Anniversaries with big, fat numbers in them, like Second City’s 50th last fall, can be good cause to take wistful stock of the years gone by, peer ahead hopefully to the ones that lay ahead, or just be as good a reason as any to celebrate. For Annoyance founder Mick Napier, though, directing Taming Of The Flu for Second City's anniversary was a wake-up call that after 22 years, he was long overdue to direct a sketch show on his own turf. While Napier has previously directed plays, musicals (like the long-running, gleefully expletive-laden Co-Ed Prison Sluts), and other themed pieces (like a contrarian “tribute” to our former president in President Bush Is A Great Man) at Annoyance, sketch has been a glaring omission from his track record, which is bursting with directing credits from the more senior theater. The new Swear Jar marks Napier’s first time directing sketch at Annoyance, and is every bit as blue as the name suggests and his reputation assures. Shortly after opening night, The A.V. Club met up with Napier at his theater to discuss how Swear Jar makes fun of comedy, improvisers performing for improvisers, and needing to be burned by his audiences.
The A.V. Club: We'll start with the obvious question: Why haven’t you directed a sketch show at Annoyance until now?
Mick Napier: That's a great question. For a long time I felt there was a conflict of interest with Second City, 'cause I direct sketch comedy there. For whatever reason, I don't even know, it doesn't feel like so much. I think the 50th anniversary of Second City had something to do with it, where it just feels like the strange culmination of something that makes it okay for me to do that here now. I talked to everyone at Second City and they were always cool with it.
AVC: You’ve been holding yourself back?
MN: I think so.
AVC: Were you tempted to earlier?
MN: I thought about it. There were times I'd even warded it off from other people wanting to do sketch here, and then it would happen, and I'd be okay with it. It would ebb and flow. I think it's all retarded. I think the concept of me not doing it before is stupid.
AVC: Legitimately, though, there was a rivalry of sorts between iO, Second City, and Annoyance. Why do you think it’s died down?
MN: A lot of us just became a little more mature. It's bizarre. I've been to other cities where this competition between theaters happens. In L.A. it's happening right now [between] UCB and iO and even Second City.
AVC: Which is weird, because those are all transplants from elsewhere.
MN: Yeah, it's bizarre. I sat at a meeting in Toronto and moderated a meeting with the improv theaters in Toronto that hated each other. It’s weird. I think we've evolved a little bit in Chicago. I'm really good friends with [iO co-founder] Charna Halpern. As much shit as people give her, I'm really good friends with her and I'm close to [Second City CEO] Andrew Alexander on a father-son level, almost, and he would do anything in the world to support the Annoyance. So I think it's just become time, age, and maturity in that way. Realizing there is a competition, that people just overlap all the time and do different things in different theaters. It's a logistical pain in the ass especially if you're the Annoyance, because iO often supersedes an Annoyance show, and of course Second City supersedes both those. It's a programming nightmare sometimes.
AVC: It overlaps in good ways, though, like your time at Second City benefiting the Annoyance.
MN: With a lot of shows here, I have helped write them and guide the content more. You have to understand also, I've never really sat down and thought about this at all except for right now. It's really interesting. What a great question. Usually with the stuff here I direct, I guide the content more and impose my own will on it. I just realized right now I'm so indoctrinated into Second City, and the reverence I have for having the actor be the writer at Second City, that I never really thought of it. I carry that sketch-comedy model here and just guide the actors to write material. I never really had a vision for it or anything. There was one point when I did want it to be a little less censored. I'm 47 years old, so it's really weird for me sometimes, 'cause I'm doing it all the time here for 24, 25-year-old people, that need to be a little more edgy with this shit. They're a little conservative.
AVC: You sarcastically joked on opening night about the show’s themes afterwards to the audience. To you, though, are there really themes in Swear Jar? Or is it basically to be as offensive as possible?
MN: Sex, misogyny, death. Those were themes in that show. But we never sat down and had a theme at all. In the second act, there's four little scenes, after the closing number that is about eating food in a fast-food restaurant. I kind of look at it as anti-comedy. It's really not supposed to be funny to me. I'm just pulling the lights in weird places to build up to a song that makes no sense. It's really about listing fast-food restaurants and I feel like that's kind of the anti-comedy. In a weird way, we’re making fun of comedy. I'm drawn to stuff like that. It's attractive to me, maybe because I've done this stuff for so long.
AVC: Did you feel more pressure on directing Second City’s 50th or Swear Jar?
MN: For the 50th. There was a lot of pressure for that. Second City's really good about not putting that pressure on you, though. The producers are really hands-off. But just the whole building during that time was crazy. They spent so much money and time on that event, and all those people coming back, there was a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted the alumni who came back to be proud. I wanted it to be beautiful, and I wanted it to be funny. For a lot of people, it was the first time they saw three men and three women on the stage, equal cast, equal gender. That's a huge thing.
AVC: How do you feel about the way both of these shows came out?
MN: I feel good about it. Some stuff in there I wish were funnier, but that's with every show I've directed there. The cast was good, and it was diverse. The material was diverse.
AVC: What really struck me, more than any other revue there, was how there really were no stand-out performers. The focus, as Second City always strives for, really was on the ensemble as a whole.
MN: What about Brad [Morris]? Did you see Brad?
AVC: Yeah, but he’s always good.
MN: He is. I feel like he really shone that show. It's interesting to do sketch comedy here because it truly can let the ripcord go on the content, and that's refreshing.
People criticize Second City for becoming institutionalized and commercial, but they don't realize what it is to be in a show at Second City. A lot of people in the community say things like, “Oh, they're too commercial or tepid with their humor, they're not edgy enough.” You could put out a scene that you saw here [at Annoyance] Saturday night on the Mainstage and you could offend the audience, and they're going to leave or they're not gonna laugh. So do you want to put a blackout about rape and power on the Second City Mainstage and have 300 tourists not laugh eight times a week for eight months? As an actor, you don't. So the demographic of Second City dictates the content. As a director there, I'll fucking do anything, but I don't want my actors to have to do eight shows a week for eight months, doing material that alienates their audience. I want everyone to have a good time. Not only performers but the audience as well. So that's what dictates the content of Second City. It's not like the producers are saying, “Hey, pull it back.” The irony is Andrew Alexander, every time I talk to him before I direct there, he's always telling me, “I would love it to be a little more edgy.” He likes really dark shit.
AVC: Everyone just wants you to be edgy.
MN: He's going to love this show. Andrew's gonna come with his wife Diane in a couple weeks. I think he'll really like it, and I think he'll look at it and roll his eyes, take my hand and hug me. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were talking about keeping shows entertaining for the performer and audience alike, but we do have this thing in Chicago where so much of the audience is filled with performers.
MN: Absolutely. And that’s a tough delineation. Second City is clearly an un-savvy tourist audience and iO is a fairly incestuous audience, a lot of students. Here it’s a mix. I had joked with some Second City producers that I was going to parody myself [with Swear Jar], like start a beautiful transition and then just black it out and not fuck with it. They all laughed and were like, “I can’t wait to see that.” Then I thought about it, the audience, what really makes the package of a show, and what really makes the product. Improvisers see scenes they think are funny, but they don’t realize that they’re the only ones laughing. They don’t realize that there’s 60 percent of the audience that aren’t invited to that party.
To be quite honest with you, opening night, there were a lot of people that we all know, and I’m wondering about this Saturday. It’s something I’ve always been proud of myself about is I will stand there and fucking take it. Meaning that if the material sucks, there may be people around laughing, because they want to support, but I don’t give a fuck.
AVC: That’s not the kind of support you need.
MN: It isn’t the kind of support I need. I need to be burned. I need to be burned by the audience.
AVC: You need to be told you look fat in that dress.
MN: I need to look at that woman over there that’s 53 and find out why she’s not laughing, look at that other guy that’s 18, find out why he’s not laughing and why he’s not feeling like he’s part of this.
AVC: You kept a blog back in the mid-'90s while directing Paradigm Lost over at Second City, and you mentioned not watching Saturday Night Live. Is that still the case?
MN: I don’t. I haven’t seen it in forever.
AVC: It seems like more people in the community are watching again, with Pat O’Brien getting picked up last year to write.
MN: I love Pat and I love Jason Sudeikis. I am really irresponsible with comedy: I don’t watch it. I haven’t seen a comedy film in years. My girlfriend Jennifer [Estlin] will watch The Daily Show, and I’ll watch Stephen’s show [The Colbert Report], and that’s about all the comedy I think I ever watch. I’ve never seen one episode of Seinfeld, I don’t think, or an episode of Friends.
AVC: With “direct a sketch show at Annoyance” off your bucket list, what other projects have been lingering on your to-do list?
MN: That’s a good question. [I’ve done] two of them in the last two years: a sketch show and to improvise and take my clothes off with Skinprov.
AVC: Speaking of which, how did those Skinprov bachelorette shows go after opening night?
MN: Oh my God. They were just screaming at us in a bad way. It was funny, in a way, but annoying, too.
AVC: How does something like that go well, though?
MN: When you do have a bachelorette party and they’re quiet and respectful, and they’re into the sex of it, but they’re also appreciating the comedy, they allow scenes to happen, and then you have 10 gay men, too. That’s a good night.
AVC: Getting back to your to-do list: Wasn’t there a screenplay you were working on?
MN: Oh, fuck. I’m editing a thing that I love called Bandicoot!. It’s a very absurd piece of theater that me and my friend Josh Walker created, and Sam Weiner directed it onstage. Josh is on the Second City [touring company] boats, so last summer he wanted to shoot Bandicoot as a movie, so we did. We have a really nice HD camera here. So we took two weeks and pretty much morning and night shot this thing. I’m editing. It’s probably going to be 40-something minutes long, and I’m probably about 30 minutes into the edit. It’s retarded.
AVC: What’s it about?
MN: The plot? Oh God. It’s a buddy search movie. I’ll tell you our three goals: to make it be the dirtiest thing we’ve ever done onstage, to have it not make one bit of fucking sense, and the end of it, the audience doesn’t know what our relationship is. Are we brothers? Are we what?
AVC: Lofty ambitions.
MN: It’s retarded. And it’s a musical. A cappella. The songs are horrible. The plot is that we have to take a train to Hollywood to coerce a celebrity to give us a Bible so we can pray to Jesus so that Jesus Christ will tell us where the Sears Tower is so we can steal it and become famous criminals. That’s Bandicoot!. I need to edit that motherfucking thing and get that out there.
Swear Jar runs at Annoyance Saturday nights at 10:30 p.m. through May 1.