Chicago's Mick Napier: Master of Annoyance

Mick Napier at the new Annoyance Theater, still under construction at 851 W Belmont Ave.

Mick Napier at the new Annoyance Theater, still under construction at 851 W Belmont Ave. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune / July 3, 2014)

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?

Tina Fey.

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