1:14 PM CDT, August 9, 2012
It's time, dear reader, to raise a glass to Mick Napier, improv queen Susan Messing, wild Joe Bill, hard-toiling Jennifer Estlin, restless Mark Sutton and the Annoyance Theatre, which have, improbably, survived together for 25 years.
On Aug. 18, the improv-comedy stalwarts (older now but hardly better behaved) will host a big party and retro performance in their own honor at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave. The bash is open to the public and much-deserved.
In 1998, I summed up the Annoyance in the Tribune: "a mix of beer-breath improv, pop-culture parody and cheerfully anarchic celebrations of bad taste." That's still not so far from the truth, although it probably does not give sufficient credit to the works of genuine excellence and innovation that have emerged from these Chicago-style pranksters.
Take "The Real Live Brady Bunch," a show that premiered in 1990 at the early, 110-seat Annoyance digs at 3153 N. Broadway. Back then, the Annoyance kids were operating under the name Metraform Theater Company. But after Faith and Jill Soloway came up with the idea of re-enacting a different episode each week of the beloved sitcom, live onstage, things changed fast.
These days, that idea may not seem that radical. That's because it's been copied so many times: the "I Love Lucy"show headed to the Broadway Playhouse in the fall is a child of "The Real Live Brady Bunch." But when the Soloway sisters came up with the notion of reading TV scripts onstage, with a nostalgia-satire fusion the goal, it was quite the sensation. Five of the original Bradys saw the show during its multiyear run, as did the producer, Sherwood Schwartz, who loved the show so much that he persuaded Paramount Television to authorize it for minimal payment, rather than close the Soloways down. By any standards, "The Real Live Brady Bunch" was a great classic of Chicago theater.
Critics were never coddled at the Annoyance Theatre. You lined up with everyone else out on the street in the cold. For a long time. Actually, I always suspected critics were abused and made to wait longer, sparking a bitterness toward this company, which I've carried all these years. And there were nights in the early 1990s when I tried to review shows, and could barely see over the tops of people's heads after being shoved in some corner and told I was lucky to get in. But the work was good enough — much of the time — to make the abuse worth it. I was lucky to get in.
I have abiding affection for such Annoyance classics as "That Darned Antichrist" and "Tippi: Portrait of a Virgin (An Afternoon Special Gone Bad)," and I won't quickly forget watching Jeff Garlin, when no one knew his name, in his various stints at the Annoyance. Garlin was hardly the only Annoyance-type dude who became a celebrity: Dick Costolo, now CEO of Twitter, could be seen, in the mid 1990s, in an Annoyance improv show called "Modern Problems in Science." Andy Richter was part of the original cast of "Brady Bunch."
My favorite Annoyance show was, without question, "What Every Girl Should Know: An Ode to Judy Blume," in which Susan Messing and the late, great Mary Scruggs dramatized those famous Blume novels like "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret?" The place was always packed with young women — by now Annoyance was working at 3747 N. Clark St. Perhaps the constituency of the audience was why I kept going back, but I swear it was the brilliance of the parody. Like"The Book of Mormon,"the "Judy Blume" show understood that the best takedowns are always leavened with warm affection.
Blume came and saw it and told me she loved it. But rights are rights, and no rights are no rights, and the show was allowed to run its Chicago course but no more.
In 2000, Annoyance lost its space at 3747 N. Clark after the building was sold. The troupe had to close down its best-known show, "Co-Ed Prison Sluts," which I never much liked but that had been running for more than 11 years. Napier started talking about "distributing our stuff through digital technology," which seemed weird at the time.
As things played out in the next decade, Annoyance remained very much a live company (it could have pioneered short-form video), and Napier's career bloomed, mostly at Second City, where he directed some seminal reviews. But Napier and his partner, Jennifer Estlin, still kept Annoyance going, craving their own company and a place where they could take bigger risks than at Second City, where you were always supposed to be funny. In 2006, Annoyance opened a new theater in Uptown and started to take in improv students who were too young to have seen any of their great shows.
So how to sum up Annoyance at this auspicious anniversary?
Unlike some, it has not grown into a major institution or gone mainstream. It has helped groom a few stars, but it has made very few fortunes, in the usual sense of that word. It is hardly secure, even now. But Annoyance was the mother lode of badly behaved improvisation, an essential font of improvised edge and self-made creativity that always resisted polish and the pull of a final product, even though that meant resisting the success that came with a carefully tuned and predictable entertainment brand. Annoyance always preferred wandering dangerously on the edge where failure was found at every turn. It has made us laugh, but never quite knew if that was what it was supposed to be doing. It has been made up of ambitious people uncomfortable with their own ambition. It has paid whatever price needed to be paid to keep its anarchic soul.
And now the Annoyance kids are middle-aged. There's a lot of that about. Enjoy the party, bad boys and girls. Don't stay out too late — the sitter has to be paid and there's another job to do on Monday.
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