Will Hines, Jimmy Carrane

Jimmy Carrane, Will Hines Answer Your Improv Questions, Part 3

When you get to be an improv teacher as respected as Will Hines, former head of the UCB Training Center in New York, who happens to write a great blog (http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com), you get flooded with questions from improvisers all around the country. When you’re me, you just tag onto Will’s questions to make yourself sound smarter.

This week, Will and I are reprising our segment, “Ask Will, Ask Jimmy,” to give you more answers to your burning improv questions. If you have a question for either of us, please let us know!

Q: I’ve recently become interested in doing improv, but my issue is that I’m not the funniest person, nor am I super quick on my feet. I know that when my friends and I joke around with each other and go into all these scenarios I’m the straight man because I can’t think of things quick enough to say to keep up with them. This scares me because I know improv is about reacting so you can move things along, and I wouldn’t want to hold my group/partner back because I can’t react well/quickly.

Will Hines: Hmm. The short answer is that you should just try improv and see if it feels good. Like, don’t worry about how you are it if you’re never even tried it.

A longer thought: Your question also reminds me of something I hear people who have not done improv say when they talk about improv: “How do they come up with all those things to say?” They seem to imagine that improv is about being the fastest, wittiest person. It implies that everyone in a scene is racing against each other to win.

A surprising thing about improv is that you don’t really HAVE to be the WITTIEST person to do it. You do have to be quick on your feet, but not impossibly so. You have to listen and be able to be truthful and be able to pretend to have opinions that you don’t really have in a realistic way. But there are very few times when the pressure comes down to come up with something amazing FAST. It happens, but not on a regular basis.

Given a choice between a witty person, and a person who listens and understands deeply — I’d take the second kind of person every time.

Jimmy Carrane: I love that you don’t think you are the funniest person and not quick on your feet. Actually, this is an asset, not to mention the fact that you are very comfortable being the straight man. I hate to tell you this, but you are built to improvise. Here’s why.

Some people start taking classes in improv because they were the funniest person at their fraternity or at their office and someone said to them they should take an improv class. The funniest person usually ends up relying on their wit and cleverness and ends up cheating themselves out of an improv education. They are scared to be real because they are afraid that being real isn’t funny, and they think improv is all about being funny.

As long as they are getting the laughs they are fine. Nobody is going to tell them what to do. They start out strong and then fade quickly. Oh, sure, it may work for them for a while and then people who they started out in class with them pass them by, because they are learning what improv is really about it — building a scene and listening and agreeing.

Now the funniest person from the frat or the office has hit a wall and they are either going to go over the wall and become a serious student of improv or they will quit. My experience is that 90 percent of them quit.* (*Totally made up statistic.)

By admitting that you aren’t that quick or funny, which I question, you have just saved yourself at least two years. The other thing that is important is that one of the skills we teach people in improv is to think on your feet. If you listen and respond to the last thing that was said by your partner, you will be naturally quicker. You still may not be able to come up with zingers or one-liners, but you will be quicker in being able to respond, trust me.

One more thing: It’s been my experience that some of the best improvisers are not always the funniest people in the room, but rather the most serious people. And sometimes the funniest people in the room can be lousy improvisers. So, for God’s sake, please take an improv class. My guess is that you will be pretty damn good at it.

Carl and the Passions

Giving Improv Notes: How to Self-Coach Your Team

Last week, I talked about how to give good improv notes if you are an improv coach or director. This week, I’m going to give some tips on how to give improv notes to your own teammates — a much trickier proposition.

First, let me say, if you are part of an improv group and you aren’t using an improv coach because you don’t want to spend the money or you think you are “beyond” having a coach, stop reading right now and go get one. You’ll thank me later.

However, if you are part of a group of improvisers who can’t get an improv coach – maybe because your group is made up of the most experienced people in your community – then you are in the unfortunate situation of having to coach yourselves. This can be really tricky, because you don’t want to be too critical of your own teammates, but it can be done.

In fact, I have been on many self-coached teams and groups over the years. Here’s what has worked for me.

1. Use “I” statements
The number one thing you want to avoid when you’re coaching yourselves is blame, whether you’re blaming the group or an individual. Sometimes it’s ok to blame the audience, but do it sparingly. Instead, get in the habit of commenting on what you did or did not do well in the show. You can say things like, “I was totally lost in the opening,” or “I really liked the scene I did with Jenny, it was so much fun.” It seems small, but it’s important because you are sharing your experience, which is all you ever have to share, rather than telling someone else what they did wrong. You may think its a small thing, but it will set you up for the next step.

2. Own Your Part
My experience with working with people who have been improvising a long time is they don’t want to call out other people’s behavior or give other performers notes. That means it’s up to each individual to be honest, vulnerable and take responsibility for their moves. This will give other people in the group permission to do the same. For example, you might say something like, “When you came into the scene, I was confused about whether you were doing a call back or not from the beginning.” By you admitting that you were confused, you may get them to admit that they were confused, too.

3. Ask the Group Questions
Remember, the goal is to learn from each other, not tell each other what to do. That is how you get better. One thing I do to learn from other members is to ask them questions. For example, you might say, “What could I have done to make it clearer that I was doing a call back?” Or you could say, “I thought the opening seemed flat. What did you guys feel?” If you get a lot of heads nodding, you could say, “How could we have done differently for the next time?” I have always found this helpful.

4. Don’t Dominate the Discussion
Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in an long form improv show, you also don’t want to be dominating the notes session. If you realize you are dominating, then maybe you’d secretly like to direct. Be aware that if you hijack the notes session, others may be less inclined to be involved in the discussion. If you find that happening, stop and ask them what they thought, or just take a break and let some else lead. Not everyone is going to want to participate and that is fine. Your job is provide some room every now and then so other people can.

5. Bring in your sense of humor
Just like the improv show, make the notes session fun. When I played with Carl and The Passions at iO Chicago, with TJ Jagodowski, Noah Gregoropoulos, Bill Boehler, Shad Kunkle, Jordan Klepper, Katie Rich, and Paul Grondy, I sometimes had a better time in the notes session than I did during the show because weren’t taking what we did on stage or ourselves too seriously. I cannot express how crucial this is, because sometimes improvisers want to make their improv life and death, and it’s not.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his next Art of Slow Comedy: Advanced Ensemble Class, starting April 15! The class runs on Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. and includes a performance on the last day. Register today!

art of slow comedy, improv classes, improv classes chicago, improv nerd, comedy

7 Secrets to Giving Great Improv Notes

As an improv director or coach, giving notes after a show is an art. Like improvising, you can only get better at teaching and directing improv by doing it and making a lot of mistakes along the way. Though my methods may seem a little unconventional, I wanted to share them with you because I know there are lots of people out there who have to give improv notes and feel like they don’t have much guidance in how to do it well.

If this is a skill you would like to sharpen, here are my 7 Secrets To Giving Great Improv Notes After A Show:

1. Make it a conversation, not a lecture
When you’re giving notes after a show, remember that you don’t have to carry the whole load yourself. You goal is for the group to take some responsibility for spotting their own “so called” mistakes — this strengthens the ensemble. After a show, before I open my big, fat mouth with some brilliance, I like to first ask the group, “How do you think the show went?” Then I ask, “What did you like about it? What could we have done better?”

I cannot tell you how important it is to get them to start talking first, so you can see where they are at and give yourself some direction about where you would like to go with your own feedback. You are following them. Sometimes, because their adrenalin is still going and their hearts are still pounding, they may not answer immediately. Don’t panic. Eventually they will participate. Remember, you are giving them an opportunity to be part of the conversation, and you will see big rewards if you let them join in.

2. Ask for Feedback
If you have specific note for a performer, first ask them the question: “Would you like feedback?” This may seem small, but it’s hugely important because it makes them more receptive to your note, and again, lets them take more responsibility for their own development. By asking if they want feedback before giving it, you build mutual respect and trust between you and the player, and it will also help you keep your ego in check.

3. Always start with something positive
I picked this up years ago from truly a master improv teacher at The Second City, the late Martin DeMaat. When he gave you notes, he always started with the positive notes first, what you did right, before going into the the trickier constructive criticism. When I remember to give positive notes first, I find that improvisers are less defensive and more receptive to the negative notes you give them.

4. Replace the word should with could
“Should” is a short fuse to the shame bomb. When players come off stage from an improv show, they are vulnerable. Respect that. They may feel excited, exposed, nervous, afraid, happy – and, yes, shame. If they are already feeling unsure about whether they screwed up, pointing out what they “should” have done is a sure way to make them feel even more shame. Or, on the flip side, if they felt they did a great show and are filled with joy, they may be looking for a buzz kill – that one thing that they did wrong that they can focus on. The quickest way to find that is with the word “should.” I have found replacing the word “should” with the word “could” makes a great substitute.

5. Think Macro vs. Micro
When you give comments to a group, instead of breaking down each scene, I think it’s better to make comments about the overall show. You might say something like, “Our edits were great, our energy and variety was awesome, and I loved seeing characters that I had never seen before. But I felt your energy was flat by the fourth scene, and I think we could have done more agreement. We seemed to be cherry picking ideas.” Similarly, when you give notes to individual players, focus on their patterns, rather than specific moves. For example, you could say, “In the first scene, you needed to agree right from the top, and later, in scene six, you also needed to agree right from the top.”

6. Focus on One or Two Ideas Per Person
When giving improv notes to specific improvisers in the group, you want to be concise and focus on only one or two areas where each person needs improvement. I have found as both a player and a coach/director that people can only absorb one or two things to work on from each notes session, so there is no sense flooding their circuits with too much information. Less is more.

7. Keep the notes session short
Giving notes after an improv show should not be a class. It’s not a lecture. Watch the clock. Keep the notes session short, whether it was a good show or a bad show. In Asaf Ronen’s book, Directing Improv, he gives a good rule of thumb: “If you are spending more then 10 minutes in notes after a show, you are trying to do too much.”

Next week, I’ll give some tips on how to give notes when you are experienced improv group who does not use a coach or director.

Do you have any tips on how to give good improv notes? I’d love your ideas.

Don’t miss your chance to study with Jimmy Carrane! His next Art of Slow Comedy: Advanced Ensemble Class starts April 15. The class runs Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. Early Bird registration ends March 25, so sign up today!

Jimmy Carrane

Curb Your Expectations

When we first start taking improv classes we have no expectations. Actually, we are ecstatic. We are just so happy that we finally got up the nerve to start doing it. Each week, we look forward to improv class. We rush off to it. Our life starts to change. Our crappy day job becomes tolerable. Our body changes. People think we are working out or losing weight. We make a whole bunch of new friends. It’s like we are learning a new super power. We feel like we are able to fly.

Then it happens. After a while, we want more from it. Showing up for class and just learning and having fun is no longer enough. We get impatient and frustrated. We are not satisfied with our progress. Our friends always told us how talented and funny  we were – so how come we’re not further along? What went wrong?

Simple: We put expectations on our improv.

We told ourselves if we took X number of many improv classes for X number of weeks, we’d be great at it by now. What we forgot was that the arts don’t work like that. It’s not a science. There’s no formula for when we’re going to make it. If our friends had wanted to be really honest, they would have told us that talent alone doesn’t matter — hard work and dedication will trump it every time. So grow the fuck up!

Art is fragile, very fragile. It cannot hold up under that much weight. Having too many expectations is a heavy load that will crush your art and break your spirit. This is where the creative process and human behavior collide.

Having expectations is a normal thing. I know that doesn’t make you feel better, but it’s true. Still, by focusing on what’s coming next and where you “should be” by now is just a way of delaying getting there.

I have constantly put expectations on my career and my life. Sometimes I knew I was doing it and sometimes I had no idea. It doesn’t matter; it ends in the same miserable result. Your works takes two steps back and your life sucks.

I always wanted to do TV and film parts when they came to Chicago, and I had an expectation that just because I was good at improv meant that I would automatically get TV and film parts. I thought my improv training was enough to make me a star, and couldn’t figure out why my TV and film auditions sucked.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that not all of the credits transfer from one thing to another, and over time, my expectations grew into entitlement.

It wasn’t until I started working with an on-camera coach and taking on-camera classes that I started auditioning better and getting parts. I had put expectations on my improv, and they were holding me back from going on to the next level. They will always do that. They are tricky little bastards.

I wish I could say something wise here, like “stop having expectations,” but that is just stupid. Really, the best advice I can give you is when you start feeling like you’re not where you “should be” (aka – “I should have already gotten on a team,” “I should have made conservatory by now”), try to stay in the moment and know that you’re right where you’re supposed to be. Try to focus on why you started doing this in the first place – which was to delight in the unexpected and just have fun.

In Chicago this April? Sign up for Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy Intensive, taking place April 25 from 12-4 p.m. Spots are going fast!

Del Close

Working with Del Close

I am so grateful that there are so many schools, teachers and methods of improvisation. It’s the best thing for the art form and is one of the reasons it keeps growing.

That was not the case when I started taking improv classes back in the late ’80s in Chicago. In those days, you had three places to study: The Players Workshop, Second City, and The Improv Olympic (now called iO). It was like the Bermuda Triangle of improv classes. I started out at the very gentle Players Workshop, and then went on to the more competitive Second City Training Center. When I got there, all I kept hearing from the other students was: “You’ve got to study with Del Close.”

At the time, Del was teaching at The Improv Olympic. They did not have their own space at the time, so when I started taking class with Del, the location kept changing. My first class with him was above a Swedish restaurant. We would move around from back of an old, stinky German bar, to a theater, to a classroom space. Sometimes you didn’t know where you going to meet until the day of the class.

Though I made some life-long friendships and learned a lot there, there was something cult-like about the place back then. Del was the guru, with his deep booming voice and his intimidating presence. There was myth surrounding him and all of the famous comedy legends he had worked with. So it didn’t take much for a fat, insecure twenty-something like me to buy into it. I worshiped Del, and so desperately wanted his approval and validation.

Del Close was brilliant, and a genius — someone who’s ideas I still respect to this day. But I think one of the reasons I got better in his class was out of fear. All you needed to do was watch him rip into someone, to the point of tears, and decide quickly that that was not going to be me.

I was terrified. Scared shitless. My fear manifested into a nervous habit I did not even realize I had. I would rehearse dialogue when I was standing in the back line of a Harold. I was a nervous wreck.

This could all change in the matter of a few seconds when Del would give you a compliment. It was a drug. You could feel your body chemistry change, endorphins kick in, and suddenly you were high. If you’ve ever heard drug addicts talk with excitement about going into dangerous neighborhoods and almost getting shot, just so they could get high, you know what Del’s class was like for me.

I made Del my guru, my father, my higher power. I swore that his way was the only way, and I became judgmental of other people’s brand of improv. I would jealously put down people who got hired by Second City for the touring company because they where not trained “the right way” like myself – and by doing that, I limited by learning and my opportunities. I was like the improv version of an Ivy League snob.

Over the years, I’ve done the same thing with other teachers, performers and directors. I have always had this problem with putting other people on a pedestal and using it to put myself down. I lose myself  by trying to get in their head and figure out what they wanted, what would please them. Never asking myself, “What would please me? What makes me laugh?”

I recently interviewed Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, for an upcoming episode of Improv Nerd, and I admire her because she is someone who never seemed to have this problem, but always trusted her own voice and her own instincts. If she thought something was funny and would make her friends laugh, she would put it up on stage. And that is what improv, or any of the arts, is really about: finding your voice and trusting your instincts.

Today, no one teacher is going to have all the answers for you, not even me. Thank God. You may love working with me and you might get a lot out of my improv classes, but I don’t have all the answers. You need to be constantly working with other teachers, directors and coaches so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one right way to improvise. The best way to approach improv is to realize is there are many approaches, and it’s your right to borrow from whatever school or style works for you. So please work with as many people as possible.

Don’t miss a chance to study with Jimmy Carrane! His next Art of Slow Comedy Intensive is April 25 from 12-4 p.m. Sign up today!

Oscars -- Neil Patrick Harris

The Number One Rule in Improv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to study with with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his One-Day Intensive, taking place April 25 in Chicago! Spots are going fast. Register today!

Jimmy Carrane Susan Messing

The Art of Specifics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three simple ways to add specifics to your improv scenes:

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

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

Steve Carell

Accepting Other People’s Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Hines, Jimmy Carrane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Carrot on a stick

Beware of chasing the carrot on the stick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Carrane Susan Messing

3 Tips for Creating Instant Improv Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Chin

Farewell, Jason Chin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Johnnie

Beware of the buzz kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachael Mason

3 Lessons I’ve Learned from Improv Nerd This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution: Lean into the uncomfortability

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

Resolution: Continue to get help in asking.

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

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

Will Hines

Will Hines, Jimmy Carrane answer your improv questions

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

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

Here goes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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