time, and Napier wound up making a bet with him: O'Malley would lose 50 pounds in a year while Napier would quit smoking, and if O'Malley failed, then he would have to quit smoking, and if Napier failed, then he would have to gain and lose 100 pounds in a year.
Napier says he took a smoking-cessation drug for two-and-a-half weeks and experienced a year and a half of "suicidal ideation" and "olfactory hallucinations." That is to say that 40 or 50 times a day he would imagine killing himself, like waiting for a train and thinking, "It would be fine if I jumped off this 'L' platform. Very clinical," he says.
"The amount of times he would say, 'I'm going to kill myself' during the day just made me insane," says Annoyance executive producer Jennifer Estlin, Napier's personal partner of almost 19 years (and fiancee for almost two). "It was heartbreaking to me to see this incredible mind just turn into something that it wasn't."
The dark thoughts and bad smells eventually dissipated, and Napier did quit smoking, at least. And O'Malley dropped his weight (and eventually quit smoking to boot), and his comedy skills became so well-regarded that he's now a writer/performer for "Late Night With Seth Meyers."
"He's generally considered one of the top alternative comedy voices," Leonard says of O'Malley. "I credit Mick Napier 1,000 percent with getting him there, because no one else would have taken a chance."
The new Annoyance, which will host an inaugural open house next Sunday, has large windows that overlook the bustling corner of Belmont and Clark, and Napier and Estlin hope to draw much of that energy to their second-floor space, formerly a martial arts studio. Wearing a leather jacket that Harold Ramis gave him after he appeared in Ramis' "The Ice Harvest," as well as the ever-present black cap over his bald head, Napier consults with workers as they figure out TV-screen placement above the lobby's sizable, elegant bar that he says will operate independently from the theater. That is, he wants people to come up to have a drink and good time regardless of whether they're seeing a show or taking a class.
Mind you, Napier quit drinking almost three years ago after twice suffering seizures due to alcohol withdrawal. He was a heavy drinker, which he'll discuss with anyone, except that he finds the topic "boring." "The last thing I want to do is think it's so special that I stopped drinking that I'm going to do a one-man show about it or something," he grumbles.
Anyway, the new space — for which the Annoyance raised $560,000 and has on a 10-year lease with a 10-year option, Estlin says — features two theaters: a smallish, deep red box of a room that will enable more students to get stage experience early in their Annoyance tenures, and a larger room painted various shades of brown and red that will host the main shows. Estlin says 14 shows, including a sketch revue directed by Napier, are lined up for when the facility opens; the Annoyance, unlike Second City, deals in volume.
There are also exposed-brick hallways and various classrooms to accommodate the Annoyance's 150 to 200 students — 7,500 square feet of space upstairs in all, with another 5,000 in the basement (with a dentist office and falafel place at street level), Napier says. The company's previous Uptown headquarters, vacated last August after about seven years, contained 4,600 square feet.
That Broadway/Lawrence Avenue location was supposed to solidify the Annoyance's standing after the company's previous nomadic existence. Having moved to Chicago in 1987 after attending Indiana University, Napier mounted his first improv show that year, a horror-movie spoof called "Splatter Theater," in the upstairs auditorium of Wrigleyville's Cabaret Metro (now just Metro), hence the company's original name, Metraform.
Performances in other North Side clubs followed before the Annoyance settled on its name and first official home, moving to Broadway and Briar Place in 1989. Then came a storefront at Clark and Racine, a loft space on Lincoln Avenue and finally the Uptown complex, which in 2006 was seen as a key puzzle piece in that always-due-to-rebound entertainment district.
Alas, Uptown remained Uptown, and the audiences didn't follow the Annoyance that far north, at least not often enough for the many shows presented there.
"I feel like in Uptown we were a little lost," Napier says. "We always thought that Uptown would turn around a little better."
So Napier and Estlin anticipate a boost from the return to Lakeview. "Between the location and access to transportation and just more visibility, we're hoping to really increase our audience base," Estlin says, noting that the new facility also will serve food.
"We feel like this is just exactly where we ought to be, Belmont and Clark," Napier says. "Like if we had to choose an intersection where we dreamed to be, it would be that."
O'Malley shares their enthusiasm about the new location and the theater's general positioning.
"I feel like mainstream comedy's voice is moving closer to what the Annoyance has been doing for the past 25 years, and every day it's getting closer and closer," O'Malley says. "If you're a young person getting into comedy in Chicago, that's going to be the place to be."
"It's an institution at this point, but it's still underground and dangerous," says Scott Adsit ("30 Rock"), who acted under Napier's direction at Second City. "It's not there for the tourists or anybody but the people who, in a whispered voice, know about it. It has maintained its cool, and that's in very large part because of Mick."
As many performers and friends have learned over the years, to Napier insults and pranks are the greatest form of flattery. So it didn't bother current standout Second City cast member and Annoyance veteran Hartman that the director would send him nasty text messages at all hours. "I would only know if something was wrong if Mick went radio silence on me," Hartman says. "He's actually one of the most sensitive people I know because he would desperately worry about hurting someone's feelings."
Hartman calls his director and friend a "guru" while acknowledging that the term would annoy him.
Lo and behold, the term annoys him. "I hate the word because it does evoke an old bearded dude, and I don't like that feeling," Napier says, though he appreciates Hartman's compliment as "nice."
"Guru" is a term more commonly associated with the late iO co-founder Del Close, who brought a mystical element to his teachings. "I don't think I'm as prophetic or professorial or anything like that," Napier says. "I think I'm more like common man. I don't think I wax poetic like that a lot. I also don't believe anything supernatural has ever occurred on the planet Earth."
As he spells out in his 2004 book "Improvise. Scene From the Inside Out," Napier is grounded in the roots of improvisation, but he also has little use for many of the so-called "rules." Actually, he argues, it's important to take care of yourself first on stage instead of focusing on how to make your partners look good. Oh, and do something and don't be boring.
One of Napier's favorite memories of living in New York involves standing on an East Village street corner after a few drinks around 4 a.m. as he and Colbert tried to demonstrate to Estlin "the general theory of relativity."
Au contraire, Colbert says: "I believe what we were trying to explain was not general theory of relativity but the apparent retrograde motion of Mars in the night sky, how it goes forward and then appears to go backwards based on the movement of the Earth throughout the year. We were making her Earth, and one of us was being Mars while the other person described why Mars looked like that in the night sky."
Colbert adds appreciatively: "Mick loves thinking about thinking."
Sedaris says: "Deep down I always thought Mick was such a geek and such a nerd, and that's what I liked about him."
It's no wonder that when Dinello, Colbert and Sedaris were feeling a bit adrift after starting production on "Exit 57" in New York, they knew whom to call.
"It was the first show we'd ever done, and the person we had worked with and trusted the most to understand our style of comedy was Mick," Colbert says. "So we said, 'Would you come in and just look at our scripts and help us figure out what we're trying to say? What's the proper structure for this scene?' Because we weren't as good as that."
"And he has a darker sensibility, which also was in keeping with what we were doing," says Dinello, now a writer/supervising producer on "The Colbert Report."
Colbert says "one of the most Mick things that we ever did" was a sketch called "Down in the Basement" that has Colbert as a dad working on squirrel taxidermy who prods Dinello, a boy who has just returned from a date with the man's daughter, to demonstrate his make-out technique on him. The kiss between Colbert and Dinello isn't even the strangest part; nor is the sight of Sedaris modeling as a squirrel while Colbert does taxidermy. It's that the scene repeats in a loop almost four times without explanation, just escalating insanity.
"We brought the audience along with gaped-mouth realization that we weren't changing the scene, we were just going to change the choices within the scene and do it over and over again," Colbert says. "And it's one of my favorite things we ever did, but very odd, very strange in the choice of let's keep repeating this somewhat disturbing scene over and over again, with slight variations of the comic choices."
Napier says he enjoyed his work on "Exit 57" and David Sedaris' play, but when both were done, "I was ready to get out of Manhattan, and I did miss the Annoyance, and not being a part of that anymore was bothering me." (Dinello, Colbert, Sedaris and Rouse would go on to create the Comedy Central series and movie "Strangers With Candy.")
Plus he was in talks to direct at the Second City mainstage for the first time, and the two shows that followed, "Citizen Gates" and especially "Paradigm Lost" (1997), not only built on the fast-cutting energy of the groundbreaking "Pinata Full of Bees" (1995) but deepened the thematic connections and cross-referencing in a lyrical way while further fracturing the narrative. "He wrangled all the disparate ideas into one cohesive kind of dream structure where everything makes sense as a whole," cast member Adsit recalls.
Napier says when he's directing on the mainstage he strives for a level of beauty that he doesn't pursue at the grittier Annoyance. "I see it as like a painting," he says.
Napier returns to direct at Second City every few years while also teaching, directing, performing and administrating at the Annoyance and working on other projects. In the early 2000s, he and the Second City folks were developing a sketch show with a Fox executive who was let go before the project could achieve liftoff. Napier recently had been jetting off to Los Angeles to develop another sketch-comedy show for a TV network.
No surprise, Napier doesn't like Los Angeles much — the vibe or the necessity of accepting executives' notes and suffering fools. At the same time, many major comedy talents leave Chicago, and Napier has had a hand in more than a few of those careers.
Annoyance alumni include Jane Lynch, Andy Richter, Susan Messing, Jon Favreau, Jeff Garlin, Jill and Faith Soloway (currently collaborating on Jill's new Amazon series "Transparent"), former "Saturday Night Live" cast members Melanie Hutsell and Beth Cahill and current "SNL" performers Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant. Napier directed Colbert, Sedaris, Dinello, Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") and Jackie Hoffman all in one Second City Northwest show, and his first mainstage casts included Fey, Rachel Dratch ("SNL"), Adsit and Kevin Dorff ("Late Night with Conan O'Brien").
"He's one of the most respected, if not the most respected, living improv minds in the country, no question," Leonard says. "I would have expected him to be in New York. I wouldn't have expected him to stay in Chicago. I also wouldn't have expected him to keep working with the Second City. I'm thankful for both."
Says Napier: "The working class, no (b.s.), more process than product, that really attracts me to Chicago. The pace of New York suits me much better. I'm (snaps fingers) just always like wanting to go, go, go, and New York is that."
But with the Annoyance presenting classes in Brooklyn, Napier has an excuse to visit New York more often, even as he sinks his roots deeper into Chicago with his newly expanded Annoyance.
"I think he would as I did grow to hate New York after a while, 'cause it's a killer town," Second City artistic consultant and veteran Chicago director Sheldon Patinkin says. "Mick isn't really a killer."
One final note about Napier: He's Mr. Fix-It. He did the electrical wiring for all of the Annoyance's previous spaces. At home he's got 300 lighters that he repaired but can't use because, as you may recall, he quit smoking.
He takes a similar approach to shows. He's known to tinker obsessively with sketches' running order, the placement of jokes, the rhythms, the tone. "He's the mechanic of it," Hartman says. "He can take it apart and put it back together. He doesn't need to enjoy it now because he's just the master of it."
Which is to say, he rarely laughs.
"What makes me personally laugh has absolutely nothing to do with me directing anything I do," Napier says. "If the criteria is what is funny to each of us, then what's funny to me is, like, harm to babies with a French mime repeating the word 'poodle' in the background. But that is not going to serve the 50 percent tourist-based audience of the Second City mainstage, and it's not going to serve all of our audience at the Annoyance. I take great pride in knowing what the audience is for the most part and serving that."
But he's also serving his own strong sense of comedy, art and integrity. If a scene is gut-bustingly hilarious but doesn't fit a show's theme or tone, it's gone. And heaven forbid you propose sketches involving an impersonation, a song parody or some variation of a town hall meeting with cast members in the audience. He's seen them so many times. He hates them. They're boring. Next.
"Mick and I never fought," Adsit says. "When he's right, he's right, and he knows it — and he waits patiently until you realize it."
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