Charlie McCrackin

A bad day doesn’t have to mean bad improv

We have all been there. Something happens during the day that rattles us: a break up, a jerky boss at our day job, a fight with a friend. It’s emotional and we can’t shake it. Then that night we have to trot off to improv class, or worse, we have to do a show and pretend everything is all right.

Improvisers think they need be in a certain “positive” mood to do improve, and if they are not, they either don’t bother to show up to class or they ignore their feelings and paint a big latex smile on their faces and muscle through with that fake energy of a birthday party clown. Then when they have a bad improv class or a bad show, they end up beating themselves up or blaming it on their bad day.

What if we looked at those so-called negative emotions as a gift? And instead of trying to push them away, we were brave enough to acknowledge them by saying them out loud to a friend, the class or the group?

When we speak about how we’re feeling, we have a choice about whether to use them in our improvising or to start to let them transform.

I cannot tell you how many classes I have shown up to teach feeling sad or lonely or angry that have turned out to be some of the best classes I have ever taught. Why? Because I acknowledged my feelings, and then I dropped the expectation in my head that I have to be a Big Ten College Cheerleader to be a good improv teacher.

When I deny how I’m feeling and pretend that I’m fine, I lose my connection with my students and I lose my honesty, because am being fake and a phony, and people pick up on that and I am not fooling anyone. When I show up raw and vulnerable I can’t help but be my authentic self, which is the perfect state to be in for improv.

Last week on Improv Nerd Charlie McCrackin of The Reckoning said one of the most important pieces of advice he would give to improvisers is to become aware of their emotions because you can use them. He said if you are feeling sad or angry you might want to use them in character. Charlie e-mailed me later: “The only things I can add to my thoughts on emotions is that it’s easier to make use of the strong emotions already present in you than to try to build strong emotions from out of nowhere. Plus denying your actual emotions diminishes your ability to play truthfully.”

For many improvisers, learning how to be in touch with how they are feeling is a big first step.

Last week, at the end of my Art of Slow Comedy improv class, one student said she was trying too hard because she had had a difficult day a work and he was having a hard time letting it go in class. Another person said he got in touch with how he missed his family since he wasn’t celebrating Passover with them this year.

Realizing how you are feeling, even at the end of class, is huge. Now all they need to do is to reverse it and start acknowledging that before class, so they can use what goes on in their day more effectively.

I still have a long way to go in expressing my feelings, but now I know that when I speak about my feelings instead of trying to throw a gallon of pink paint over them or manipulate them, I end up doing some of my best work in spite of myself. And today I realize, just because I have a bad day does not mean I have to do bad improv at night. Instead, I can use those emotions to inspire my choices and deepen my connections with my partners to make me an even better improviser.

Executive Branch

8 Tips for Making Your Improv Group Stronger

Dealing with group dynamics in an improv group can be complicated. You’re dealing with egos and sensitive personalities, as well as a lot of people who probably came from dysfunctional families.

In my experience, most problems in improv groups occur when the group hasn’t authorized itself as a group. Basically, the group is wishy-washy about whether it truly wants to exist.

If you want to authorize yourselves, you need to make a commitment to each other, even for a short period of time, and openly discuss and agree on boundaries that work for the group. I believe with just little planning and lot of communication, you can turn any improv group around.

Here are my 8 tips for having a better improv group. Let me know how it works out.

1. Hire an outside eye
Instead of trying to give criticism to each other, which can create lots of tension, hire a coach or director. Make sure it’s someone you respect. If your group came out of class of a teacher you like and respect, hire that person right away! They’re the best place to start. If you are in a small town and have no outside eyes to hire you can use someone from inside the group, but the group should have an honest discussion about how long they want the person to coach and direct, and my suggestion is that person should not play with the group in rehearsals.

2. Pay your coach/director
The quickest way to authorize someone is to pay them money, so once you find a coach or director you want to work with, make sure you pay them and pay them well. Because you’re treating their input like a valuable service, you’ll get more out of it, and they’ll treat it like a job. By hiring a coach/director you are turning the creative vision over to them, and in the process they will authorize the group to do what it does, and that is improvise. Take my advice, best money you will ever spend.

3. Commit to a rehearsal schedule
Get the group to commit with not only their money but also with their time. Commit to your rehearsal like it’s a class, none of this pay-as-you-go bullshit. Let go of the “I have already paid for classes” mentality. Hopefully you will be paying for classes the rest of your life! If eight weeks with a coach costs the group $600, pay the coach/director half up front, or if you really trust them, pay them the whole amount up front and then see what kind of amazing work you have been missing. We call this commitment. (Be prepared for resistance. And remember, when group members bitch about paying someone, it’s never about the money, it’s about the commitment.)

4. Be accountable to each other
Make the director accountable to the group — you hired them, remember? And make the members accountable to each other. How does the group want to deal with members being late? How does the group want to handle missing rehearsals? How does the group want to handle if he director is late or misses? Think about these things ahead of time and set up consequences.

5. Set up clear time boundaries for the rehearsal period
Don’t keep you rehearsals open ended. If you’re going to rehearse for eight weeks, agree to a time and place, such as 7-9 p.m. on Wednesdays in the back room of Barry’s Bar. If it’s not scheduled in advance, no one can commit to it, and the group will fall apart.

6. Do not have rehearsals late at night
Having rehearsals at 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. on Tuesday nights makes no sense. Find a time when people can retain what they are learning. You are more productive in an earlier rehearsal and you’ll get more done.

7. Have regular meetings
As your first time commitment of eight weeks comes to an end, the group members should discuss what kind of commitment they want to make going forward. The problem with many groups in the beginning is nothing is talked about and everything is assumed. This sets up resentments which can kill a group like colon cancer. You need to keep talking to one another. Are you happy with the coach/director? Are you happy with the shows? The point is, by talking about it, the group members give each other the opportunity to negotiate among themselves.

8. Don’t avoid the business of the group
When you join a group and say “I just want to show up and play,” you’re essentially saying you do not want to fully join the group. The business of the group, whether that’s promoting or setting up clear boundaries, are as much a part of the learning and bonding process as the rehearsals and the performing. How you show up to the group is how you show up in your life.

My Naked Friends

Improv is all about the people

I have gotten to work with some pretty incredible people over the years in improv, as a performer, a teacher and a director. And I will tell you this in all sincerity: The best part of improvising has been the people.

This is an art form based in community, and I think one of my strongest assets as a teacher and director is to help build that community. In fact, nothing makes me more proud than when a class I teach or a group I direct becomes good friends.

Years ago I worked with an improv group in Chicago that was made of people who had originally met eat other in my Art of Slow Comedy Class. It was one of those classes where they had chemistry and talent, and it came together organically. After studying with me for two levels, they formed their own independent group called My Naked Friends.

Since they enjoyed working with me so much, they brought me in to direct. They did some great work, as ensembles do when they commit to the process, the director, and themselves. We put up several runs of several different shows at different theaters in the city and we were successful.

But after a while, the group disbanded. There came a point when we all knew the group had run its course; it didn’t need to be spoken. The last run of shows was rough. I was burned out and the cast had gotten a little crispy around the edges. It’s like having a tire with a slow leak, except instead of leaking air, we were leaking creative energy. And then one day you get up to drive to the grocery store and your tire is flat, and you’d rather get a new car instead of fixing the tire. When a group is over, it’s over.

When groups break up, there are so many mixed feelings. There is sadness, fear and a sense of relief. Sadness because you will miss the people. Fear because you don’t know what is next. And a sense of relief that you got out safely.

It turns out, though, that even though the group disbanded, the friendships didn’t end.

As some of the members of My Naked Friends moved out to L.A. to pursue solo projects, I kept in contact with one of the members, Mike Perri, and he happily he told me that a core of them had stayed close and supportive of each other, which is tough to do in a town that has a shortage of support. They had created something bigger than a group, they had created friendships.

A couple of years ago, I went to L.A. for a vacation. Usually, L.A. scares me. I have had bad experiences in that town, and going back there is like going back to a fancy restaurant where you got food poisoning.

This time was different. To my surprise, the community we had all built with My Naked Friends had included me. They didn’t see me as just their teacher, but they saw me as a friend. Mike took me out to lunch and showed me around, Julia Saboda put me up in her spare bedroom and Gerry Christoff met me for breakfast.

I also got together with other people who were peers – people who I started out with in Chicago, who have gone on to fame and fortune. And even though we’ve all moved on to different things in different parts of the country, there is a bond with those people that will always make them feel like family.

I felt gratitude that people took time out to see me on that trip. I felt loved, I felt like a rock star, even though it had been years since I had performed with them or had them in my classroom. We tell ourselves we are creating shows, but really we are creating something more lasting and that is friendships. And for me, that is the most rewarding part of improv: the people.

Musical improv

Play to the Top of Your Intelligence

Anyone who’s taken an improv class has probably heard the teacher say “play to the top your intelligence,” and if you are like most improvisers, you’re not quite sure what they mean.

Believe me, I’ve been saying that in my classes for more than 20 years and sometimes I’m confused by it.

If you asked ten different improvisers what “play to the top of your intelligence” means, you’d probably get ten different answers. That is what makes improv so fascinating and frustrating at the same time.

Improviser Katie Novotny, who has gone through Levels A through E at Second City and Level 1 at iO Chicago, recently sent us an email about what “playing to the top of your intelligence” means to her:

Play to the height of your intelligence. I’ve heard it. I thought I understood it. But it wasn’t until Level D, Week 6 with Michael Gellman that it really clicked for me – not just on stage, but in my real life as well.

A male classmate initiated.

“I can’t believe you slept with Jason.”

“Psh, Jason slept with me.”

I was shocked those words came out of my mouth. I battled (as most female improvisers do) being put into the role of the girlfriend, the slut, etc. with many male counterparts in my short time improvising. But this was different. I was the high-status hero. I played to the height of my intelligence. I did it. After that class, I realized that I shouldn’t only be playing to the height of my intelligence when I’m on stage, but in every aspect of my life. Stop skating by at work. Stop letting friendships fizzle. Stop treating your body like shit. Be the best “Me” in all facets of my life. Now, my bosses are recognizing my improvements. My friendships are reignited. I’ve lost weight. This improv principle not only makes me a better improviser, it makes me a better person.

Del Close believed when you hit the stage that you actually got dumber, because when people are afraid they want to make broad, obvious choices because they think they are funnier.

For me, I think playing to the top of your intelligence means not making the obvious choice, but instead making the choice that comes from honesty, that reflects life. Katie’s example is perfect. By not playing the obvious choice, Katie’s character comes across as more real, more true to life, and therefore the character is stronger and more three-dimensional.

Playing to the top of your intelligence also means not pretending not to know something that you do. For example, when most improvisers are starting out, if they are asked to sing or dance in a scene, they will sing and dance poorly because they think that is funnier choice, but 95% of the time it not.

There was amazing Harold Team when I was starting out called Grime and Punishment, with Tim Meadows, Mick Napier, Dave Razowsky, Rich Laible and Madeline Long. Periodically, these guys would break out in ballet. Though none of them were professional dancers, they didn’t try to dance badly. They totally committed to it, and after a couple of minutes you were like, “Shit, these guys are good!”

Or take the musical improv group Baby Wants Candy. These guys are not always the best singers, but it doesn’t matter. They don’t apologize for the singing, they do it the best of their ability.

So if you really can sing or dance, or speak French, or know a lot about the Civil War, and it comes up in scene, by all mean use it. Don’t pretend you can’t because you think that’s funnier.

My experience is that learning how to play to the top of my intelligence didn’t come over night, and sometimes I still relapse and make obvious, dumb choices, usually because I panic. But the more comfortable you are with yourself and your life experiences, the more you can start playing it real.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy classes start April 12 (Advanced) and April 14 (Intermediate). Plus, he has a Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on April 5! Register today.

Quitting

I Want to Quit Improv

If you are anything like me and you suffer any kind of disappointment in your improv career, you want to quit. Immediately. Change your phone number. Move out of state. Go into the witness protection program.

I am there right now. I suffered a big blow to my ego last week, and now I am struggling to keep it together — teetering between shame and wanting to sleep. I want to completely give up on improv: stop performing, stop teaching, stop doing Improv Nerd, stop writing this stupid blog because all I can think is “What is the point?”

And there is nothing more that I’d rather do right now than to blame — blame a person, a place, an institution or whomever for my problems and make them the reason that I throw it all away.

I see this happen all the time with improvisers here in Chicago, really talented improvisers who don’t get hired at Second City or don’t make a team, or their team gets broken up at iO and they end up quitting. And when you run into them a few years later at Starbucks they have a vacant look in their eyes and tell you the same sad story: “Second City didn’t hire me” or “Charna broke up our team.”

And the story always ends the same: They don’t improvise anymore, and instead they now sell copiers or work for a commercial real estate office out by O’Hare Airport. They’re miserable because they quit their dreams, and worst of all, they’re still bitter because all this time they’ve been blaming it on someone else.

I have been doing this my whole life. If a theater wasn’t going to reject me, I would do it myself. I quit doing my one-man show I’m 27 and I Still Live At Home and Sell Office Supplies because they weren’t treating me with the respect I thought I deserved. I quit doing godshow at Second City’s e.t.c. because I thought they weren’t treating me with the respect I deserved. And I left the Annoyance for the same reason.

It was always the same. I quit with a resentment because I would rather be a victim than be a success.

I didn’t realize it, but by quitting, I could stay small, and by blaming others, I could avoid taking responsibility for my own life.

Today, I’m beginning to realize that all of the times I quit something, it was never someone else’s fault. Same thing when I didn’t get hired or my team got broken up. It was me who was stopping myself, not any person, place or institution. There is a lot of rejection in this business, and we need to learn how to accept rejection and get back up again. That being said I am still struggling with moving forward after my big blow to my ego.

God willing, I am bottoming out on this because I am tired of blaming the Charnas or the Second Cities or anyone else that I can conveniently use as an excuse to call it quits. I am the only person standing in my own way.

I wish I could tell you that knowing this makes it easier to keep going or makes the feelings of wanting to quit less intense, but they’re not. But there is hope.

This morning I yelled at my wonderful and supportive wife, Lauren: “I DO want to push forward, I am just having a hard time!”

And I am, but in the moment I was willing to fight for myself, and it surprised me. I don’t know how I am going to push forward, I really don’t, but I know one thing: I cannot do it alone, and as you know, I will keep you updated on my progress. Thanks for all your support.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy classes start April 12 (Advanced) and April 14 (Intermediate). Plus, he has a Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on April 5! Register today.

Win a Spot in one of Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Classes

What is your greatest achievement in improv? Has it been to play a character you never thought you could play? To fail at an audition and come back and try it again the next time? To simply get on the stage?
Tell us about your greatest achievement in improv in 200 words or less, and we’ll pick one winner to receive a free spot in one of Jimmy Carrane’s upcoming improv classes, starting April 12 or April 14. Submit your entries to jimcarrane@gmail.com with the subject line “Contest” by midnight on March 24 for your chance to win!
Jazz Freddy

My Fondest Memories of my Improv Career

This past week, I was working really hard and feeling depressed, because I felt like my work wasn’t getting me anywhere. So I went on Facebook to try to feel better.

And it didn’t work. It made me feel worse. Everyone I knew was posting about some part they had just gotten on a TV show or some amazing press they were getting, and all I could think about myself was that I haven’t really accomplished anything, I’m not famous, I suck.

But yesterday, my wife, Lauren, suggested I make a list of the five improv shows I’m the most proud of, and as I thought about it, I realized I have a lot to be proud of in my improv career. I hate when she is right, and I know that if I want to grow, I need to appreciate what I have done, instead of always beating myself up for what I haven’t….blah, blah, blah.

So today I’m going to tell you about some of my proudest moments in improv, and I’m going to trust that by talking about them, I will start believing that maybe life is going ok.

1. I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies — Annoyance Theater
I have never had a bigger hit than my autobiographical one-person show — a brutally honest and humorous look at what happens when an ungrateful child moves back home with their parents and they fight about whose job is it to buy Diet Coke. The show was directed by Gary Rudoren, and critics loved it.  It played to packed houses for a year and half at The Annoyance Theater back in ’90s.

Fondest Memory: I was fat when I did “I’m 27…”, like around 270 pounds, and one night, ten minutes into the show, I spilt my pants right down the crouch. I panicked. I couldn’t leave the stage, instead I told the audience what had just happened and took the cardigan argyle sweater I was wearing and tied it around my waste like an apron and continued on. That night, I became a professional.

2. Jazz Freddy– Live Bait Theater
What a cast. What a time. Jazz Freddy was a long form group consisting of Pete Gardner, David Koechner, Brian Stack, Kevin Dorff, Noah Gregoropoulos, Miriam Tolan, Rachel Dratch, Pat Finn, Susan Karp, Stephanie Howard, Chris Reed and me. We were all young and hungry and we had something to prove. We all shared Pete’s vision of doing a slower, more thoughtful long form show in a theater and we ended up influencing a whole generations of improvisers who followed.

Fondest Memory: Years after Freddy had ended, I was at a press screening for the film Elf and was talking to the director, Jon Favreau, who by now was super famous. We were in a conversation, and this short little guy with thick Coke bottle glasses kept lurking around, and I thought he was waiting to get Jon’s autograph. After a couple of minutes he interrupts us and looks at me and says, “I loved Jazz Freddy,” and darts off. I felt proud and then embarrassed that he recognized me and not Jon.

3. Naked – iO Chicago
Stephanie Weir is hands-down one of the best improvisers and most talented people I have every worked with. The show was probably one of the first duo improv shows around at the time. It was just Stephanie and I, improvising one long relationship scene for one hour. It was Rob Mello’s idea and he directed both of us in it. She was brilliant and so easy to perform with. I wish that show would have gone on forever.

Fondest Memory: I was angry person in those days, much more angry than I am today, and I had been super jealousy of Stephanie’s talents, although I was unaware of it. My jealousy was coming out sideways during the show, and I was always making angry choices in my scene. After one show, Rob and Stephanie confronted me about it in the green room, and though at the time I felt a huge amount of shame and felt like they were ganging up on me, they were 100 percent right. Sometimes your fondest memories are the ones you learned the most from.

4. Godshow — Second City ETC
Godshow was Tim O’Malley’s show about redemption and recovery. It was a Second City review-style show about Tim’s life. He was the main character and narrator, while the four of us in the cast got to play multiple characters. I loved the story, and recovery is something close to my heart. Norm Holly directed, and I had been telling myself for years that I couldn’t do characters, but in this show I shined doing a wide range of characters – everything from a junkie, to a black woman to a British director to God himself.

Fondest Memory: One of the characters I got to play in the show was Martin DeMatt, one of my favorite improv teachers. Martin had died a couple of years before, and people who knew Martin said I was channeling him in the scene. One night before the show, Tim told me that Patty DeMaat, Martin’s sister, was in the audience. I was terrified. How was I going to play him? I didn’t want to offend her or have her think I didn’t respect him, so I dialed it down, a little less Martin, if that is even possible, and I remember briefly speaking to her back stage about it and she seemed really honored by what I had done.

5. Pent – iO Chicago
I was asked to join the cast of four improvisers for this long form show at iO that was started by Dan Bakkedahl. We would rehearse one hour before the show and Dan would show us a couple of moves and techniques from “Four Square,” a great long form show that he had been in. I used to always feel a little in my head whenever I played at iO, until Pent. It was so much fun rehearsing and improvising with these people, and I was sad when Charna broke us up. I performed with an all-star team after that for a short period of time, which was fun, but not like Pent.

Fondest Memory: There’s isn’t one show or rehearsal that sticks out in my mind. Instead, I remember the overall experience of the form and how it created a sense of freedom I had never experience in improv before. I also learned a valuable lesson when Charna broke us up. At the time, I was in my early 40s and was also teaching at iO. Pent was made up of all A-lister improvisers, and I learned that Charna’s decision had NOTHING to do with talent, and I’m glad that I learned that lesson, even late in my life.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy classes start April 12 (Advanced) and April 14 (Intermediate). Plus, he has a Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on April 5! Register today.

Dan Bakkedahl

The Fastest Ways to Connect with the Audience

In most improv classes, you learn how to connect with your partner – how to mirror their energy, make your partner look good, build off the last thing that was said, all the stuff we like to say to you about good scene work. But what they don’t usually teach you is how to connect with the audience.

And let me tell you, there is nothing worse than watching improvisers up on stage who are doing lots of jokey improv and who aren’t connected to the audience at all. It’s painful, empty and annoying, almost like you’re watching people who have an inside joke that you’re not part of. It may even be funny, but you leave with that feeling that something was missing.

What makes improvisation so exciting is that is a shared experience between the players and the audience. That’s why a recorded version of an improv show will never be as good as actually being there.

Unfortunately, a lot of improvisers either choose to ignore the audience, pretending they’re not there, or worse, they treat the audience like an adversary, making it us against them.

Instead, we need to treat the audience like the third person in the scene. This doesn’t mean we need to play or pander to them – we don’t. If we learn to connect with them more, this problem will take care of itself.

Here are my top three tips for the fastest ways to connect with the audience:

1. Be Honest — Nothing will connect you faster to audience then revealing some truth about yourself or being vulnerable. We have lots of opportunities to be honest and vulnerable in improv – whether it’s in a scene as a character or in a monologue in a Harold or Armando – and every time we reveal a truth from our lives, the audience gets more on your side.

For example, let’s say you’re playing a character, and in real life, the last time you went on a date you farted while you were having sex and you felt embarrassed about it. So take that shame you felt and put it into an initiation at the top of a scene. You could say something like “Oh my god, I can’t believe you just did that!” or “The reason I didn’t call you back is that I farted when we had sex,” and see where that takes you.

Being honest won’t always generate a laugh. Sometime they will be awed, sometime they will be silent, and sometimes they’ll gasp, but they will always be connected to you because you are doing something they are terrified of doing.

In a recent episode of Improv Nerd, my guest, Dan Bakkedahl was brutally honest about quitting Second City, leaving the Daily Show and his insecurities. My favorite movement was when we both admitted we were afraid of Charna Halpern. In life, being that vulnerable may look like a weakness, but on stage it’s a strength.

2. Reveal Emotions — As an actor and an improviser, expressing emotions will connect you to the audience. Whether you’re expressing joy, sadness, fear or anger, using strong emotions helps connect you to the audience, because, again, you’re doing something they are terrified of doing in real life.

In the interview part of Improv Nerd with Dan Bakkedahl, he expressed both tears of gratitude and tears of sadness, as well a range of other emotions. When we did our scene, where we played two hair dressers, he again showed a range of emotions for that character. By expressing these emotions, rather than lightly staying on the surface, the audience was hooked.

Too many improvisers don’t allow themselves to get really mad or really sad in a scene. They stop their emotions half way, covering them up by making a joke. Instead, the more real your reactions, the more the audience will identify with you.

3. Use Humor – Humor can break down barriers both on stage and off and laughter naturally connects people. That’s why they’re willing to pay to come to your show in the first place. The problem is improvisers rely way too much on this and since comedy is subjective, what you think is funny might not be funny to other people. If you put all your eggs in the humor basket, your shows maybe me funny, but you are short-changing yourselves and your audience. If there is no truth in what you are doing up there, and your characters aren’t emotionally invested in their situations, your audience will walk away thinking they were missing something — and they would be right.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy classes start April 12 (Advanced) and April 14 (Intermediate). Plus, he has a Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on April 5! Register today.

improv-nerd-logo-980x375

Improv Nerd announces new season of guests

Improv Nerd, the well-known comedy podcast hosted by improv veteran Jimmy Carrane, is returning for a limited time, featuring an exciting new line-up of amazing celebrity interviews.

The new season runs from March 30-May 18. All shows take place on Sundays at 5 p.m. at Stage 773 in Chicago.

This season’s guests include Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Goldbergs”); Jeff Hoover (“WGN Morning News”); stand-up comedian Candy Lawrence; Kevin Mullaney, former director of the Upright Citizens Brigade training center; Barry Hite; Nnamdi Ngwe; and The Reckoning. As an added bonus, improv legend Susan Messing will be interviewing Jimmy Carrane himself on May 4!

In each interview, which is recorded as a podcast, Jimmy talks with an improv icon about his or her creative process and personal life. 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.

Since the live show and podcast began in September 2011, Jimmy has interviewed such guests as Andy Richter, David Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Tim Meadows, Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, Scott Adsit and others. In December 2012, the podcast was picked up by FeralAudio.com, a Los Angeles-based podcast collective that hosts shows by comedians such as Matt Dwyer, Chelsea Peretti, Dan Harmon and more.

Whether you’re a casual comedy fan or a full-on improv geek, you’ll love this show!

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

March 30 – Barry Hite
April 6 – Jeff Garlin
April 13 – The Reckoning
April 20 – Kevin Mullaney
April 27 – Candy Lawrence
May 4 – Susan Messing interviews Jimmy Carrane
May 11 – Nnamdi Ngwe
May 18 – Jeff Hoover

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/

Have Improv Nerd come to your city

Want to bring the Improv Nerd podcast to your improv theater or festival?

Jimmy Carrane is available to come teach his award-winning Art of Slow Comedy workshops as well as perform a live episode of Improv Nerd at theaters and festivals around the world.

In the past, he’s taught at The Detroit Improv Festival; Omaha Improv Festival; The Huge Theater in Minneapolis; Improv Boston; the Bovine Theater in Denver; Search Engine Improv in Rochester, NY; and more!

Jimmy’s travel dates for 2014 are booking up fast.

Available dates:
June 14
June 21
Aug. 30

Contact Lauren Carrane at Lauren.M.Heist@gmail.com to book Jimmy Carrane and Improv Nerd for 2014 or to inquire about 2015!

Harold Ramis

How You Know You’ve Lived a Good Life

On Monday came the sad news that Harold Ramis died. He was 69 and had been sick for some time.

I was first introduced to him when I was 12 years old. My older brother, Bobby, first turned me on to the original cast of Saturday Night Live and then he really fucked me up by turning me on to show called SCTV. SCTV followed SNL at midnight in Chicago. It was this cheap-looking syndicated show from Canada and my brother kept saying it was funnier than SNL and his favorite character was Mo Green, who was played by Harold Ramis. By the time I started watching it, though, Mo Green was gone, making me feel, once again, like I had missed out on something.

I asked my brother about Mo Green he said, “He left to go write a movie with some friends.” That movie was Animal House. For Ramis, that was just the beginning.

Of course, he went on to make so many classics – Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters and more.

If you lived in Chicago after 1996, when Ramis moved back from L.A., and you were around Second City, you were bound to have some sort of contact with him.

This was confirmed after reading all the posts from my Facebook friends over the last few days. Story after story were posted on people’s walls — about meeting him after a show and how encouraging he had been to them, or how he took the time to read a script of theirs and give extensive notes, or how he invited them on the set of one of his movies, or how patient he was as a director.

I didn’t realize how many people he gone out of his way to help. With the amount of success he had, he didn’t have to do that.

I was lucky to have interviewed Harold twice when I was on public radio. The second time, he came and sat down at the table in the hotel suite and he remember my full name. Both times, after our interviews, he stayed and spent some extra time talking about Second City or Bill Murray or Ernie Hudson, the fourth Ghostbuster.

Harold was kind and generous with his time. You never thought he was in rush to get anywhere, even when he was doing a movie junket and you only got 15 minutes with him. I am sure he had ego, you don’t go that far in the film business without one, but it was almost like he was humbled by his success and that helping people in the comedy was part of his job description.

Harold Ramis accomplished a lot, and you could not forget that when you met him, but what I’ve found remarkable over the last few days is that my friends haven’t been talking about how much they loved Groundhog Day or Stripes. Some posts did, but most people have been talking about Harold Ramis the person, his generosity, his kindness.

People in comedy are cynical by nature. It’s our defense mechanism, and it’s much easier for us to talk about someone’s accomplishments than it is to talk about the person. Unless the person eclipses those accomplishments.

With Harold, the fact that this guy’s life and how he lived it trumped what he created is a testament to the man. And to me, that is how you know you’ve lived a good life.

Ed Helms

Anger Is Funny

Anger is funny. Think about all of the great scenes you’ve watched in movies and sitcoms where the character keeps getting more and more frustrated as a situation gets heightened. Ed Helms losing his shit in The Hangover, George Costanza yelling at people in a movie theater, Steve Martin going crazy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

These angry outbursts are not only hilarious but necessary. Comedy is all about tension, and anger can ground the reality of the situation to make it even funnier.

Unfortunately, beginning improvisers are often terrified to get really angry in a scene. Instead, we suppress it, keeping our reactions small and controlled.

It’s hard to learn how to unleash our anger when we’ve been trained our whole lives to reign it in. For me, by the age of two, I was taught to suppress my emotions — especially anger. In my house, anger was bad, and people who expressed it were even worse. If you expressed anger you would get shame, so you would eat the anger because it was less painful than to feel the shame. So I became afraid to express anger in life, but for some reason, it was easier to do it on stage.

We think keeping our anger in check is necessary in our lives – if we wait tables or work in an office, we can’t go ballistic on our customers or our boss all the time, can we? But the truth is, we need to find constructive ways to let out our anger, or it will kill us. That’s why anger has been linked to stress, heart disease and cancer.

What improvisers don’t understand about suppressing anger is that by suppressing one emotion, we are suppressing all emotions — the positive ones as well as the negative ones. On stage, we want to have access to all our emotions and be able to go full throttle on a moment’s notice. By holding them back we are holding ourselves back.

Recently, I had a student who was doing a scene in my Art of Slow Comedy Improv Class and it was hilarious. One guy was playing a character who did not take the other guy seriously as he was trying to kill him with his improvised gun. All the student with the gun had to do was to keep getting more and more frustrated that he wasn’t being taken seriously, playing the Ed Helms part. I could see the student get to the brink of getting really frustrated and then back off, instead of heightening the anger.

After the scene, I asked the student with the gun why he resisted getting frustrated.

“I didn’t want to step on my partner’s laughs,” he said. “If I got more and more frustrated no one could hear him.”

Since my students can articulate things much better than I can sometimes, I asked his scene partner what he thought. “I wish you would have pushed harder with your emotions,” he said, “because it would have given my character a chance to push harder back.”

I am not going to lie. I still struggle with getting angry, both on stage and in life. I realize it is one of the most intimate of all the emotions, and every time I do not express my anger in my life, on some level it is killing me. In improv, keeping anger down will kill the scene, and by letting it explode, we don’t know how far we can go.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane, host of the Improv Nerd podcast? Only three spots left in his upcoming Art of Slow Comedy Classes, starting Feb. 22 and Feb. 24! Register today.

Two-Person Workshop

Announcing Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on April 5

Sometimes, improvisers get so focused on trying to learn a cool, slick form that they forget that they need to have good scene work. The truth is, if you can do compelling two-person scenes, you can do anything.

Jimmy is excited to announce his new Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop, which will be held at Stage 773 on Saturday, April 5 from 12-3 p.m. In this 3-hour workshop, we will fine tune your two-person scene work and find your blind spots so your scene work will pop, be memorable and yes, funny.

Come with your scene partner, teammate, of just come by yourself! You’ll be sure to come away with some new insights that will make your scenes better.

This workshop is limited to 12 improvisers. Register by March 15 to get the Early Bird Special of $59, and then the price goes up to $75. Sign up today!

What People Have Said…

“I think the two man workshop did a lot for my personal performance whether it be utilizing emotion to support my fellow actor and our scene’s development, listening to the gifts the other actor gives and specifically adding to that, or simply finding the drive within to initiate a scene.” — Matt McCann

“Taking Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up has helped me use emotion to progress my scenes, which then makes it easy to be in the moment and trusting your partner. This class takes you to another level and you’ll have fun doing it!” — Rob Dolliver

“You amazed me, Jimmy, by your ability to take a group of complete strangers and within 15 minutes get them to trust each other so much that they will tell each other their deepest secrets that they wouldn’t tell friends that they’ve had for 20 years. You also have a fantastic eye for finding the meat of a scene and helping the improvisers find it without handing it to them. You have also helped me regain my confidence in my ability to improvise after being away from it for 30 years. You have a way with giving people the true feedback that they need without being harsh or condescending. Your workshops are the best I had since Del Close’s.” — Alan Baranowski

lincoln

When Lincoln Did Improv

Lincoln’s birthday was yesterday. It made me think about how great Lincoln was for this country. Sure, he grew up in a log cabin, hailed from Illinois, and ended slavery. But I’ve also heard he was a founding father of improv.

The way I’ve heard it told, Lincoln never intended to go into politics. Being a lawyer and politician was his day job, something he did where he could take time off for auditions and have nights free to do shows.

He had been born in Kentucky. It’s been said that as a kid he listened obsessively to Mark Twain’s comedy albums. He knew them by heart. So he moved to Illinois, because that’s what everyone does when they want to do improv.

He settled in Springfield, which I believe at that time had a burgeoning improv scene, sharing a two-room flat with one bed with three guys from Michigan State. They started a group called the “Side Splitters.”

In Springfield, Lincoln studied with Dale McClose, a fire-eater and improv guru, until McClose took some hallucinogens and ended up following a young musician named Jerry Garcia to the West Coast.

The pinnacle of Lincoln’s improv career came on a Thursday afternoon in November 1863, when he was standing behind a podium on the battlefield at Gettysburg. That day, according to some recently discovered memoirs, Lincoln was performing in front of the biggest crowd he’d ever played to, even bigger than when the Side Splitters had done their college tour.

Suddenly, he spotted someone he knew. It was his old roommate, Lars Petric Robertson, who had performed with Lincoln in The Side Splitters. Their relationship had soured over the years.

“We had creative differences,” Robertson had said. “I wanted to do less improv and more sketch, and he wanted to do things like free the slaves.”

Lincoln looked down at the podium, his head feeling heavy from drinking way too much draft beer the night before. While most politicians wrote down their speeches, Lincoln did not. He preferred to make them up on the spot, ad libbing, or performing what was referred to in those days as “old thymey make ‘em ups.” As he looked out over the crowd ― tired, hungry, ravaged by war ― he knew one thing: He better not bomb.

Though there are different accounts about what happened next, historian all agree that Lincoln cleared his throat and asked the throngs of people for a suggestion. Some historians say a man yelled “tea bag!” Others say the suggestion was “coleslaw.” Still others say the word was “freedom.” Whatever it was, Lincoln was inspired to begin.

“Four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln began. He paused. Not the laugh he was expecting.

Lincoln recovered. “Our fathers brought forth (air quotes) on this continent a new nation (air quotes), conceived in liberty (more air quotes),” Lincoln said as he thrust his hips back and forth.

Then he began using his bare hands as puppets, making up different voices for General Grant and General Lee. Some historians believe he continued to rif on the suggestion into the late evening, until he called, “And scene.”

Unfortunately, for the three soldiers who were still left, that was a little too inside baseball, and they left feeling confused that the speech was over.

Afterwards, he wrote a letter to his wife, Mary, explaining how it went that day. “Mary, it was my finest day. The laughter was a-plenty and the applause overwhelming. Had the right people seen me, I would not be headed back to Washington right now. Instead, I would be coming to you Live From New York.”

Spots still available in Jimmy’s upcoming Art of Slow Comedy Classes, starting Feb. 22 and Feb. 24! Click here to register.

Armando Diaz Experience

Using your negative energy

I love my Monday night Art of Slow Comedy improv class and I am going to miss them. They have taught me so much and last night was no exception.

In this level, we typically warm up with a series of two-person scenes. This week, after they finished, I asked the class, “How did you feel about what you just did?”

One of my students came unhinged and got emotional, to the point of tears. “I am frustrated. I’m not getting it!” she said. “I’m not good at improv. I don’t feel safe in this class, and I don’t want to expose people to my negative energy.”

She was trembling, raw and vulnerable, and was worried that her negative energy was contagious and everyone else was going to catch it. The class was silent and we all just listened. When she was finished, I didn’t try to talk her out of her experience or make it all go away. Instead, I said, “OK, I want you to use that frustration, that the negative energy, in every scene.”

So she did six scenes in row with different people, using her frustration and that  “negative energy” she wanted so desperately to hide from her classmates. Holy shit, what scenes they all came up with! She was a live wire, an open wound, and each student reacted to her differently — some compassionately, some sarcastically, but all vulnerably and really real.

It was one of those nights when the students collectively reached a higher level together, and the students were saying and doing things I never thought possible. It was as if their hearts had been opened up to her and she did the same.

Afterwards, people talked about how free they felt and how easy it was to improvise. When I asked them what they had learned that night, one student piped up and said: “We can use what we got. I need to remember that.”

And so do I. They had re-taught me a lesson I had forgotten, a lesson I use in my own work. Whatever feeling you are having — whether you’re scared or frustrated or sad or tentative — use it in your scene work and let it embody your character.

I first learned this lesson back in 1992 when I was in the original cast of Armando at IO-Chicago. Let me tell you, I was scared to death to be part of that show. I was intimated by the A-list improvisers who were part of that show. I am not kidding you, the first six months I must have played someone who was scared in every scene because that was what my natural state was. Instead of trying to fight my feelings, I just embraced them, and it really worked.

Often times, improvisers will try to override their so-called “negative” emotions of fear, sadness, and anger with that bullshit, pumped-up, fake improviser energy. More skilled improvisers learn how to just accept their negative energy and use it.

What was so cool about Monday night’s class was that it wasn’t just one student who had a breakthrough, the entire class had one. And it all started with one brave student being willing to take a risk and be honest and messy about her “negative energy.”

She was right about one thing. It was contagious and we all caught it, thank god, including the teacher.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? The next Art of Slow Comedy class begins soon! Fundamentals starts Feb. 24 and Advanced starts Feb. 22.