Mick Napier would probably say “fuck it” to a formal introduction, but here goes anyway… He’s an actor, teacher, author, founder and Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre, and Artistic Consultant to The Second City. He has directed Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, David Sedaris, and just about anyone else you think is cool.
P&C: You’ve said that you don’t watch a lot of comedy; you’ve never seen Seinfeld or Friends. Do you think that gives you a more unique perspective on what’s funny?
MN: I think it can. That’s not the reason I don’t really watch those things but I do feel like it gives me a feeling of not being affected by all those, or influenced by them, in a good way.
But it also provides a deficit when I’m working. Like if I’m directing at Second City, I kinda feel out of it sometimes. I rely on my cast to tell me if something’s been done, or we’re visiting a comedic premise that’s been visited before.
So I think it’s kind of a fun thing, but it’s also been a bad thing for me, too. It makes people think that I’m indifferent to comedy.
It’s interesting you’re asking me that right now, because I made a concerted effort to express that less to people lately because I think it leaves people with a feeling that’s like, “Oh God, he doesn’t even like comedy…”
MN: I do! I do like comedy. It’s just that sometimes it becomes a little bit of a work…a job for me.
With media or like with television and stuff, if I’m presented a comedy versus, you know, a Law & Order or something, I’m gonna probably go for the drama. But it’s also that way with me and fiction. I don’t read fiction that much, so if I can read The Scarlet Letter or how a refrigerator works, I’m going to read how a refrigerator works.
When you started doing improv, you didn’t actually have any improv training per se; you just sort of jumped into it, is that right?
MN: Yeah, I was in college and I was in theatre, and I think I grew a little weary of rehearsing the same thing over and over, and at that time happened upon a book by Jeff Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away, and I really was enthralled by the idea of just making it up.
So I got together with my friend Dave MacNerland and we formed a group in college and I had never seen it, nor had I ever done it. But I put an audition notice up for a group, and we auditioned people and we started improvising. Mostly sketches and short form stuff, games.
We were actually writing a new sketch show every week or two, and then we would throw improv games in the middle of those.
For college it was crazy, because we spent an incredible amount of time – three or four nights a week – working on stuff or rehearsing stuff. So it was a new, I’d say hour-long sketch show every week, with some games in there.
P&C: Wow, that’s a lot of work.
MN: It was. I look back on that now, and look at the two-month rehearsal process for the Second City Mainstage to get that much time, and it’s crazy.
I think when you don’t know something you just kinda do it and say “Fuck it.” And I think you don’t know that you’re not supposed to really know that, or not know that.
We had a nice following. It was called Dubbletaque, and we were in a couple of different bars in college.
P&C: From there, you were on an iO team called Grime and Punishment.
MN: Yeah, I was in college until ’86 and then moved to Chicago, and almost immediately started at iO and started at Second City all at the same time.
Back then there were only about, maybe five or six iO teams. And there was the Second City training program, which had just created its official Conservatory back then.
I started improvising about the same time as a guy named Dave Pasq – or not Dave Pasquesi, he was improvising before me – but Dave Razowsky. And we were on the same team. That was with Rich Laible, and also Tim Meadows was on that team. That was a really good group of people. Timmy and I started improvising about the same week in Chicago.
P&C: Can you describe the improv scene in Chicago at that time? Obviously it was a much smaller community.
MN: I think long form was really starting, and that was only about five or six years old when I got to Chicago. It was a lot smaller; at the time though of course I thought it was huge because I’m from Indiana, and Second City’s training program was big enough that I certainly felt the competition, so I never really thought it was small at the time. But now looking back on it, I do.
Like, Second City when I was there, it took a little less than a year to get through their entire program. And now they have A through E, and then they have One through Six, and then iO has six levels, and then the Annoyance has five levels. So I think it takes a lot longer for people to get through the improv experience now.
Does Toronto’s Second City have two years, do they have A through E? I don’t even know.
P&C: They have A through E, and then you can audition for Conservatory, and I believe they now have a long form program that is separate that is probably five levels, and a musical Conservatory.
P&C: You can spend your life taking classes. (laughs)
MN: Ain’t that the truth. It’s a lot different that way. I think also with Second City, [there's] the different programs they’ve set up internally, like their BenchCo, their Twisty here which is like a house team at Second City, and then the ships that you can go on, and then Touring Company and e.t.c. and Mainstage…
When I started, the average age of a Mainstage actor at Second City’s Mainstage was probably 26-7, now it’s about 31.
So all of those things, all the training, and the ships, and all those experiences have actually created an older Mainstage actor.
Which has become a bit weird for them when they leave, because sometimes when they’re ready to go to Los Angeles, they’ve aged themselves out of a market in a weird way. And that’s become an issue on the long term for those actors.
I also feel like that, in Chicago anyway, there’s a feeling that you want to go through at least the Annoyance, iO’s experience and Second City’s experience; that that makes a fuller, kind of more well-rounded actor/improviser. And I believe that’s reinforced by the culture here…that all of your peers are doing that.
People are jumping from one place to another. And in Chicago in the last few years you add to that pH, and Playground, and ComedySportz, and Upstairs Gallery, and literally there’s people that would do three shows in three different places here. They’ll do a show at the Annoyance at 8, and go to iO and do a 10 o’clock show and then go Upstairs Gallery and do one at midnight. It’s crazy.
I also think adding to that, the feeling of being on a team in a weird way here in Chicago – I think a little of this happens in Toronto, too – is that sometimes people feel as if once they’re on a team, that that’s good enough for now, and they kind of become complacent.
I’ve seen this a lot in Chicago, where it feels so right and reinforced to be on just a team and to be part of something, that it’s easy to then feel satisfied to put your career aside in a weird way.
To ironically not even work on your own career. It feels like it’s where you should be at the time, and suddenly six years have gone by. And you’re on a team, and you have done little to really, sort of selfishly pursue your own interests and career. Does that make sense?
MN: I’ve just noticed that happen more and more. And I think with more training and more performance opportunities, ironically it can work against someone that way.
P&C: A lot of people fall in love with improv and it becomes almost an addiction. You want more, so you take more workshops and classes, but at a certain point it becomes a law of diminishing returns.
You talk about that in your book Improvise. I think on page 5 you say that by the time someone has spent about two grand on improv classes, they’re probably fully in their head. And I went “Oh my God, that’s me!”
MN: (laughs) Well that came from my own experience; that was me, too. I spent all that time and money and I thought, “Why am I rendered immobile?”
P&C: Now you’re working on a new book…
MN: [Jennifer Estlin]’s my girlfriend; [she] runs the Annoyance. Jennifer edited Improvise and she’s edited…we put together about 50 pages. We just started to send it out about two weeks ago. It’s not directly marketed for business, but certainly much more.
Heinemann, who published Improvise, they’ve been great; they’re more of an education-based publisher, and I’m wanting to go a little higher and a little more widespread and commercial. So we’ve learned that I need to get an agent really, to approach those kind of publishers, so that’s what we’re doing right now is fishing for an agent.
The book itself is just about innovation and all the different things that people, when they get together and create something…that’s entailed in that. It’s everything from how to conduct a meeting, to how to present, to how to pitch something, to the psychology that goes behind creating something, to the inner demons that you have when you start to create something.
And I attempt a few times to recreate scenarios of like, how one is thinking when they’re approaching a podium if they’re gonna speak, and how terrified they are.
Or the feeling of the room in a meeting when you have that one asshole in the back with his arms crossed, and looking at you, and what he’s thinking, and why he wants to get attention. And how it doesn’t matter what your idea is, how he’s gonna be negative, and all of that. Hopefully stuff that people can relate to.
And then there’s a chapter about how to drink – which is very funny and timely for me – I have a chapter about how to drink coffee…
MN: …how to not spill coffee on yourself, because I’m always doing that. And this morning I was walking and drinking coffee and spilled it on my shirt and thought about my own advice. I have a whole chapter on drinking coffee. (laughs)
P&C: Going back in my notes… You’ve said that you find agreement in improv a weak concept. Can you expand on that, since the whole principal of improv seems to be built around agreement?
MN: Well, I think that agreement has been overblown and overrated in a weird way. I certainly don’t disagree with the idea of immediately agreeing to the circumstances or reality of a space presented to you in an improv scene.
If you ask for a hammer, then I can be at a hardware store and that’s all good. I believe that it’s an extra stretch… Like, if you were to ask for a hammer and for me to say “I’m on Venus right now,” it’s a lot of baggage to bring those two worlds together.
So I definitely adhere to the notion of agreeing with the circumstances of an improv scene or circumstances of a relationship, or that label.
I believe the weakness that I refer to comes from how hyped “Yes and…” is and has become. And I don’t believe that that’s the root of good improvisation or the root of good comedy even. And it left me powerless, to have someone throw an initiation out there and for me to literally, or sometimes comparatively, form the words “Yes, I agree with that, and let me add to that.”
“Yes, I like ice cream, and strawberry’s my favourite.”
And it left me just weak, and I didn’t feel like I had any edge on what I was saying. I didn’t feel like I had any underlying irony, or sometimes I say like, a hateful nature about it, or a wicked way of looking at it, or an ironic way…so I had a hard time with that in and of itself, being such a tentative improvisation, and it leaving me feeling so weak.
And just coming to realize over time that many people would disagree, or characters would disagree with me in an improv scene, or I would do the same, and there was great strength in that. Or other times people would aggressively, and there could be great strength in that.
But the weaker people that I noticed in improvisation were those that were merely relying on, without much behind it, saying “Yes” and agreeing with things, and then adding a little something to it in the content.
So I felt like there was a lot more to improvisation than that. And I felt like the teaching of that, and the priority that people placed on that, was actually tending toward being a deficit to their improvisation, and a deficit to the power they brought to it, as opposed to an asset.
It’s easy enough to teach in about thirty minutes, general agreement to the circumstances of a scene. But to really put a banner behind “Yes, and…” and have people literally agree with everything and add to it in that way, I feel like there’s a lot of different tactics to improvisation that give people a lot more power.
While that very basic idea of agreement still lives there, I think that once those circumstances are agreed to, a whole other bevy of things can occur.
P&C: Annoyance, iO, UCB, and Second City all have their own distinctive styles. iO started in ’81, Annoyance started in ’87 as Metraform, and UCB started in 1990, and Second City way before that.
When people from Toronto go to Chicago or New York and take workshops, you can see their style change and be informed and more dynamic in certain ways, based on where they trained.
Do you think there’s still room for new approaches, and if so, why do you think there hasn’t been any for so long?
MN: That’s a really good question. I’ve given absolutely no thought to that.
MN: I can think about it and talk at the same time…
I feel like some of that might be that, although there’s different styles, like with iO and UCB, I believe they’re still under the umbrella of long form. I believe that long form and its cultures have become so encompassing that I think that the styles are found within that, but that people don’t feel like they’re gonna create a whole other school of thought that exceeds what is out there now. I’m kinda talking out my ass…
MN: (laughs) I am. I also feel…it’s kinda like, Second City is sketch comedy. There’s so many things you can do with it, but it’s always gonna be unrelated scenes, monologues and songs.
And I feel like improvisation is the same in a way, because it’s always going to be someone on a raised platform saying words they didn’t know they were gonna say, and making them up. And you can do that in many different ways, and the only thing that’s really changed by definition is the length of time, in my opinion: long form versus games or short form.
If you expand to like, Comedy Sports or Theatre Sports, that’s a slightly different way of playing games. UCB is a slightly different way of looking at the Harold. I think the Annoyance took improvisation and created more narrative works, more musicals, more full-length plays written through improvisation. And that kind of extends from Second City’s way of creating sketch through improvisation.
So I don’t know the answer to the question, but I feel like there’s all these derivative methods of using the tool that is constant, which is making up things on a stage. And I feel like that sometimes has its limits, which is kind of an age-old argument about whether or not improvisation is actually worthy in and of itself to be a product placed in front of people to pay money for.
Even twenty-some years ago I kept hearing the conversation, “Will there ever be an improvised television show?” or “Can you take improvisation to movies or TV?” And I feel like people have done that, but it still has its hit rate that you have to accommodate commercially. Or not. But I think that that becomes relevant.
Because even among the very best improvisers I’ve ever worked with, the very best have a 75% hit rate. Three out of four scenes are gonna be great and one’s not.
And you have to ask, “Is that commercially viable?”
In Part Two, Mick talks about working in TV, acting skills and auditioning, how not to run an improv theatre, and pool.