Mick Napier


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Mick Napier can be an asshole. At a party a few years ago, I asked him for a cigarette and he handed me a card that read: “You have just asked me for a cigarette. You should know that they are widely available at many stores. Perhaps you could buy some for yourself.” It was funny, slightly mean, and honest. Just like Napier.

But that’s just Napier on the surface. Underneath, he’s a fairly mellow guy, not the type to be the center of attention or anywhere near it. If you’re a friend or have gained his trust and respect, he’s as warm as anyone you’ll ever meet. But when you’re the founder of the Annoyance Theatre, an award-winning director at the Second City, and generally the pre-eminent teacher and director of improv and sketch comedy in Chicago, you become the center of attention whether you like it or not. His directing expertise has been sought out by everyone from Steven Colbert, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz, Nia Vardolos, Andy Richter, Jeff Garlin, and David Sedaris. A student borrowing a cigarette from Mick Napier is probably just looking for a conversation about improv, or perhaps hoping that a little of his magic will rub off. Napier knew it. If you want some of his time, you have to sign up for his class like everybody else.

Or you can do what I did and convince a magazine to let you interview him. I sat down with Napier at Square Kitchen, one of his favorite hangouts in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. It’s the kind of setting he likes: quiet, unassuming, and with a well-stocked bar. It’s an odd fit for a man who has become a larger-than-life guru of improvisation. But according to Napier, being out of the spotlight feels pretty good sometimes. Just give him a pool table and the Lifetime Network and he’ll be just fine.

—Peter Grosz


THE BELIEVER: Chicago has never had much luck establishing itself as a hotbed for TV and film, which tend to thrive in places like L.A. or New York. Why do you think that is?

MICK NAPIER: Chicago draws a lot of talent, and because of all the checks and balances and constant challenges, the theater work is really, really good and consistently funny. But sometimes it’s difficult to translate that into a different medium like film and television. It’s hard to capture its original quality. Industry-wise, Chicago is still learning about film, but it needs to grow up in regard to production value. There’s a mentality that in Chicago we’re “just trying.” That you’re not really doing something if you’re doing it in Chicago. When I directed my film, Fatty Drives a Bus, I kept thinking, “This isn’t real. It’s not a real movie. It’s kind of a play movie, because I’m doing it in Chicago.” I had to fight that constantly.

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Peter Grosz is an actor and writer in Chicago. He’s currently a cast member at the Second City E.T.C., and has performed everything from standup comedy to a reworked version of Fiddler on the Roof with eighties songs.

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