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!

Jazz Freddy

What should I do next?

Does this sound familiar? You have just finished a class or an improv show, and before you can even enjoy what you’ve done, a panicked thought sets in: “What I am going to next?”

I see this a lot, especially with students who finish taking my Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv class. After studying with me for three terms and putting up a great long from show for their friends and family they will pull me aside and ask me, “What should I do next? Should I go to Second City? Should I go to iO? Should I go to The Annoyance? There are some people from this class who want to form a team; should I do that?”

This last part is the best part of their answer, and I tell them that.

“Yes, but my agent said it would be good to get Second City on my resume, and at IO I can get stage time and I want to go to The Annoyance because I heard I should study with Mick.”

All true, but what about staying with the people from class and doing a show? They have asked you to be part of it.

“Yes, but I want to be on Saturday Night Live.”

That’s great. I get that I was too subtle. You want my answer?

“Yes, that is why I am asking you.”

Here is my philosophy: Do what is right in front of you. Don’t over complicate it. If you had a great time with the class and they want you to form a group and have invited you to do a show, say yes. Because that is the next right thing to do. If you are an improviser and you live in Chicago for at least 18 months there is a 90 percent chance you are going to end up taking classes at iO, Second City, and The Annoyance, probably at the same time.

So many times, we think that to get ahead, we have to be striving, taking a huge leap to something that is “big time.” But often, all we need to do to get ahead is say yes to what is right in front of us.

I am still learning this lesson. I cannot tell you how many opportunities I have turned down over the years that were right in front of me that I still regret not taking. I was, and still am, the worst kind of liar and that is I lie myself. And when an opportunity would present itself I would make some bullshit up in my head like “How is that going to get me hired?” or “I am a performer, not a writer,” or “I don’t really want that.” So I walked away from opportunities that were literally right in front of me.

Back in the early ’90s, I was performing with the Comedy Underground, and the whole cast was hired to write for a late night talk show on NBC that was being filmed out of Chicago. Since it was such a big cast, we would have had to rotate days we worked. I turned it down. The reason? I was an artist and I wasn’t going to sell out to write for a show.

Another time I had an audition for SNL. They were flying me out to New York, and I had my plane ticket in my hand, but I decided not to go because I was scared and I told myself “I don’t want to do sketch.”

Ever since I was a teenager, I had wanted to get hired by Second City and be on the Mainstage. The closet thing I got to working there was teaching in the training center and working at the business theater. I was well liked at the business theater and Scott Allman took me under his wing and told me he would try to talk to Kelly Leonard to get me on the touring company. Pride, fear and lies got in my way and I said I wasn’t interested.

On the reverse side, some of the best things I was ever part of just fell in my lap and I was lucky enough to get out of my own way to say yes. Naked with Stephanie Weir, Jazz Freddy, being in the original cast of Armando at iO and godshow were all things that I was asked to be part of and they were all high points for me creatively. Those opportunities fell out of the sky.

I know that “yes, and…” is an easy improv concept to embrace in theory, but in practice, when it comes to our careers, we tend to want to pick the “right” thing that is going to get us ahead. But the universe doesn’t work like that. There is no way to perfectly plan your career. There is no straight line from point A to point B. What we have to do is let go of outcomes and trust that saying yes will get us exactly where we need to go.

jimmy-green-shirt

Should I quit improv?

If you’re an improviser, you have probably thought about quitting hundreds of times. And that questioning probably won’t stop any time soon.

As fun as improv is, it can be pretty shitty at times. You are dealing with egos, jealousy and lots of disappointment. You are reliving high school. And some of us would rather quit and avoid the pain.

I have always been an instant gratification kind of guy — the least amount of work for the biggest result. I thought if you are talented, that’s how it’s supposed to go. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in the arts or in life. Get used to it.

Over the last three years of doing Improv Nerd, I’ve wanted to quit many times. It is safe to say I have had that thought on a regular basis.

On so many different levels, Improv Nerd has been the best thing for me. It has made me a great interviewer and an even better improviser. I have met people that I would never have crossed paths with before from around the world. I have gotten to travel and had to reluctantly become a leader. But despite my successes, I get discouraged frequently – every time we have a small audience or a so-called “bad show” or experience some technical problems. It does not take much for me to want to call it quits.

Frankly, I’ve had thoughts about quitting almost as long as I’ve been improvising. The only difference today is that the feeling of wanting to quit doesn’t last as long as it used to. I bounce back quicker.  It can be a matter of hours, when it used to be days or weeks. I am also aware that sometimes the closer you are to reaching your vision, the louder the negative voices in your head become. The ones that scream things like “What are you doing with your life?” and “Why don’t you quit?”

I know if I had listened to the negative voices in my head, I would have stopped doing Improv Nerd and writing this blog months ago. If you have similar voices in your head that are telling you to quit the show or class you are in, or quit improv entirely, talk to someone before you do it, because these are the kind of thoughts that aren’t good if you keep them to yourself.

I have actor friends in L.A. who call me up ready to quit acting because they are tired of being broke and not being able to pay the rent. When I talk to them again a week later, they’ve booked six weeks on a movie or gotten some enormous residual check in the mail they weren’t expecting. After wanting to quit for 24 hours, they bounce back, forgetting about the conversation we had a week ago, until I remind them. I am always grateful that I get to talk to them on their darkest days. It gives me hope.

There is this incredible hokey saying, “Don’t quit before the miracle,” which really applies to everything, especially improv. In improv you never know the day, time, or year when you’re going to get good at it.

It happens slowly. And you’ll never know where it will lead you.

Like good improv, your dream or vision may morph into something completely different. Something even better than you imagined. That is what it’s supposed to do. And if you quit too soon, you will never give yourself the opportunity to know where it could have taken you. You will end up miserable for the rest of your life and you will criticize others who are doing what you like doing. You will be so bitter that nobody will want to be around you, and the worst part is you will not even know why you are this way.

So if you’ve been wanting to quit lately, here’s my advice for you: Keep persevering, keep showing up, be ready to play, and expect a miracle.

Jimmy Teaching

Embracing Our Weirdness

Last week I went to Worcester, Mass., to teach improv at Claremont Academy, a high school made up of a diverse population of teenage kids. Not only are you dealing with different races and cultures, you are also dealing with adolescents.

For an improviser, this was not a glamorous gig. It was not writing for Colbert or being cast on SNL. This was missionary work. I have taught improv to teens before, and I’ve seen how it can work magic on their self-confidence. I am not exaggerating when I say you are saving lives.

Just ask Danny Balel, who is an excellent improv teacher and heads up the program at Claremont. When he was in high school, he was getting high and had no direction. Then in ninth grade he was kicked out of school for concealing a weapon. When he transferred to a new high school, improv and theater saved his life.

Improv was not available when I was growing up. If it had been, I can only guess how my life might have been different.

I was thinking a lot about my own experience in high school when I walked in to teach the freshman class, which consisted of 18 rowdy students, right before lunch. We were in an area of the school that was more hallway than classroom, where people could pass through. You needed to be conscious of the sound, since there were no doors.

Freshman year is hard, as you awkwardly make the transition from eighth grade to high school. And I was working with them at the start of the year, when there is still a lot of turbulence before they make a smooth landing.

As the class settled down, they wanted to know about me before we started. It was hard to tell if they were curious or just stalling.

One girl with thick black glasses sitting in the first row asked me if I was professional.

“Yes, I am,” I said somewhat confidently, which surprised me.

Then a girl with an oversized gray sweatshirt and braces asked: “Why did you get into it?”

I wanted to relate to them. So, I said “I was neglected growing up and came from a family where we weren’t allowed to express ourselves. I took improv so I could express myself.”

I am sure it went completely over their heads.

As we worked through the morning, it was clear that this class had a hard time suspending judgment of one another, which is necessary to do improv. It became obvious during a scene when a tall, goofy guy made a wonderful initiation to dance with the girl with the braces. She refused to dance with him.

I stopped the scene. “Why did you say no to his initiation?” I asked.

“Because he’s weird,” she said.

I looked at the goofy kid, who reminded me of myself, and I felt speechless and sad. Then suddenly I said, “I am weird, too. No one is more weird than me.”

The goofy kid’s face lit up and he got all excited and he gave me a high five. My guess is that he had never been validated for his wonderful imagination. Then I found my footing and asked someone to tag her out and support the dancing initiation, and a guy came out and they danced together, which is a very brave thing to do in the self-conscious world called high school.

That day, I realized how much improvisers really are weirdos. We get up in front of complete strangers not knowing what we are going to say, and purposely make ourselves look foolish on stage. Who does that?

But the quicker we can embrace our weirdness, the better we will become. By embracing our weirdness, we embrace our own brilliance.

Carl and the Passions

Let’s start with, you’re talented…

What we do is pretty amazing. We get up in front of people and make shit up. And regardless if we suck or not that night, we are brave for just getting up there. And we need to give ourselves credit for that fact alone. I know a lot of you are refusing to give yourself kudos for your shows because you’re telling yourself you are not as good as TJ and Dave, so I am going to give them to you right now: “You are great. You are courageous. You are talented.”

Now if your head is going, “Jimmy doesn’t know me. He is full of shit. How does he know if I am talented or not? This blog sucks. Jimmy sucks,” welcome to the club. This is the negative talk in your head, and it has nothing to do with me or my lousy blog. It has to do with you. Are you willing to be gentle on yourself until you get the place where you think you are good at this? Are you willing to give yourself props regardless what level you are at for trying one of the scariest art forms out there?

My guess is, if you are like me, probably not. You are more interested in beating yourself up after a bad show or comparing yourself to others. Great, I get it. Believe me I don’t want to ruin your pity party, but here is another way to look at it.

Improvising in front of an audience is a very vulnerable experience. As soon as we step on stage, we have come out of hiding. We are getting bigger. We are willing to be seen. All this is terrifying. And regardless if we have a killer show or we bomb miserably, we will have feelings. Intense feelings that will overpower us. We tell ourselves we should have certain feelings based on how we did on stage or in class. Good Show = Happy. Bad Show = Suicidal Thoughts. That is bullshit. I’ve had great shows and felt awful and had awful shows and felt great.

And here is the best part, are you ready? Most of the time I can’t tell you if I had a good show or not because my perception is all screwed up.

This is especially true for beginners, because you have no reference point for what a good or bad show feels like. And while some people may be able to do their first show and feel great, it make take other people many, many shows before they can feel comfortable afterwards.

I still lose my perspective on what is a good or bad show. Last summer, I sat in with my old team, Carl and The Passions, at IO-Chicago. This is a team filled with some of the best improvisers in the country. I felt rusty. I felt in my head until about three-quarters of the way through the Harold. I got off stage and was filled with shame and convinced myself I sucked. That night, I put myself to sleep with those thoughts and woke up thinking I was the biggest piece of shit in improv. A couple of days later I ran into to Dina Facklis, whose team, Virgin Daiquiris, had shared the bill with us that night, and she said “Are you going to come back and play with Carl because my friend said you where her favorite.”

I had not even thought about that. I was too busy thinking of ways of how I could kill myself. I was also grateful that she said that, because I had lost any perception of my work. It reminded me that I am better than I give myself credit for, and I am still way too hard on myself.  And that those affirmations that I so generously gave to you also apply to me: “I am great. I am courageous. I am talented.”

Key & Peele

My Top 5 Favorite Moments of Improv Nerd So Far

This September, Improv Nerd turned three years old. At this point, we have recorded 106 episodes. Over the past three years, I have gotten to improvise with and interview some of the greatest comedy minds out there today. And lately, I’ve been traveling across the country, bringing the show to different theaters and improv festivals.

In honor of our three-year anniversary, I wanted to share my top 5 favorite moments over the last three years. They are in no particular order, but they are the things that have had a lasting impact on me. What has been your favorite moment from the show so far? Let us know in the comments.

  1. Interviewing George Wendt
    As a fat, insecure 19-year-old kid from the suburbs, I would drive my parents Buick station wagon into the city of Chicago to take improv classes at The Players Workshop of The Second City. On the wall was grainy head shot of a young George Wendt. At the time, Cheers was on NBC and was quickly becoming must see TV. I related to the lovable loser of Norm Peterson and to the actor who played him, George Wendt, who started out at The Player Workshop before making it to Main Stage at Second City.I wanted to be a character like Norm on a sitcom like Cheers and have a career like George’s. He was an inspiration, something I aspired to be. When he agreed to be on Improv Nerd Live in Chicago more than 30 years later, over Facebook, I was so excited and scared. The show was incredible. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who loved George Wendt, because the place was packed. That night, it seemed everything had come full circle. Listen >
  1. Meeting Key and Peele
    It’s always cool to get a guest right when they are about to blow up. We interviewed Key and Peele in a conference room at Second City. Everyone in the improv community knew how great the show was on Comedy Central and it would be just a matter of time before it would become a huge hit. During our interview, we talked about a lot of things: the show, the critics, adjusting to being in charge, being biracial. It is probably one of the most passionate conversations I have had over the last three years. I remember when I was done, I was exhausted and thought I had offended them, especially Keegan. Months later at the Detroit Improv Festival, Keegan was my guest again, and he assured me everything was OK between the two of us. As someone who suffers from chronic jealousy, I am proud to say that I could not be happier for their success, and having the chance to interview them was a dream come true. Listen >
  1. Getting Picked Up in a Lincoln Town Car
    One of my dreams has been to have my own talk show on TV where I get to interview people in depth, like Charlie Rose. I envision myself living in a big house and being picked up in a Lincoln Town car to be driven to the studio.Although I haven’t scored a TV deal yet out of doing this podcast, I have had experiences where I felt like a big deal. One of the best was when I got to interview Horatio Sanz, who I always thought Horatio was one of the funniest people I knew when I was starting out in Chicago. What made it even sweeter was that the interview was held at my alma mater, Columbia College in Chicago. The day of the interview, Columbia sent a Lincoln Town car over to my house and picked up me and Lauren, and we did the show in packed auditorium. Afterwards there was a reception, and I got my picture taken with the president of the college. I felt like a star. Listen > 
  2. Performing with the Improvised Shakespeare Company
    These guys are great, and I highly recommend anyone to see their show. I was so excited to have Joey Bland and Ross Bryant on as our guests to represent the group, even though I was terrified to improvise in the style of Shakespeare. I had never even read a Shakespeare play before, so a few days before the show, tried reading Shakespeare out loud to my wife, and I had no idea what any of it meant.Before the show, I told Joey and Ross how scared I was, and they said don’t worry. They did not lie. In fact, they really took care of me and it turned out to be a lot of fun. During one of scenes I uttered the phrase “oil of my loins,” where that came from I have no clue, but the audience loved it. And when I heard everyone laughing, I realized I had survived something I thought was going to kill me. Listen > 
  3. Intern enters the scene during the Amanda Blake Davis episode
    This was the strangest thing that I think has ever happened to us. One of our interns, who had Amanda as a teacher at Second City, decided during the improv scene with me and Amanda, that he was going to do a walk on. Which he did. To say I was surprised is understatement. Traumatic is the best way to describe it. I had no idea how to handle it or why it had happened. But afterwards, this event became a learning experience for me, because I realized that I hadn’t really been taking ownership of the show. I had never set ground rules for the interns, and believe it or not, I was supposed to be the leader, even though I had little experience in being one. This episode woke me up out of my sleep and made me realize people were looking to me to lead them. Listen >

Let us know what your favorite moment of the show has been so far!

M.A.S.H.

Being a Comedy Snob

I am a comedy snob. And worse, for years I thought that was an asset. God help me!

I have always been a comedy snob since I was a third grader at Joseph Sears School. I couldn’t understand why my friends would watch Three’s Company over comedies like M.A.S.H. or Bob Newhart. I secretly thought “What is wrong with them?”

As I got older and started studying improv, it got worse. When I was in college, I studied with the legendary improv guru Del Close who would preach in his booming voice to “play to the top of your intelligence.” Back then, we at the Improv Olympic had a chip on our shoulder, feeling somewhat over shadowed by Second City. Long form was not really accepted yet, so we thought of ourselves as purists, though that was an exaggeration. We were improv snobs. It was like we were from the Ivy League of improv, and we carried ourselves with a little swagger and a lot of superiority.

Even though I was green and did not have a clue what I was doing, it did not prevent me from standing in the back during improv shows and criticizing the players on stage. I cannot tell you how many hours I wasted in smoky bars or at all-night diners eating stale pie and drinking burnt coffee ripping other people’s improv.

Unfortunately, I’m still a comedy snob. Although I don’t do it as much in my performing or teaching, I have found it showing up in my everyday life.

If you haven’t figured it our already, I am in therapy. I go to group therapy twice a week. My therapist is a brilliant man with one of the corniest senses of humor. He loves a good pun, and when he comes up with a “good one” his face lights up like a Christmas tree. He’s so fucking proud of himself, and it’s so annoying I cannot contain myself. I roll my eyes in the back of my head. I have a running joke with him. Since most of us in the group are addicts in recovery, I say, “Looks likes you’ve had a comedy relapse.”

If that’s not enough, there is this older guy who I am friends with. He is very wise. I have a lot of respect for him, except when he tries to be funny. He’s one of those people who thinks he’s funnier than he actually is. It’s actually a disease. A couple of weeks ago we got together and as we joked around he could not resist and opened his mouth with one of his typically flat jokes that was dead on arrival. But this time, I watched his face. It lit up when he told it. He was filled with joy. And for a of couple seconds, this old, wrinkled, worn face transformed into that of a giddy 14-year-old boy. He was playing. He was having fun. I had never seen this before. I was too busy being a snob. I had missed the best part.

When I realized this, I felt sick. I felt sad. I had this insight that I was criticizing how people play. What an awful thing to do. And in the process, I was squashing their joy, their fun, their passion. Much like my parents did to me growing up. I do not want to be my parents. I don’t know many people who do.

Improv is all about having fun. So if maybe you’re a snob like me and say long form is better than short form, or Johnstone is better than Del Close, or UCB is better than the Annoyance, or musical improv is better than scenic improv, remember that what you’re judging is how people play. The next time you go to the park or playground and see children playing, my guess is you are not going to critique how they are play. You accept them for who they are. Which is something I could learn. Because being a comedy snob has gotten me nowhere in my professional career, or, most importantly, in my everyday life.

Last chance to study with Jimmy Carrane in 2014! Sign up for his Advanced Ensemble Class, taking place on Saturdays from 12-2 p.m. at Stage 773 starting Oct. 25. Early Bird Special ends Oct. 13!

mark-beltzman-live

Making Your Partner Look Good

You have probably heard this term thrown around in your improv classes a million times: “Make your partner look good.” And you have probably been confused by it. What does it really mean?

Recently Mark Beltzman was my guest on Improv Nerd. Mark is a highly respected improv teacher, actor and improviser. During the interview he used the ever-popular phrase “Make your partner look good and you will look twice as good.”

But how, exactly do you do that?

I asked him to explain and he paused for a second and said “You just have to listen.”

That’s how he interprets that particular phrase. If you ask 30 different improv teachers what “make your partner look good” means, you are going to get 30 different answers. That is what is so beautiful about improvisation. There is no right, there is no wrong, there’s only what works for you. And if you aspire to be an artist, what works for you will evolve.

So a couple days after the show, my wife, Lauren, and I are in our kitchen making turkey sandwiches, while she pitches ideas to me for today’s blog. We like to multitask.

“What does making your partner look good mean to you?” she asks.

I had to think about it. I have been using that term for so long I had taken it for granted. Except for Lauren asking me in our kitchen, I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to define it. So, I needed to think about it.

So I went for I walk and this was came with: I think in its simplest form, taking care of your partner, or making your partner look good, really means taking care of the scene. Are you willing to do what is necessary to make the scene work? In some cases, that may mean you will have to drop your agenda completely and get behind your partner’s idea, as if it were your own. It may be to give specific information that is needed to keep the scene going forward. It may mean that you will have to mirror your partner’s energy or playing an opposite energy. If a game or a pattern emerges in the scene, you have to heighten it. You get where I am going here.

The hardest part of making your partner look good is not focusing on how you are coming off to the audience, but only thinking about the scene at hand. If you’re focusing on the scene instead of yourself, you’re automatically making your partner look good.

That means you may have to be the one who doesn’t get any laughs, and instead play the straight man role or play a character whose sole purpose is to feed another character. Yes, it can seem thankless in our eyes, but it’s something both our partners on stage and the audience appreciate.

Or, it could mean that you play an emotional character and give your partner lots of specifics so they have something to react to.

When Mark and I improvised together last Sunday, both of us did things to make the other look good in the scene. When the scene started out, I added a bunch of specifics to give Mark a road map of who we were and what our relationship was – making his job easier. Then later in the scene, Mark made me look good by giving me a lot of space and playing it calm while my character went crazy and started kicking and pulling up bushes in front of his house. By him holding back, he set it up for me to play a big character.

If I could boil it down as simply as Mark did, I would say this: Making your partner look good means thinking about what you can give to the scene rather than what you can take from it.

I am interested to hear how you interpret this concept. Let me know in the comments below.

Jazz Freddy

Are You Lost in the Improv Community?

Improvisers in Chicago have it really hard today. I can’t tell you how many improvisers I know who fell in love with improv in their home towns, and then moved to Chicago with stars in their eyes about arriving in the improv Mecca. And within a year, they are discouraged and depressed and don’t know why they ever decided to move here.

Today, the improv community has gotten so big here in Chicago that it’s really hard to feel a part of it. Sure, there are more opportunities, but there is also a much bigger chance you’ll feel lost.

This was never an issue when I started out in the ’80s here in Chicago. From my first class at The Players Workshop to my first house team at IO, I always felt like I was part of an instant community. Jazz Freddy and The Annoyance became my surrogate family. Back then, improv was happening in vacuum, and because so few people were doing it and you only did one project at a time, it was easy to develop bonds with the people you played with.

This clearly doesn’t happen today. Today, many improvisers struggle to find their niche here in Chicago. And when you don’t find a community, the more likely you are to feel lost, isolated and lonely. Even worse, you become depressed and tell yourself that if only you had made a Harold Team at IO or were hired by Second City all your problems would be solved. You moved here, left your friends and family behind to do something you love — learn an art form that is built on people — and you cannot understand why you feel so alone.

Community is something I took for granted when I was a student, but today, if improvisers want to be part of a community here in Chicago, they will have to work harder and harder to create it.

What many improvisers don’t know is that community doesn’t just happen. You have to build it. A great way is to commit to one group, and form strong friendships with them.

Unfortunately, many improvisers suffer from the improviser disease, FOMO — fear of missing out. So they participate in as many projects and groups as possible, always chasing a dream, but never really finding where they fit in.

I look back at all the friendships I have made in improv and they have outlasted the shows I was in. And those friendships are what kept me going when I was filled with doubt. It was the fucking people — they carried me when I wanted to quit. And you know what? The friendships I have made as a performer, director and teacher have been the best part of improv. I could not say that at 20 or 30, but I am saying it now.

Take it from a wise old guy who has been around for a while. When you move to this big, crazy city, make it priority to get a core group of friends. They’re the ones you can lean on from time to time for support and encouragement when you want to quit and move back home with your parents.

And if that means doing one less class or, God forbid, one less project, to give you time to nurture those friendships, then do it now. You can thank me later.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? His next sections of Advanced Ensemble class starts Oct. 25 and Oct. 27. Both include a performance on the last day of class. Sign up today!

Improv Nerd

Improv Nerd Announces New Fall Season

Improv Nerd, the live comedy podcast hosted by Jimmy Carrane, is excited to announce our guests for our upcoming 2014 fall season!

This season’s guests include Antoine McKay of Comedy Central’s “Review with Forest McNeil” and the new Fox drama “Empire”; stand-up comedian and former Second City e.tc. cast member Chris Redd; and Rachael Mason, star of the Second City Improv Allstars!

Sept. 28: Mark Beltzman
Oct. 5: Jay Sukow
Oct. 12: Tim Paul
Oct. 19: Chris Redd
Oct. 26: Stephanie McCullough
Nov. 2: Jack Newell
Nov. 9: Antoine McKay
Nov. 16: Rachael Mason
Nov. 23: TBA
Nov. 30: TBA
Dec. 7: Jack Bronis

Also this season, audience members who attend at least six shows will receive a FREE Improv Nerd T-shirt.

In each interview, which is recorded as a podcast, Jimmy talks with an improv icon about his or her creative process and career in comedy. Then laugh along as Jimmy performs a totally unscripted scene with each of his guests and learn how they created the scene in a revealing interview and question-and-answer session.

SHOW DETAILS
All shows at 5 p.m. at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago

TICKETS:
General admission: $10, $8 for improv students

To purchase tickets, call Stage 773 at 773.327.5252 or purchase online at http://www.stage773.com/