Mick Napier seems happy—really frakkin’ happy. That’s not surprising, given that the 45-year-old Annoyance Theatre founder and artistic director does whatever he wants. When should he dress like a self-described gay ’80s janitor and hang out at Crew or Sofo? Always; sometimes shirtless. He also tells us he loves cock rings, and—hey—he’s wearing one right now. And not only is the Annoyance’s 20th year about to come to a close, but Napier has decided to celebrate with a remount of his theater’s unbridled success, Co-Ed Prison Sluts, on Friday 11. (The musical ran for 11 years, setting a Chicago record.)
What is surprising, however, is to learn that six months ago, Napier’s brilliant mind was focused on nothing but suicide.
Raised in Trenton, Ohio, a town with only one stoplight and surrounded by cornfields, Napier fell into theater at Indiana University, then quickly tired of it. A copy of Something Wonderful Right Away, an interview-based history of Chicago improv, turned him on to the unscripted; he formed a team and started performing—only thing is, it was more than a year before he saw any improvisers outside his own group.
But that’s the way Napier goes about his business, as sort of a grand “fuck you, I’ll do what I want,” and always at 100 percent. Same thing goes in Chicago: Fed up with Second City and iO, he branched off to form the Annoyance ensemble 20 years ago. He became known in improv circles for his pointed direction, tireless commitment and propensity to push shows that subvert conventions. Co-Ed Prison Sluts came from that place: Napier wrote the title one day in 1989 while teaching an improv class and simply thought it was funny. In addition, “I had this disparate thought of always wanting to see a clown fight a drag queen,” he says. Napier had a title and a premise; he threw it to a group of fun-loving improvisers, and that was that.
Almost 20 years later—Christmas Day, 2007, to be exact—Napier leaped into an agreement with young Annoyance comic Connor O’Malley: He’d give up smoking if O’Malley lost 50 pounds. If O’Malley slipped, he’d also have to give up cigs; Napier, if he took so much as a puff, would have to gain, then lose, 200 pounds. Needless to say, Napier was all in.
After speaking to doctors and doing a bit of research, he started taking Chantix, a drug that turns off the brain’s neuro receptors that crave nicotine. And it worked—but there was an awful side effect that the manufacturer Pfizer’s website didn’t warn him about at the time: His thoughts turned to suicide. “You see anything and you think, Okay, how can I kill myself with that? Thirty, 40 times a day,” he says.
The experience peaked a month after he started on Chantix; Napier and his girlfriend of 13 years (Jennifer Estlin, now the Annoyance’s owner) were out with a friend when he started weeping uncontrollably. Estlin took him home, whereupon, he says, he vomited for two hours, convulsed on the couch for 20 more and screamed his head off about how much he wanted to kill himself. Estlin Googled “Chantix psychotic” and got results up the wazoo.
Although Napier quit the drug immediately thereafter, he says the results have lingered. He has a hard time attending meetings or teaching Annoyance classes without being consumed by doubt and paranoia to the point of tears. (He admits he almost didn’t make our interview.) “What also happens is that everything around me smells like black poison, whatever that means to you,” he explains. “It essentially smells like burnt shit. So most of the time, if I sit down to eat or go to the theater, everything smells like burnt shit for 15 minutes or so.”
Napier admits that the problem has taken an emotional toll on his relationship with Estlin. But the couple, a bedrock of Chicago comedy, continues to take everything in stride. Together, Napier and Estlin have nurtured the Annoyance from a fake-blood–loving start-up to the institution that today puts out original shows seven days a week. They also share a little…understanding. “She is the coolest woman in the world because she will allow me to explore my gay side,” Napier says. “And I have had sex with many, many men in my life.” Estlin has been filming a documentary about the no-smoking wager, and they’re both keeping close tabs on the drug’s effects. And Napier will direct Second City’s 50th anniversary mainstage revue, hitting Chicago in late ‘09. His attitude towards the drug is truly “fuck you, I’ll do what I want.”
“Every day I wake up and think, This is it. It’s my fucking life,” Napier says. “I am going to fucking drink. I am going to fuck. I am going to do whatever I can to have a great fucking time today.”
Co-Ed Prison Sluts is unleashed Friday 11.