One night about a year and a half ago Mick Napier was up late channel-surfing with a few other members of the Annoyance Theatre when they noticed some old friends making an appearance on Jay Leno. They were performing bits from The Real Live Brady Bunch as a plug for the show's national tour.
There was Becky Thyre as Marcia talking down to a lisping Bobby--Tom Booker, wearing a wig that was cocked on his head like a hat. Patrick Towne, as Mr. Brady, was giving fatherly advice to Ben Zook, playing Peter.
Only a few gags received a smattering of laughs, yet the cast, out of habit or maybe nerves, kept pausing for the laughs that didn't come. "It was horrifying," Napier says. "I was so embarrassed for them. I kept sitting there watching them thinking, "God, please don't mention the Annoyance Theatre. Please don't."'
When The Real Live Brady Bunch opened at the Annoyance in June of 1990 it was just another quirky comedy in the theater's repertoire of one-night-a-week shows. Napier, the Soloway sisters Jill and Faith, and a bunch of fellow improvisers had opened their own space six months earlier specifically to escape scheduling constraints created by renting out other theaters.
Conceived and directed by the Soloways, The Real Live Brady Bunch, based on the weak premise of acting out actual old Brady Bunch episodes, was paired with a parody game show, The Real Live Game Show, and booked for Tuesday nights, the darkest of dark-night slots.
Napier, who had studied with improv guru Del Close and had recently graduated from the Second City Training Center, was much more interested in creating one- or two-act comedies through improvisation, the method that produced another Annoyance perennial, Coed Prison Sluts.
"Jill and Faith Soloway are really into that TV thing," Napier explains. "Even when Faith played piano at Second City or at the Annoyance she would always lapse into these TV theme songs," Napier laughs. "I was interested in The Real Live Brady Bunch for like the first three weeks of its original run," he says, "and then after that . . . " He shrugs. Toward the end of the run, Napier made a pretty bored looking Bobby.
Around the same time Napier lost interest in the show, everyone else began to take notice. Lines were forming on Broadway outside the theater for every show. When tickets began to go on sale at 11 AM people would take a cab from work to snag one or recruit an unemployed friend to wait in line for them.
Rolling Stone was the first national magazine to notice, then in quick succession articles appeared in People, Newsweek, and the New York Times. A second show on Tuesdays was added, which immediately sold out. The Soloways wanted to move the show to Friday and Saturday, into the slot held by Coed Prison Sluts, but Napier resisted.
Then things really heated up. Film and TV producers and agents started turning up on Tuesdays. In one night alone Lorne Michaels and Quincy Jones showed up in separate stretch limousines. Michaels auditioned several Annoyance actors for Saturday Night Live, ultimately tapping Melanie Hutsell and Beth Cahill. At almost exactly the same time, promoter Ron Delsner worked out a deal to take The Real Live Brady Bunch to New York.
At that point the roughly 40-member Annoyance ensemble essentially split in half, with 20 actors going with the Soloways to New York and the rest staying behind. It would have seemed to signal the beginning of the end for the Annoyance. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, and Paul Barosse left the Practical Theater for Saturday Night Live in the early 80s, that company never quite recovered.
In New York, The Real Live Brady Bunch became an immediate smash hit. The Village Voice's Michael Musto in particular gave it raves. The show ran ten months in New York. Then the Soloways took a third production to Los Angeles, where it ran for eight months.
Back in Chicago the company took an immediate financial hit. With Brady Bunch no longer on the schedule, only Coed Prison Sluts was a consistent draw. Creatively, though, the company hardly missed a beat. Drawing from the classes in improvisation he taught at Columbia College, Second City, and the Annoyance, Napier built the ensemble back up. At the same time, old Annoyance members began to drift back from New York, including Susan Messing and Beth Cahill.
In fact, things have gone so well that the Annoyance has finally outgrown their space on Broadway. A week ago they moved into an old warehouse on Clark Street across from Metro. The company now has eight different shows running in repertory, including a flawed but daring attempt at dadaist performance (Poo Poo Le Arse!) and an intelligent and witty fully improvised parody of academia (Modern Problems in Science).
Still, the company can't seem to shake its Brady Bunch past. A Real Live touring production, with the Soloways serving as consultants, opens next week at the Park West, and the Annoyance has been receiving 30 or 40 calls a week asking about tickets.
The Soloways, in a gesture no doubt intended to heal old wounds, invited Annoyance members to participate in the Park West engagement, and Napier found himself brimming with ambivalence. "On the one hand I don't want to offend Jill and Faith when they are reaching out," Napier says. "On the other hand . . . it's so weird. . . . Brady Bunch started out as this parody of television and superficial values and all that, and I think it might have become the thing it parodied."
The touring production opens Tuesday, March 29, and runs through Sunday, April 3, at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage, with the Monkees' Davy Jones reprising his role in an original episode. Tickets are $22.50 and are available at 559-1212.
Shows run nightly at the Annoyance Theatre, 3747 N. Clark. Tickets run $5 to $10. For detailed information see individual play listings in Section Two or call the theater at 929-6200.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.