A few weeks ago, eight comedians locked themselves inside of The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago. They committed to living there for 10 days straight without ever leaving in order to make a sketch comedy show for which they would then perform to an empty audience (and live stream on Twitch in an effort to raise money for the theatre).
Now I'm someone who regularly writes and performs sketch comedy. I love it. At least, I thought I loved it, because when I heard about the "QuaranTeam" (as they had dubbed themselves) I thought "what in Lorne Michaels' name is wrong with these people?" So I decided to interview Mick Napier, the Artistic Director and Founder of the Annoyance and Jennifer Estlin, the Executive producer of the Annoyance, to learn about their experience in what had to be one of the strangest quarantines ever.
The Annoyance/ Youtube
Dan: I'm someone who loves sketch comedy. But even as someone who loves sketch, I want to start off by asking, why in the love of God would you do this?
Jennifer: When I heard what was going on in Italy, I kind of saw the writing on the wall and was trying to sort of brainstorm what we might do to help the Annoyance survive and create income. While I was thinking about it, I remembered that the Annoyance had done a lock-in back in 92' for fun where they had created a musical in seven days. And Mick had directed that.
Went to Mick and said "What do you think about doing a lock-in again if it seems like we're headed toward a quarantine? If we ask early enough we can get a bunch of people to shelter in place and all come to the theater, all on an agreed day and create something." So that's what we did.
Dan: How did you come to pick who would end up sheltering in place?
Mick: We asked a bunch of people who we knew were going to be in town and we actually had six people -- but one guy, his girlfriend got sick the day of, so we had to replace him. By the time we had to replace him, we asked about 15 people that said "No."
Jennifer: We did get most of our first choices, but we had to add and then people would say "Let me think about it," and then come back and say "No."
Mick: I think if we had waited three more days to actually start we wouldn't have been able to do it. We had to time it just right.
Jennifer: Yeah, because as it turned out we started on Wednesday and the shelter in place order came in on Friday -- two days later.
Dan: What would you guys have done if a state order came in saying "wherever you are you must shelter in place indefinitely." Were you prepared to shelter in place at the Annoyance forever?
Jennifer: In a way. I mean we talked about that kind of jokingly, but also like it could happen. It's not as comfortable as home necessarily, but it actually ended up being pretty comfortable.
Dan: How did you eat? Where did you sleep?
Jennifer: Primarily we got a shit ton of groceries prior. But there were a couple of things we needed technically for the live stream that we had to have delivered in. Duke Harbison, who did tech for the production, also helped me with cooking and prepping meals except for a few meals here and there.
Mick and I slept in our office. Two people slept in the small theater and then everyone else slept downstairs in the classroom studios.
Mick: But everyone had a nice mattress. It was crazy, but we hung out together and watched tv at night in the bar -- and we played games in the bar at night. We wrote during the day. We had a rehearsal during the day, then we broke and had a rehearsal at night.
You know how some television commercials look really ludicrous right now? Like people are outside, having fun, shit like that? Certain scenes [we workshoped] felt that way also. Like, "Why are we talking about this when we have this pandemic going on?"
Dan: Now, I'm on a sketch comedy team, and I love my team. But after over two hours of writing together in a room, we're ready to stab each other blind. So I was wondering if tensions flared at any point or if was smooth sailing the whole way through?
Mick: I think it was pretty smooth really, given the people. Everyone had a pretty good temperament about them. It was a very mature group and I don't think there were any fights at all.
Jennifer: Yeah, Duke and I had a side-bet going about how long it would take for somebody to flip out or lose their temper or something and we had chosen day five. About midway through day five, I was like "nothing's really happening." I was actually the first one to lose my shit because I was having such a rough time dealing with unemployment and trying to call all of our vendors to essentially close down the business and it was driving me insane.
I feel like every day after day five there was someone who kind of went south in being sad or being scared. But it never happened all at the same time, and you could sort of see who it was that day, and everybody was pretty cool about trying to lift them up.
I was pretty amazed at how easily people were able to work together. There was nothing where "this person is only working with this other person." People switched off and were really good about collaborating together. It was surprising.
Dan: So what do you think? If the coronavirus comes around again, like it very well could in the fall as some scientists are saying, are you guys up to do this again?
Mick: I would do it again, yeah.
Jennifer: Every single person on the last day said they would do it again in a minute. And there were some people that kind of didn't want it to end. They were more scared about going back out into the world.
Since we had all gone through that many days together we were, I would say, 99% certain that none of us had it. So it was sort of safe just to stay there. And we kind of joked around saying "well should we stay?" And Mick and I thought about just staying there. Eventually we all decided to go. But I would also do it again.
So there you have it. Is locking eight people inside of a comedy theater the next Big Brother-style reality show? Who's to say really? But it does seem kind of fun - providing you're willing to risk your life to make jokes about viruses and sing songs about elephants. To see Mick and Jennifer's crazy show borne of pandemic and love, you can visit the Annoyance website here where you can also make a donation.
Top Image: The Annoyance Theatre