Bad shows still suck

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Jimmy Carrane and John Hildreth in Improv NerdBad Shows Still Suck

After more than 25 years of doing improv shows, the one thing I can tell you is a bad show still sucks, almost as bad as when I first started.

Oh boy, I had one on Sunday, working with two really talented improvisers I respect, John Hildreth and Rachael Mason, which makes it worse. I left the show feeling awful, like I had exposed to them how truly awful an improviser I am.

The messages in my head go from productive to suicidal: “I was tentative. I was scared. I was too plot-heavy. I had no emotional response. I was too verbal. I could have committed more. I sucked. I hate myself. I want to die. I want to kill myself.”

This is not an exaggeration. These messages are on a continuous loop that won’t stop. Which leads to an awful night’s sleep, waking up remembering the specific scenes and reliving the shame.

Over the last few days, when I am not replaying the scenes in my head, I am imagining ways I can take my life. The irony is I am surrounded by love: a beautiful wife and a new kitten all in the same bed. And despite that, I’m still miserable; nothing can help me at this point.

My wife tries to help, but when you are that far down in the hole of self-pity, it’s really a waste of time. She said something that I imagine I would say to my students: “You have to have the bad shows to appreciate the good ones.”

Of course I could not hear that, the same way I could not hear what my good friend and improviser Bill Boehler said on the phone the other night: “You learn more from the bad shows.”

I was too busy wanting to kill myself, questioning my existence, and listing the ways I still suck.

It’s a form of self-mutilation. Instead of cutting myself with a sharp instrument, I do it with the voices in my head. The bleeding is internal, the pain is excruciating, and the messages continue.

“You suck. You have been doing improv for over 20 years. You teach this stuff? You are a fraud.”

I had students in the audience on Sunday, and now I am embarrassed to go into the classroom. Maybe I am not the best improviser in the world, but I thought I was a great teacher, and now that is all gone in one show. One terrible show.

And the more I think about this the more I want to die.

I wish I had more hope to offer about how to get through a bad improv show. I wish I could tell newbie improvisers that it gets better over the years. But I am sorry to say that suffering after a bad show is still very much part of my process. I guess there is hope that I’m still here to talk about it. If any of you figure out how to get through a bad show, let me know. You may be saving a life or two.

23 replies
  1. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    Get over it Jimmy better Improvisers have had worse shows. Its hard to feel sorry for someone who feels so sorry for themselves. If you were taking risks and they didn’t work out there is nothing to feel bad about. If you weren’t taking risks then push yourself to take more next time.
    Improv shows have a life of about 30 seconds. All people remember is whether they enjoyed themselves or not.. Final platitude ” Don’t try to do . Do it.” . I have seen a number of your shows and never seen one I didn’t enjoy.

    Reply
  2. elly
    elly says:

    I have found that it is more productive to criticize your actions than yourself. To be open and reflective and able to acknowledge what didn’t go well in your show [or life], but also to recognize that those are not personality flaws, or reflections on yourself as human being. Those are just things you need to work on, but why let them define you?

    Reply
  3. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    Jimmy, based on your history with improv, I can assume that the good shows outweigh the bad. It all stems down to why you do improv? I do it because it makes me happy. It helps to relieve the depression. I’ve had shows that shit the bed as well and I tear myself to pieces. It’s because we love it so much. The only thing to do is pick yourself up and look forward to your next performance. The best part about what we do is there’s always a next time.

    According to Batman…
    Why do we fall Master Wayne?

    So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

    Reply
  4. Mary Ann Malloy
    Mary Ann Malloy says:

    You are the best cause you’re so honest. Without honesty there’s no improv, no acting. Honesty is the base of great stagework. By the way, I’ll come back to your class if my work schedule changes and I have the pertinent days off – maybe June… 🙂

    Reply
  5. Adam
    Adam says:

    A random bit of advice I adopted after hearing it at the bar at iO West: we’re only human, and it’s understandable to feel bad after a bad show. However, you’re only allowed to feel bad for the same length of time as the show was in the first place.

    30 mins of bad show? Feel free to go hide out and wallow in exactly 30 mins of post-show misery. Then strap a smile on, head back into the bar and thank everyone for coming.

    Reply
  6. Bella
    Bella says:

    Jimmy, the way you talk about yourself has nothing to do with improve or your bad show. You need to change your perspective on yourself and your life. We can all tell you how great your shows are and it will not matter! You are still going to feel like shit. Dude, get therapy, find a spiritual practice, and start looking out if yourself. If you better yourself internally, then you can be better artist. It probably won’t matter to you because you don’t believe in yourself, but improv nerd is one of the best podcasts out there in my opinion. I’ve enjoyed evey taping 🙂

    Reply
  7. Jon
    Jon says:

    Jimmy,
    It’s all about frame of mind. In the past 5 years, I have never ever gotten upset after a bad show. And I do this religiously…at least 20 hours a week. I used to get upset over bad shows, and during that time my frame of mind was what yours is now… this is either a good show or a bad show.But now, I never think of it that way…I don’t have bad shows or good shows, because that’s an outcome-dependent way of thinking. It’s validation seeking…when you have a good show, it’s an ego boost. When you have a bad show, it destroys your ego.That’s terrible. Instead, gain happiness from doing improv for improv’s sake…be in the frame of mind that there’s no such thing as a good show or a bad show. Don’t let the outcome of the show affect your mood…good or bad…you should only gain happiness from the fact that you are doing improv and you enjoy doing improv and you love it.

    Reply
  8. Don S
    Don S says:

    I don’t get it Jimmy. I took several classes with you and I rocked each show. Actually I rocked in every exercise. I guess I just have a knack.

    It is odd, that not everybody felt the same way about my work,

    I have taken a hiatus from improvising. But, I think you are really too hard on yourself.

    Reply
  9. Zelda
    Zelda says:

    As a person who also finds themselves susceptible to suicidal thoughts after bad shows/perceived failures, I have to tell you how magnificent it is to read this. This only validates the notion that vulnerability to failure is what keeps the greatest artists great. Whether or not you’ll hear it, you are one of my idols, and what makes you such is your depth of honesty. You so often speak to your darkest feelings with astounding specificity… I thought I was the sole proprietor of the shades of shame, guilt, and embarrassment you describe, and hearing you put words to those thoughts not only makes me laugh hard and loud, but also restores my ability to live with myself, and allows me to grant myself forgiveness that I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own. Your brand of artistry is powerful, and seems to be fueled by events that provoke deep self-examination and subsequent raw emotion, so I, for one, am grateful for your “failures”. It seems you should be, too.

    Reply
  10. Terry B
    Terry B says:

    Hey Jimmy. I know nothing I say will change how you feel about having a bad show. From my limited improv experience, books I have read, and podcasts (ahem 8) ) I have listened to, I can say that even the best can have a bad show. One thing that sticks out in my mind about improv is how someone (I don’t remember who) compared it toilet paper. The analogy is something like each scene is disposable: the scene happens and then it is done & gone. The important thing to take away from all of this (besides learning from it) is that one show does not erase all of the great work anyone has done.

    Reply
  11. RickyM
    RickyM says:

    I can remember my worst shows like they happened an hour ago. That’s the nature of the beast. Your “crap” improvising is probably being turned into a sketch for SNL right now. Now shhhhh! And trust the silence 🙂

    Reply
  12. Kayla Lane
    Kayla Lane says:

    I’ve never met you, nor have I ever seen you perform. I’m a big fan of your podcast and blog, though!

    I am a devoted student of improv (still fairly new at this, only 2 years) and I want you know that seeing the teachers I admire FAIL on stage is actually really great for my growth. It makes me appreciate the improv process even more because it is a reminder of the unpredictable and human nature of this improv beast. It reminds me that improv success is independent of a “good” show, and that I can still be a “good” improviser someday without having to be perfect. The world isn’t going to take away my permission to improvise for an audience.

    Please don’t beat yourself up for the bad shows, because then you are teaching your students that if they aren’t perfect they deserve to be torn to pieces, too. The best way to love your students is to love yourself.

    Reply
  13. Dee La Belle
    Dee La Belle says:

    Oh, Jimmy….. Are we cut from the same cookie dough, or what?
    I quit improv because I beat myself up so badly. I laughed out loud while reading this article—because I related so much!
    I think sensitive people in general, just have such a hard time with this stuff. (with anything really. I still beat the crap out of myself at my job, too.) Maybe I like punishing myself….ICK.
    I just told my boyfriend over the weekend that we should take an acting class with Jimmy Carrane–hopefully at the Green Shirt. Out of all of the classes I have taken, I learned more in your class than any. You might beat yourself senseless after a bad show, but in my opinion, maybe that is why you make such a great teacher. (BIG HUG) Dee 🙂 🙄

    Reply
  14. Rachael
    Rachael says:

    I love this…thank you for being so funny and brave…..
    probably the worse you feel, the funnier you are…
    i think we all have to know…it never gets easier…
    xx
    r

    Reply
  15. Paul Normandin
    Paul Normandin says:

    Jimmy,

    We have never met, but I too have felt horrible after bad shows. (And I have had a run of them.)

    But I have not been able to shake your blog. So when I read this today, I knew I should share.

    “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

    Many Hugs,

    Paul

    Reply
  16. Jesse Parent
    Jesse Parent says:

    You are as good as your best show.

    I still remember my intensive with you and Liz Allen. I thought you were both amazingly perceptive and supportive and that was over 6 years ago. You have had a huge and positive impact on me and my art and while this post talks about bad shows and how you are feeling about this last performance, I just wanted to take the chance to thank you for helping me to get better and remind you that you do good work on the stage and in the classroom.

    Shake the dust, Jimmy. You’re amazing!

    -Jesse Parent

    Reply
  17. Peter McCarthy
    Peter McCarthy says:

    Jimmy I am sure one of your bad shows is twice as good as someone else’s great shows. I literally have a hard time imagining anything coming out of your mouth that is not funny.

    Hang in there. This too shall pass

    Pete

    Reply
  18. Charlie Finn
    Charlie Finn says:

    I relate to all of this. A bad performance throws me into the abyss. A mediocre performance makes me depressed and a decent performance makes me sad. Perfectionism still has power over me.

    Reply
  19. Robert
    Robert says:

    I’m newbie, but after bad show there is one thing I love to do. To talk with my group. To talk about what happend, how we felt and how terrible we were to reduce to group tension. Then we talk that we will do better next time. What I try to say(not a native speaker) is that you are never alone, if you think you are change it! Go to improv friends, they will make it even worse, but better, or I just think so.

    Reply
  20. Andrea Scott
    Andrea Scott says:

    I read this after having a very bad standup set last night. It will be a couple of nights before I get up there again. I like what someone said about honesty being the basis of great work. The problem is you can’t always put it to use in a way that works. One of the reasons I do standup is that I care about honesty in my life. It would be a shallow existence otherwise. There is enough failure involved I can’t hide behind my ego or care what others think. Anyway, I learned something and got rid of that material.

    Reply

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