Oscars -- Neil Patrick Harris

The Number One Rule in Improv

The number one rule in improv — over “Yes, And…,” listening, finding the game in the scene, environment, adding specifics, and developing character and emotions — is “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.”

It has happened to all of us. We make a Harold team, or get hired by a big comedy theater, or finish a program at a competitive training center and one morning we wake up and we are taking ourselves way too seriously. Suddenly we have this entitlement and think that what we are doing is the most important thing in the world. We think we are above everyone else, above other players, our teachers, our directors, and worse, the audience.

It may last a couple of weeks, or months or even years. I know people who it has lasted their entire career. But once you start taking yourself too seriously, you may be funny on stage, but you have no sense of humor in life. Trust me, nobody wants to be around these people. We tolerate them.

This is how I felt watching the Oscars on Sunday night. Here were all of these great actors, writers, directors, and producers who make a wonderful living being creative, and I felt alienated from them. I found the show pretentious and self-important. And, God, talk about people taking themselves too seriously.

All of the actors in the audience seemed like they had forgotten why they had gotten into the field in the first place – to have fun, to express themselves, and to not have to work a crappy office job with no health insurance. They need to remember why the rest of us are tuning in the first place — to celebrate movies.

I love the movies. Movies are fun.  We’re supposed to go grab a bucket of popcorn and spend two hours escaping our everyday lives, laughing, crying, and enjoying ourselves. And the Oscars should be a giant pep rally for all the loyal moviegoers watching at home to get us excited about seeing more movies. If done right, the Oscars should be the greatest four-hour infomercial in the history of mankind.

How about thanking us for spending our hard earned money and investing our time to go to the movies? I don’t want to feel alienated. I want to like you, Hollywood, because I love what you do. But I feel you give me no choice.

For me to have such a strong reaction to this, I must be guilty of this kind of behavior. Yes, I am. I cannot tell you how many times I have had disdain for the audience when they did not respond to me on stage the way I thought they should. I have always thought I was superior or smarter or better than they were because I was on stage and they were not, even though they paid with their time and money to come see me. That is called ungratefulness, look it up.

Over the years I have been guilty of taking myself way too seriously, in my acting, improvising and teaching, especially early on in my career when I had achieved some success. This made me a pain in the ass to be around and to work with. I have traveled in circles with a pack of improvisers where we would judge other improvisers, and if they weren’t doing it the way we were, we would put them down and write them off. I could be a prick. A big prick who worked really hard to hide that side of myself, but underneath I was a Hollywood phony. I still can be. I have improved considerably over the years, however, or I could not be this honest in this blog. But despite my huge progress, you are never fully cured from this disease. It will flare up from time to time, usually when I’m afraid.

The Oscars were a really good reminder to me that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously in improv, because, after all, I am doing it to have fun. In improv, the most necessary ingredient in what we do is the people — the other performers, the teachers, directors, producers, and ourselves. And the more that I can let go of my ego and just have fun, the more I know everyone around me will have fun, too.

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Jimmy Carrane Susan Messing

The Art of Specifics

Improvisers have all heard that we need to add specifics to our improv scenes. Specifics are they fuel that keeps scenes going. The more specifics we use, the less we have to work to figure out what’s going on. Without them we’re in “Vaugue-land” — not a good place to take our scene partners or the audience.

Specifics are as important as agreement. They are the second part of yes and…, the part we sometimes forget. Without specifics we do not have an improv scene.

So why do we avoid them? Easy. We are scared. We don’t want to make the wrong choice (like there is such a thing). Any choice is better than no choice. The same goes for specifics. The more detailed specifics we have, the more the opportunity we have for discovery and the more fun we will have.

For instance, let’s say I start a scene by saying, “It’s nice you showed up.” I really don’t know anything more about the relationship between me and my screen partner after uttering that sentence than I did before. I don’t know who my partner is or what they are showing up for. I have just bought a house in Vagueland.

By adding just a few specifics, I can make the scene much more vibrant. For example, if I said, “Hey, Carol, it’s nice you showed up for Mom’s funeral,” I suddenly give both myself and my partner an attitude or point of view. I could be implying that my sister, Carol, never shows up for anything, and I’m giving her a bit of a dig. Or, I could be expressing relief that Carol is here because I am needy and want Carol’s support.

People think that adding specifics will limit their improv scenes, but in fact, by adding more clarity, you are able to more quickly discover information about your character.

But sometimes, people add too many specifics to a scene, and they end up steamrolling the whole thing and not giving their partner any room to make discoveries. This can be just as bad. Instead, you want to find the right balance of giving enough specifics so you partner can collaborate with you, but not too many that you flood your partner’s brain or become a bulldozer.

So, let’s say you leave off the part about Mom’s funeral and let your partner provide you with what you are doing together. You could start with one specific, such as the name, and then you can add a new specific in each line.

Here’s an example of a scene that gradually adds specifics:

Player 1: “It’s nice you showed up, Carol.”
Player 2: “Of course, Bill! I’m glad your operation was a success.”
Player 1: “Yeah, my leg will only be in a cast for two weeks.”
Player 2: “That’s great! You’ll be out in time for our wedding.”

In four short sentences, we know what their relationship is to each other, where they are located and a little bit about their point of view towards each other. The most important thing to remember is that we are adding specifics off the last thing that was said. If we get in the habit of doing this at the top of each scene, we will be developing muscles that will give us stamina throughout the scene.

Remember, it is possible to overdo it. I have seen students add too many specifics and in the process they lose the connection with their partner and the scene feels like a parlor game. Too many specifics becomes confusing.  A rule of thumb: Use them when necessary.

Like most things in improv, there is no black and white to exactly how and when to add specifics; it’s all about balance. But my guess is if you are just starting out, it’s better to add more than less.

Three simple ways to add specifics to your improv scenes:

  1. Name your scene partner in the first couple lines
    “Cal, we are all sorry for you loss.”
    “Leslie, I’ve been waiting for you break up with me.”
  1. Add simple descriptive details
    Change: “I ran over your cat,” to “I backed my pick-up over your cat, Tabby.”
    Change: I changed pants,” to “I changed into my brown corduroys.”
    Change: “Thanks for inviting me to your party,” to “Thanks for inviting me to your Oscar Party.”
  1. Add a specific to the last thing that your partner said
    Player 1: “I have a crush on you.
    Player 2: “I knew it, Jim! All the times you kept coming to my desk and asking me if you could use my stapler.”
    Player 1: “I thought you would have caught on with all the lemon poppy seed muffins I left on your desk.”

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? There are 2 Spots Left in his upcoming Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Feb. 25. Or sign up for his one-day Art of Slow Comedy Intensive on April 25. Register today!

Steve Carell

Accepting Other People’s Success

Accepting other people’s success is not easy. Sooner or later it will happen to all of us: One of our friends will get ahead while we are left behind. It’s always hardest with the people we are closest to.

You may start out in improv classes with people, and some of them will end up making a Harold team but you won’t. Or they will get cast in a show or be hired by a big theater before you do. They may get an agent before you, and end up doing commercials, TV and film, while you’re still taking classes.

I’ve been feeling that way lately, now that Steve Carell has been nominated for an Oscar. Back in the ’90s here in Chicago, Steve was on the Second City Mainstage. I was in the same building writing and teaching corporate workshops for Second City Communications. Even back then, Steve was someone we all aspired to be.

Recently my wife, Lauren, very seriously said to me, “Aren’t you excited for Steve Carell’s nomination? I mean, if he did it, don’t you think you could do it, too?”

(For the sake of this blog, I wish I could say yes.)

My jaw dropped and my face had that “are-you-kidding-me?” look on it as “NO” dropped out of mouth, which sounded more like a “Fuck You.” If I was doing an improv scene with my wife, it’s clear I just denied her reality.

Lauren was a bit surprised that I had such a strong reaction.

I trust Lauren because she always been brutally honest with me about my acting, improv and the size of my penis. And she was sincere, which made it even crazier for me. I guess the crazy part was that I would not allow myself to even go there, to even think for a second that if Steve Carell did it, I could do it, too. I think they call this limited thinking.

When we hear news of people’s success there are really two ways of dealing with it. One is self-pity, thinking “What am I doing wrong? Everyone else is having success except me. I will never get it.” The other is to be inspired and think, “If they can do it, I can do it, too.”

Now, I am not close to Steve Carell, and to say I am one of his peers is a stretch, but I have been fortunate to work with other great people who have gone on to do great things, and over the years, I’ve realized that if one of my friends gets a great opportunity – a chance to be on a boat with Second City, a spot on the Mainstage, a pilot on TV – that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It means I am friends with the winners.

When Jay Sukow was a guest on Improv Nerd his advice for improvisers was to “play with people who are better than you.” In so many words, he was saying “Hang with the winners.”

It’s not easy to work with people who are better than you, especially if your goal is to be the funniest or the best or the audience’s favorite. When you work with people who are better than you are, you can often feel like shit and tell yourself you aren’t funny at all. But take it from me: Instead of having the goal of being the funniest person on your team, try to have the goal of just getting better. And when you play with people who are better than you are, that’s exactly what happens.

I remember getting to play with TJ Jagodowski on Carl and The Passions. TJ is Mozart. When I played with him, I first had to let go of the idea of being the best or the funniest, and once I did, I felt relief realizing I was never going to be better than he is. Your ego always wants you to be the best or the funniest, but the artist part of you is always going to want to play with the best.

When you hang with the winners, you’re bound to see many of them go on to land great opportunities. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you suck, it just means they’re paving the way for you.

Experience Jimmy Carrane’s unique method of the Art of Slow Comedy during a One-Day Intensive on April 25. Perfect if you’re going to be in town for the Chicago Improv Festival. Sign up today!

Will Hines, Jimmy Carrane

Jimmy Carrane, Will Hines Answer Your Improv Questions: Part 2

A little over a month ago, Will Hines, a well-known teacher from the UCB, and I started a new segment on our blogs where we decided we would each solicit questions from the improv community and share our answers with you. (By the way, check out Will’s great improv blog, too: http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com/)

We had such fun with the first segment that we decided to bring it back and do it again. I love getting all of your improv questions and passing on some of my experience to you. Keep the questions coming!

Q: What steps do you recommend for a troupe that does almost exclusively short-form/game-y improv, but is looking to add a bit of Harold or other long-form work into their repertoire? Is there a certain form that is a natural starting point?

Jimmy: When making the transition from short form to long form, it’s more import to focus on scene work, especially two-person scenes, than form. That is the foundation for most long-form: good, solid scene work. Don’t ever lose site of this. I see way too many improvisers when they are first starting out worrying about form before they have their scene work down. It is very frustrating to watch. NO form is a substitute for good scene work.

The other skill you’ll need to work on besides doing good scene work will be editing. This can be a bit tricky since you are going from more structured short-form games to a more unstructured long-form piece. My suggestion is to keep it super simple at first, and I think “Montage” would be a very safe place to start before going into the Harold. Montage can be played in various ways. Most ways I am familiar with feature a series of unrelated scenes that you edit from the back line or from the sides with a sweep edit. You have the option to bring characters back, but I would not concern yourself at the beginning with trying to get to fancy. If that happens organically, by all means take advantage of it.

Once you get comfortable with “Montage” and you feel you have your scene work down and your editing is up to speed, then I would move on to the complex forms.

Will: I’m spoiled since I learned improv at a long-form theatre that already had a pretty big audience (UCB Theatre in New York). So I’ve never done short-form, or had to build a long-form audience.

But another UCB teacher named Brandon Gardner has thoughts on this because his alma mater’s improv troupe is trying to get into more long-form. Here’s the article: http://collegeimprovadviser.tumblr.com/post/109552369613/transitioning

If you have a question you’d like to ask us, just let us know. Please email me at jimcarrane@gmail.com.

 

Want to learn Jimmy Carrane’s unique method of the Art of Slow Comedy, but don’t have time to take a full class? Experience his award-winning method in a one-day, four-hour intensive on April 25 at Stage 773. Sign up today!

Carrot on a stick

Beware of chasing the carrot on the stick

The one thing that the improv community has taught me over the years is how to chase the carrot at the end of the stick. Whenever I do this, the result is always the same: I end up eating a lot more shit than carrot. It’s rarely worth it. I always end up sacrificing a piece of myself, and I never really get ahead.

As I write this blog today, my hope is that you will stop eating shit. You don’t have to eat it. I’d like you to be honest with yourself right here, right now, if you are at a theater or in a group or on a team and it sucks and you are being treated like shit, ask yourself why are you still there?

You may be telling yourself that you have to be associated with a certain theater because that’s the only way to get an SNL audition. Or that after spending eight years at theater, you’re bound to get put in a team or do a show there. All fine reasons if you are not eating shit to get there.

People are going to ask me, what is the difference between eating shit and paying your dues? I agree, this is confusing.

We all are different and have different tolerance levels. You will have to determine for yourself whether doing something for free or for very little money is worth it. Here is my one rule of thumb when making the decision: Paying your dues is humbling, but eating shit humiliating.

Now the hard part is, and you are going to hate me for saying this, we train people to treat us like shit. Which makes us even more vulnerable to the carrot danglers of the world.

The good news is we can change. For me the dangling-carrot syndrome will never completely go away, but the progress is that I do it a lot less than I used to. Today, since I am aware of it, I actually use it to my advantage. When a once-in-a lifetime opportunity presents itself that is tied to the end of wooden stick with false promises, I use that as a red flag — a warning sign that I better ask for what I want or I will end up screwing myself over.

It’s tough. We are in a business where people gladly do things for free. So we do things for free, too, because everyone else is doing it. We do it because we think that is how you get ahead. We do it because we want the experience. We want the stage time. We don’t want to miss an SNL audition.

Beware. We need to value ourselves first before others will value us. Getting ahead is really an inside job. There are no short cuts. There is no way around it.

Recently a friend of mine went through a similar situation. He was desperately trying to get a new client in the arts – a really high-profile client with amazing star power. When he put in his bid for the project, he way under-bid it, and on top of it, he told the client it would take fewer hours to complete than it really would. He was willing to not only be under paid, but also to put in extra hours without telling the client. He didn’t need anyone one to dangle the carrot in front of him — he brought his own. He lied to himself, justifying that this was such a great project with a big-name organization that it would lead to other, more high-profile work.

Actually, the opposite the true. He has created the illusion that he is getting ahead, but instead he’s just going to get overwhelmed. This, of course, will lead to resentment, the number one killer of more people’s career in this country than anything else.

I have been told over and over again that successful people work smarter, not harder, and the same is true for us in the arts. The people I respect in the arts are making a living at it, a good living, and that is because they know their worth. Over the last two years, I have been traveling around the country teaching and doing live tapings of Improv Nerd, and through that process of asking to be paid and negotiating contracts, I am beginning to learn my worth and value myself. It’s not easy to ask for what I want. It’s uncomfortable, it’s scary, but I would rather feel those feelings than eat more shit.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Feb. 25! The Early Bird deadline ends Feb. 1, so sign up today!

Jimmy Carrane Susan Messing

3 Tips for Creating Instant Improv Characters

By far the thing I hear most from improv students when they first start working with me is: “I want to do characters. Teach me how to do characters. My last teacher said I need to do more characters.”

I get it. I have struggled with this myself. There was even a time when I was convinced that I didn’t know how to play characters so I would pretend like it wasn’t cool to do them, bragging to people, “I don’t do characters.” What an idiot. In some cases, I actually was doing them and didn’t even know I was, and the rest of the time I was judging myself and others for doing them. I was messed up.

Thank God over the years I have gotten more comfortable with playing improv characters, and now I find it fun and liberating. (That’s between us). I have come across some simple tricks to jump start me into doing characters. You are going to hate me for this, but there is no right or wrong way to create characters. It’s really whatever works for you. I have seen people approach character by a playing an attitude, or an emotion, or a physicality or a voice or an accent. All work, it’s just a matter of taste. What is important in playing improv characters is point of view, how they look at the world and how they respond to their scene partner through that filter.

Once I have that filter in place, and know how this person will respond to things, I am out of my head and I can start saying things that I would not normally say on stage or in life. I’m not playing me anymore. I may be a heightened part of me or someone completely different. All I know is it is so fucking freeing when it happens.

Here are three of the quickest way to create instant character:

1. Start with a strong emotion
That’s right. Come right out of the box and start the scene with a strong emotion: happy, sad, angry, afraid. I know what you are saying: “That is cheating. That is planning.” You are not planning the scene, you are not planning the dialogue, you are still improvising. Get over it. Nobody has time in most long form scenes to start out in neutral. You have to start with something or you’re dead. I have seen beginning students who were completely paralyzed on stage, until I introduced this concept and they were able to do scene work that took me ten years to achieve. A strong emotion will give you an instant point of view. End of discussion.

2. Mirror your scene partner
I love working with Susan Messing because nobody does strong characters like she does, and I am sharing with you a little secret that I use when I play with her. I just follow her and mirror what she is doing in terms of energy and character. (Let’s also keep that between us). I can hear you guys now: “But Jimmy, you are working with Susan Messing. She is brilliant.” Before you are so quick to judge, try it. I have often mirrored characters, and I have seen my students do it with tons of success. Why can’t you? When John Hildreth and I do “Jimmy and Johnnie” we usually agree before the show that we will start our first scene by mirroring everyone else’s energy and characters. We built that right into the form. Thank you Susan and Rachael Mason for that one.

Another variation on this is to play the opposite of your partner’s energy from the instant they come out on stage. If some comes out and plays a big, boisterous character, you could play the opposite — a meek or scared person. Either way, you’ll have a distinct point of view. I think you get it, so let’s move on.

3. Using a physicality
You’ve heard this one a million times, I am sure, and I have used this one a lot over the years. The secret to this is to be aware of what you are doing and then heighten the shit out of it. This typically comes from a very organic place. You may start the scene by wringing your hands together. What does that tell you about the character? They could be nervous or anxious. They could be washing their hands and being a germ-a-phobe. Ok, right now start rubbing your hand together and see what kind of attitude comes up for you. I’ll wait.

Another simple variation of using a physicality is adjusting your posture. I have done this where I simply adjust my naturally poor posture. If I enter a scene where I am standing up straight, I immediately play high status: a boss or a teacher a bully or an asshole father. I have gone into scene where I bend over and up play some sort of wimp or weasel or snitch or low self-esteem guy.

What do you use to create instant characters? Let us know. I am always open to keep learning more.

Don’t miss a chance to study with Jimmy Carrane! His next Level 2 Art of Slow Comedy Class begins Feb. 25. Pay only $249 if you sign up before the Early Bird deadline of Feb. 1! Register today.

Jason Chin

Farewell, Jason Chin

Improv is a family, and when a member dies, regardless of whether or not he had a direct impact on you, you are affected by it. This was the case when I heard that Jason Chin died last week at the age of 46.

I was in the back of an airport shuttle getting thrown around when I read about Jason’s death on Facebook. I was shocked. I was sad. I was not close to him, but I worked with him at iO-Chicago when I taught there years ago, and when I would run into him on the street, we would always get into a conversation about improv and comedy. He always had an opinion. He was always passionate.

For those of you who don’t know, Jason was a longtime member of the Chicago improv scene and a pillar in our community. He was the former head of the iO-Chicago training center, a well-known teacher-director-producer-improviser, as well as author the improv book “Long-Form Improvisation & The Art of Zen: A Manual For Advanced Performers.”

When I started out taking improv classes back in the ’80s in Chicago, there were only a couple of pillars in the then-tiny community. Del Close and Martin DeMaat were two of them. At the time, that was enough. But as the community got bigger and spread all over the world, improv needed more pillars to support its weight. Jason was one of them.

Sometimes improv changes people’s lives so much that they decide to dedicate their whole life to it. That is what he choose to do. It seemed more of a calling than a job for him.

What I love about improv is that it is an art form that is based on camaraderie and teamwork. It’s an art form where someone will always have your back, where there are more lasting friendships than there is competition. And when someone dies, especially suddenly and so young, you start to think about what makes this art form so unique. It’s the people and those relationships we make along the way that make improv truly special.

Many of the people you meet in improv will become life-long friends, while other friendships only last the run of a show. If you have been improvising for a while, on some level you have to like people. We may not admit it, but we are dependent on them. They are the glue that holds this art form made out of paper mâché together. I wish it did not take people dying for me to remember that.

Jimmy Johnnie

Beware of the buzz kill

Beware of the buzz kill. That person who is in your group or in your class who takes a perfectly good show or class and shits all over it. They do it with their words. They do it with their negativity. Have pity on them; they don’t know any better. I should know, I am that person. I am the buzz kill.

That is how I am wired. It is a character defect. I cannot let myself have too much fun in my life – and that’s especially true when I improvise. It is as if my thermostat can only go to 62 degrees, and when I try to go higher and am having a great time, a mechanism kicks in and tries to regulate it. I open my mouth and try to find something wrong. The more fun I have, the harder I have to work to find something to regulate the temperature. But I will always find it. I am a professional.

It happened last night, after an incredibly fun show with two people I love improvising with: John Hildreth and Jay Sukow. I am so grateful that I get to work with them. They are both so filled with talent and positivity that I am hoping some of it rubs off on me.

After a show of 45 minutes of pure bliss, John and Jay look like two teenage boys at an amusement park who just got off the roller coaster and want to get back in line to go on it again. I am the dark looming cloud. We go back stage. The excitement is still in the air and on their faces, and I say, “I think we could be more focused in our warm ups before the show, instead of talking about Second City we could spend the last 5 to 10 minutes before we go on stage focusing on what we want to do in the show.” God help me.

The thing about buzz kills is they are usually smart, respected and rationale people. Like myself. They are so noble in their efforts and so full of shit at the time. So their points can make sense, but no one really wants to hear them at that moment, since everyone is still having a great time. The buzz kill’s goal is to have you join them in their misery.

We had a quick, thoughtful discussion on how we would warm up next time. And during that conversation here is the best part: I caught myself. “You know what? I am a buzz kill,” I said. “When I have too much fun I look for something to bring it down.”

I was proud of myself for saying that because you know what? I don’t want to be like that anymore. I really don’t. I actually hate that about myself, I do.

I have been doing this my whole life and believe me, it’s not just with improv.

People say we can use the concepts we learn in improv and apply them to our everyday life, but I believe the opposite is also true. There are things about myself that only become obvious to me before, during or after improvising and one thing is clear, I am a buzz kill and I really don’t want to be that person in the group any more. Who does?

Rachael Mason

3 Lessons I’ve Learned from Improv Nerd This Year

I’ve had a great year, and the thing that I am most grateful for is that I am still learning. Can you believe it at my age?

Though at times bumpy and ego bruising, I’ve learned a ton from doing Improv Nerd — from my guests, from my staff and from the fans.

Here are three tough lesson I learned that I want to share with you at the start of this New Year.

1. Don’t trust your perception
My perception is off. My default perception is that I suck or that particular episode of Improv Nerd sucked — only to find out that we had a ton of downloads and people contacting me saying how much they loved that episode. When it comes to a show, a class, or a rehearsal, don’t trust yourself about how it went, because you will always be wrong. Instead, listen to people who you trust to give you an objective opinion of your work.

My Resolution: Let go of perfectionism and judging myself and others less.

2. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable
I am still terrified when I or my guest becomes uncomfortable in the interview part of the podcast. What I am realizing is that is usually a sign I have just struck gold. One of my favorite moments of 2014 was when Rachael Mason suggested we do our scene in the dark for the improv portion of the show and make it like a radio drama. To say I was uncomfortable would be a lie — I was scared shitless. But despite my fears, the scene turned out great, and it was a wonderful way to get me out of my comfort zone.

Resolution: Lean into the uncomfortability

3. Ask your way to the top
After three years, I still have a hard time asking guests to be on my show. I would be a lot farther along in my career and life if I was not so afraid to ask people for things. I have learned the more you ask, the more no’s you are going to get, but also the more yes’s you are going to get as well. I have come a long way from the beginning, but I still need a lot of help in this department. Thank God for my wife, Lauren, and my assistant, Chloe Fitzpatrick, for giving me the confidence to ask certain people to be on the show, or we would not have had Bob Odenkirk or Broad City on the show this year.

Resolution: Continue to get help in asking.

What are your resolutions for 2015? I’d love to hear what you’re planning on working on this year.

Only one spot left in Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 Class, starting Jan. 7th! Sign up today!

Will Hines

Will Hines, Jimmy Carrane answer your improv questions

One of the fun things about writing an improv blog is that I often get questions from people all over the world asking for my advice. They often want to know what their next step should be in their career, whether they should move to New York or Los Angeles, or how to deal with a problem in class.

Today, I thought I would answer some of the recent questions I have received. To help me out, I asked Will Hines, teacher and performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, to weigh in with his thoughts, as well. Will is the former head of the UCB training center in New York, and he has been part of the UCB community since 1999, so he has a lot of perspective to bring to the discussion. He also writes a popular improv blog at improvnonsense.tumblr.com.

Here goes…

Q: I have a severe insecurity over my intelligence level. I was a terrible student, dyslexic and barely graduated high school. I work now in comedic TV shows and commercials, but I’m scared to death of improvising. My agent asks me why I’m not at UCB or The Groundlings. I always make up some excuse, but really it’s because I don’t feel smart enough! I walked through my fear recently at The Groundlings but quit after Level 2 because I felt incapable. Is there hope? Suggestions? Thank you!

Will: I think this is a really brave and honest question. I wish my answer was as brave, but I get a little technical and wordy and I apologize in advance.

Insecurity over intelligence: This is a tough but very common fear. I think a lot of people have it. I think it’s totally natural when you take an improv class to feel that you have to be unbelievably brilliant or else the class and teacher are going to think you’re no good. I notice it most in Level 1 classes when two people are in a scene, and one person brings up a movie or TV show or worst of all, a book, that the other person has not heard of. You can see the other person be overcome with fear: oh no! I don’t know what the movie is, and everyone else knows it, and I look dumb! It’s a genuinely scary moment!

But the reality is that you can never know about every single thing that gets brought up in an improv scene, and that you just have to learn to be calm and do a combination of kinda faking that you know, and being willing to just calmly admit it when you don’t.  If you watch seasoned improviser do improv, you will definitely see countless moments where someone either doesn’t know something or doesn’t understand something. They never let it rattle them because they know it’s just part of the deal when you don’t have a script.

Here’s the main dirty secret when it comes to being smart in improv: it doesn’t really matter. It’s way more about emotional intelligence than witty knowledge. Really. People who don’t do improv assume that improv is about being brilliantly witty, meaning SAYING FUNNY AND SMART THINGS. It’s not. I mean, funny and smart things do get said — but the ability to come up with a brilliant phrase is low on the priority list for a good improviser. I’d say the main skill of a good improviser is something much close to just emotional intelligence: being in the moment, and reporting very honestly how your character feels. That is a much more valuable skill. If you can calm your fears down (not always easy) and just hear what’s being said and then report back honestly — you will be a great improviser.

Jimmy: Yes, there is hope, and I hope we are not going to lose you because you think you are not smart enough to improvise. There is a misconception in improv that you need to be some sort of brainiac or have some incredible reference level to be good at it. Intelligence can be overrated in improv. It doesn’t matter what your IQ is or what your SAT scores were in high school. If you can listen, agree, emotionally react to your partner, find the game, and not be an asshole you will do just fine. I have seen smart people be terrible at improv and people who weren’t that smart soar. It’s your life experience that matters. Being a terrible student, having dyslexic and barely graduating from high school is your life experience. You just need to embrace that and use it in your improv. Here are my suggestions to get your butt back into class:

First ask yourself why are taking these classes. My guess is that you are an actor who wants to book more on-camera work. You may be taking classes at The Groundlings to eventually be on SNL, I don’t know, but I think to be honest with why you are taking the classes will take some of the pressure off yourself. This is important because when you study at places with such famous alumni as The Groundlings, you can sometimes be intimated and have a huge expectation for yourself, which can make it weird and competitive. Once you are clear about why you are taking classes, such as because your agent thought it would be a good skill to have for auditions, then you can focus on learning and having fun.

The second thing I would suggest, which you may think is crazy, is to admit to the entire class that you are scared to improvise because you don’t think you are smart enough. You are not looking for the teacher or the students to fix you or say, “Of course, you’re smart enough.” You just want to admit it. When you go back to take Level 3 at The Groundlings, you could say, “I am back taking Level 3, and I am terrified that I am not smart enough to take improv.” We don’t have to hear your life story, just your fear. You may or may not get a reaction from the students or teacher. That doesn’t matter. You just need to say it to get out of your own way. I cannot tell you how freeing it is when my students get an opportunity to speak about their fears out loud. I have had people wanted to quit the class before they gave themselves permission to speak their truth. Also, usually at least one person in class will speak up and say they can relate.

Only a few spots left in Jimmy’s upcoming class and workshop! Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Class starts Jan. 7. Pay only $249 before Dec. 24! Or sign up for his Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on Jan. 3. 

 

changes in comedy

The Top 12 Changes in Comedy in 2014

Since 2014 is drawing to a close, I thought it would be the perfect time to reflect back on the year that was. And when it comes to comedy, there were lots of changes on the landscape, both nationally and within our own little improv universe.

When you look back at all of the massive changes that comedy underwent this past year, it’s pretty exciting. It feels like there has been a big shift this year from the comedy of the past to a new, different kind of comedy era. For once, I’m really excited about the future.

And now, here it is. My top 12 changes  in comedy from 2014:

1. WE SAW BIG CHANGES IN LATE LIGHT TALK SHOWS
The late night landscape experienced an entire revolution, with Jimmy Fallon taking over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, iO alum Seth Meyers taking over for Jimmy, and Craig Ferguson exiting to make room for James Corden (we didn’t see that coming?). And we’re all anticipating how Colbert will fill Letterman’s shoes, as he transitions from his blowhard, pompous character to an honest-to-goodness host. We think Colbert will pull it off and make the late night wars interesting again.

2. SNL ADDRESSED ITS DIVERSITY ISSUE
Back in 2013, Kenan Thompson told TV Guide that the lack of black women on SNL prevented the show from spoofing pop culture icons like Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Oprah, etc. — but that neither he nor Jay Pharoh were going to play women anymore. In the end, the heat about SNL’s lack of black women got so intense that the show was forced to change. And here we are, a year later, with two black women and three black men in SNL’s cast – it’s baby steps, but we like the direction they are going in.

3. WE LOST A WHOLE LOT OF COMEDY LEGENDS
It was a hard year for the comedy community. From improv genius Robin Williams to Second City alums like Joan Rivers, Mike Nichols, Sheldon Patinkin and Dick Schall, we lost many of the greats that put improv on the map. And then, of course, we had the controversy around Bill Cosby. In the words of Chris Rock, “We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.”

4. iO-CHICAGO MOVED TO A NEW LOCATION
Charna Halpern moved her improv theater to a new location — one that’s more than twice as big as the old location. They added a really cool bar and two more theaters, including one run by the legendary TJ and Dave, called The Mission. My only regret: I was out of town for the star-studded opening.

5. UCB GOT ANOTHER COOLER, BIGGER SPACE
UCB opened a brand-spanking new facility on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, proving that improv and sketch may still have more room to grow. Or that the improv bubble will be bursting soon. Either way, they have come a very long way in a short period of time.

6. THE SECOND CITY TRAINING CENTER ANNOUNCED EXPANSIONS
Not to be outdone by Charna or UCB in LA, Second City also put its stake in the ground, launching a brand new Film, TV and Digital department to help improv students learn how to master comedy’s new medium – the web series. The comedy school also announced plans to add 25,000 square feet of classroom and theater space to its already university-sized training center some time next year.

7. COMEDY WEB SERIES STARTED TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY
No longer a place for cat videos or guys getting hit in the nuts, the web proved itself in 2014 to be a lucrative platform for comedians. Creators of web series stated to finally get the respect they deserved by getting their projects distributed, and getting paid to do them. In 2014, past Improv Nerd guests Broad City premiered their show on Comedy Central, and High Maintenance became Vimeo’s first program on the Vimeo On Demand platform. Big things are on the horizon from the YouTube generation.

8. TRANSPARENT BROKE TV BARRIERS
Leave it to The Annoyance’s Jill Solloway to make her own experiences into an incredible work of art. In this critically acclaimed series on Amazon, Solloway takes a story from her own life about a parent making the transition from one gender to another and turns it into comedic gold. If all she did was push our understanding of the gender binary, that would be enough — but this show is constantly going to areas where no other show has gone before.

9. MUSICAL IMPROV WENT TO BROADWAY
Improv Boston’s musical genius Michael Decouteaux took musical improv to whole new level this year with Blank the Musical, which was co-produced by the UCB and had a successful run off Broadway last fall. Nobody has more passion for musical improv than Mike does, and it would not surprise me if he has something even bigger in the works for 2015.

10. THE INDY IMPROV SCENE CAUGHT ON
While the improv institutions were growing exponentially in scope and size, the independent improv moment also saw a huge resurgence. Independent teams and groups are filling a necessary void. Not only are more people striking out and creating their own spaces and performance venues, but also improv teachers like Miles Stroth, Dina Facklis, Bill Arnett and Kevin Mullaney have started their own, independent programs. It’s a trend we hope continues.

11. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY JUMPED THE SHARK
Entertainment Weekly used to be a publication that made you feel like an insider in the entertainment industry. It had great writing and great reporting, and it was something I used to look forward to getting every week in the mail. Well, all that changed as the old timers left the building and a bunch of dopey kids took over the reins. The last two issues have featured celebrity gift guides — I mean, can you say “lame”?

12. IMPROV NERD REACHED A MILESTONE
Yes, I’m putting my own podcast on the list, but I don’t care. With more than 100 episodes and nearly 400,000 downloads, this podcast is being used as a master class for improvisers all over the world. Unfortunately, it still hasn’t done anything to help with my self-esteem.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? His next Art of Slow Comedy Class, Level 1, begins Jan. 7 and runs on Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. Or take his one-day workshop, the Two-Person Scene Tune-Up, on Saturday, Jan. 3. Register today!

Car Scene

Three Simple Long Forms you can do right now

It doesn’t matter if you are an improv newbie or a seasoned veteran, when it comes to long form, the same rule applies – You have to have good scene work before using a fancy form. I have said it before and I will say it again, good scene work trumps form every time.

People want to jump into form before developing their scene work, which always turn out disastrous. Since it’s the holiday season and I am in a giving mood, I want to give you three simple long forms that I have been using in my improv classes and in front of audiences for years that always produce great scene work.

Here you go and good luck.

1.Car-Event (4 people)
Set up four chairs as if it’s a car. The premise is four people who know each other are driving to an event, such as a funeral, wedding, rock concert, or college reunion. You will do three beats of this scene, which will be edited by the lights. Like in a Harold, the second beats will be a time dash from the previous scenes. (A time dash means a passage of time.)

For example, four adult children are going to the funeral of their 80-year-old father. Karen reveals a secret that their father did inappropriate things to her when she was younger. It is the first time the three other members have heard that secret. They are surprised. They emotionally react to the news. In this first beat, Carols tells her family she is going to bring it up at the funeral in her eulogy. The other kids go crazy. The get angry at her. It’s three against one. The first scene ends.

The second scene begins 20 minutes after the funeral, where Carol brought up the secret in her eulogy. The family is all quiet. Her older brother, Bob, is holding his eye in the back seat of the car. We organically find out what happened. Bob got punched by Uncle Jim as he was defending his sister, Carol. Bob reveals he had known about Karen’s abuse. We find out the other brother and black sheep, Stephen, hooked up with their old neighbor, “Hot Sue” Sullivan, at the funeral and was in the bathroom when the fight broke out.

The third scene is typically a time period farther away: a year, a month, a week later. It is shorter in length than the first two. It works best almost as a “black out.” It can be as something as simple as:

Carol: “I can’t believe we are going to Uncle Jim’s funeral.”
Stephen: “At least you won’t have to worry he’ll punch you in the face, Bob.”
Lights.

I have also done it where the last scene goes as long as the first two and it’s worked just as well. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Tips: Like any long form, it’s better when the characters know each other and everyone has a shared history. With group scenes, it’s important to “Yes and..” your ass off. Reveal a secret. Emotionally react. Sharing other people’s point of view also helps a great deal. Sometimes the scenes will break down to three against one, but be aware that those alliance may shift. The other important thing is to focus on “the relationships through the event.” If you are going to the Taylor Swift concert and someone is not into Taylor Swift, explore what that says about the character. Why did he or she agree to go?

John: “Ben, you are such a downer. You agreed to go and you don’t really like her.”
Ben: “The only reason I am going is to get laid.”
John: “You are such a pig.”

2. Single Location Montage: (6-10 people)
This is a combination of Montage and Close Quarters. Agree on a location somewhere a group of people could all meet, such as a high school, office building, hotel, or shopping mall. If the suggestion is high school, every scene will take place in or around the high school. Take a couple of seconds to think of locations in and outside the high school, as well as relationships. This will give you variety. Most likely, you will do the obvious scenes like teacher and students in a classroom, parents and the principal in his office, coach and star basketball player in the locker room, two loser students in the smoking area. But see if you can push the locations and relationships to be a little more unique. For example, you could be parents in their Audi who just dropped their kid off and want to have sex, the dope dealer in the parking lot selling weed to the head of English department. You will edit with sweeps. Walk on only when a character is needed or specifically called out. It works better with no tag outs. It’s encouraged for character to come back in other scenes, but it’s not a requirement.

Tips: In any long form, variety is key. We want to see different energies, relationships, locations and characters. In rehearsal/class, sometimes after getting the suggestion, I will side coach my students to figure out what kind of relationship they could have. What kind of location? Don’t go with the most obvious choice. When you feel you have enough options, you can start.

3. Time Dash Documentary (Up to 12 people total, two people at a time)
Two people sit in chairs facing the audience as if they are addressing a video camera. Think of When Harry Met Sally or a reality TV show. Like in the Car-Event, you will do this in three scenes and time dash it. Also it will be edited by the lights.

There are two characters are there for a reason. They could be a romantic couple, business partners, father and son, etc. They name each other. And they listen and build off the last thing that was said by building the history of the relationship a line at a time. A story line will develop. Example: In first scene, we find out Ron and Heather are a couple and they are trying to have a baby. They have been trying for three years. The second scene starts with Heather holding her stomach and we know she is now pregnant. We find out that they went to China to adopt a baby and their doctor called them when they were at the airport and told them they were pregnant. They are not sure now what they are going to do about the adoption. The third and final scene is quick, just like in the Car-Event. It is two years later and we find out they had twins and adapted Simon from China.

Tips: In class and rehearsal, start out in silence and read the tension from your partner. This is important because everything you need for your scene is in your partner’s eyes.

Try one of these long forms out and let me know how they go!

Jimmy Carrane’s next Art of Slow Comedy Class begins Jan. 7! Get in on the ground floor of his three-level system. Sign up by Dec. 24 and pay only $249! Or, take Jimmy’s One-Day Workshop on Saturday, Jan. 3 for $79!

Improv Nerd team

What I’m Thankful For in Improv

Thanksgiving is a hard holiday. You can feel like this whole gratitude thing is being shoved down your throat. And what if you have nothing to be grateful for? Maybe you aren’t as far as you would like to be in your career or you think people you started out with are passing you by. You may have hit a slump in improv or didn’t make a team/group, or your team/group got broken up. You may feel like the worst one in the class you’re taking right now and you want to quit. How can you find something to be grateful for?

Then an idiot like myself comes along and says something stupid like “Why don’t you make a list of all things you are grateful for in improv?” When you hear this, you go off the handle and call me all sorts of names. You are angry, and you stop reading this blog.

Often in my improv classes, I will say to the class after 20 minutes of some brilliant long form, “What did you guys do well?”

The question is usually met with silence, like I am asking them a trick question. The tension is broken when someone sheepishly answers my question with a question: “I thought our editing was pretty good?”

It lands flat, followed by some more uncomfortable silence.

When I ask the next question, “What do you think you need to work on?”, they come alive. Their faces light up and their voices get strong. “We weren’t listening to each other. We had too many walk-ons. I think we had too many of the same kind of scenes.”

This is how we are wired. We gladly take in the negative and dismiss the positive. Like the two cannot exist at the same time. We are committed to not doing anything right, so we never feel grateful because as improvisers, we think we are pieces of shit.

I am no different. I wish I could say I was. I am working on this, and I want to get better today — right now. Because not being able to look at the positive affects my improv as much as my life.

My favorite story of focusing on the negative was when I was doing one of my many solo shows, and the show had sold out. Instead of being excited that I had a packed house, my attention was focused on my older brother and my sister-in-law, who were not there yet. I did not see anybody else in the theater except the two empty seats that I had saved for them in the front row.

That is called ungratefulness. They ended up show up, but it didn’t matter. I was still angry for days. What the fuck? I could not find the gratitude in a sold out show? God help me.

You don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be that person. Let’s commit to each other just for today that we are not going to be those kind of people. I will go first. I am going to take no more than two minutes to write ten things I am grateful for. Here I go…

10 Things I Am Grateful For:

  1. I got to travel to a lot of great cities this year, where I taught and did Improv Nerd Live.
  2. I released my latest e-book, Improv Therapy, and it’s been well received.
  3. I had a great team of people working on Improv Nerd this season. A great team!
  4. Stage 773 is an awesome space for the show and they are extremely nice to us. Good People.
  5. I have improved as an improviser.
  6. I have improved as an interviewer.
  7. I get e-mails from people all over the world who listen to the Improv Nerd podcast and read this blog.
  8. My wife, Lauren, who keeps Improv Nerd going
  9. My assistant Chloe, who is amazing at social media and keeps me focused.
  10. My amazing improv students over the past year. You made teaching fun.

Ok, now it’s your turn. You may feel angry and want to scream at me, I don’t care. Just give it a try and see how you feel. I promise I will not ask you to do again until next Thanksgiving.

Hurry! Jimmy Carrane’s Next Art of Slow Comedy class starts Jan. 7! Get in on the ground floor to take all three levels. Pay only $249 now until Dec. 24 ($279 after). Or, sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune Up Workshop on Jan. 3. Sign up today! 

jimmy-hands-crossed

Are you always late to your improv shows?

In the world of improv, we all, including myself, struggle with showing up on time. Improvisers are not known for their punctuality or their professionalism. I can’t tell you how many times students have run into class late, or how many times I’ve barely made it to a theater before I was supposed to go on.

This is not a good way of showing respect for yourself or the other people you are working with.

There are a million reasons why we are late, but what we may not realize is that being late sends all sorts of passive aggressive messages that people can misinterpret. Anything from “My time is more important than your time,” to “I really don’t want to be here,” or “I am scared,” “I am angry,” or my favorite, “Fuck you.”

I am late for all those reasons and more. One key reason I am always late is that I am addicted to shame. It’s mood altering, and it’s one of my favorite ways of not owning my power. I use it to sabotage myself. Noting puts me in my head faster than showing up to a show late. I end up using up all my energy rushing to get there on time that I am spent by the time I get there. That means I barely have anything to give to my improv scenes. I don’t do my best work, and I get angry at myself, which is what it is design to do, so I can continue to get high off the shame. Welcome to my world.

The sad part I am still doing it, especially with my own show: Improv Nerd Live.

This season we found a great new director in Sam Bowers. The guy is ball of positive energy and has great people skills. He makes everything work. He takes his job seriously, more than I do. As a director he made the call time 4:15 p.m. for a 5 p.m. taping.

For the first seven weeks of the show, I didn’t hit the 4:15 p.m. call time once, and instead waltzing in around 4:40 p.m. Consciously or subconsciously, I was undermining him, myself and the whole show.

Because I was walking in late. I thought I was the star and thought they should have everything under control. Instead I was saying “fuck you” to my own show, a team that I assembled. I was the problem.

I would put this in the self-sabotage category. Here is the thing I did not even realize until I pulled Sam aside a couple weeks ago and asked him if there was anything I could do to make his job easier.

Thank God he was not afraid of me. He said, “Yeah, show up on time.” He was right.
It was not easy to take. As my friend, Dave, says, “It was like I was just hit by a two-by-four across my forehead.”

I need to be on time to help make decisions. They needed some leadership. Me showing up late was not only a “fuck you” to the cast, it was also a “fuck you” to myself. I don’t need anyone to take away my authority. I am doing a pretty good job of that myself.

I am grateful Sam was honest with me and that he helped me keep learning a lesson I felt I had already learned. This past week, I tried my best to be on time. I made it there by 4:20 p.m., which is pretty good for me. I realized that things always go better when I show on time or early, because I am less stressed out and much more relaxed. With three live shows left this season, I hope Sam doesn’t have to tell me again.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? His next (Fun)damentals level of the Art of Slow Comedy Class starts Jan. 7. This class is limited to 12 people, and it’s only $249 if you register by Dec. 24. Sign up today!