Do you have to be the funniest?

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Do You Have to Be The Funniest ON YOUR TEAM?

I have recently discovered a flaw of mine that is impacting my improvising — and not in a good way.

Since I started improvising, I have always strived to be “the best improviser.” You might think that would be a good thing, but in fact, it’s done nothing but fill me with doubt and self-hatred. To me, being the best improviser always meant being the funniest person on stage, and I always think if I’m not the funniest, then I have failed.

Of course, this started way before I got into improv. Growing up, I had two brothers who were good athletes and popular, and two sisters who were good students and popular. Me, I was 300 pounds and ate way too many Little Debbie Snack Cakes and watched way too many re-runs of Dick Van Dyke and The Andy Griffith Show. Obviously, not popular. And even though I was enormous, I was invisible.

The only way I could compete with my siblings for my parents’ attention was to develop a lighting-quick sense of humor. By the age of 12, I had cemented my role in the family as the “funny one,” and this is where I got all my validation. As I got older, into my teens, being funny became my identity. It gave me self-worth, and no one in my family was equipped enough to challenge me for the role.

All that changed when I took for my first improv class when I was a somewhat-depressed, fat 19 year old. Suddenly, I was surrounded by funny people, and though it was the first time in my life I felt I had found my tribe, I also felt threatened.

I was like that boy who was the star quarterback at a tiny high school of 300 students in a rural farming town in Illinois who goes to play football at Michigan State. Sure, he’s excited to be playing in The Big Ten, but he realizes he’s no longer the star.

So from my first class on, I have been striving to be the funniest — to get back to the top of the mountain I came from in my family. I cannot tell you how many shows I’ve done over the years where I am not only counting the laughs I am getting but the ones my teammates are getting, too. This accounting system of self-hate is what I use to determine if I have a good show or not. And on top of it, I tell myself that this is just a device to motive me, when it’s just the opposite.

After years and years comparing myself to my teammates, it has never helped me — NEVER. It’s like playing blackjack in Vegas: You think the odds are in your favor, but at the end of the night, the house still has all your money.

All that comparing myself to others does is bring me down and make me feel less than.

Yet, I can’t stop comparing myself to others and trying to be the “best.” It’s too ingrained. I am sharing this with you because I am hoping that you will have some experience in the “got-to-be-the-funniest” department. Maybe you suffer from it, too, and maybe you have had some relief from it. If so, I would love it if you’d be willing to share. I could use the help.

20 replies
  1. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    My 3rd ever class in Improv was at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater with Amy Poehler.

    My classmates were dazzling. They’d been funny in level 1 & 2. But suddenly, it was “Game On.”

    I thought we were all on the same level. I thought wrong.

    Turns out, my classmates had been honing their comedy chops in stand-up clubs, for damn near a decade.

    I remember Joey O’Brien, my 1st comedy crush. He was so funny, so advanced, so much fun to watch on stage that Amy Poehler gave him a note I’ll never forget. Here it is…

    “Give someone else the laugh.” I heard the note. I remember the note. But it took damn near a decade before I understood.

    Joey O’Brien was so funny, at will, he could put a joke on a Tee. And pass someone else the Tee Ball Bat.

    That’s how you cure “Got-To-Be-The-Funniest.” You pass the Bat.

    Reply
  2. Rich
    Rich says:

    Hey Jimmy, I’ve been only doing improv for abour 3 years now, but as of late I’m finding that I’m counting laughs that I get and my other team mates or fellow improvisers are getting. I think I am much like you, were I get to analyzing and every bit and ever inch of the scene(s) that I was in or saw. What hit, what didn’t or hot to replicate. All I can say is that lately I have been practicing on “letting go”. I had a teacher when I first started telling me to “let go” of a scene ones it’s done, there’s nothing beneficial from holding on to it because it’s already done, the show is over. I gotta say, it was easier said than done for me but I’m practicing this by immediatley focusing on something else after a show or a class in order to get my mind of it. It’s a slow process, but already I feel my mind’s grip slipping more and more. If improv is all about the now and not about controlling the scene and letting it happen, the same has got to be for after it’s over.

    Reply
  3. Derek
    Derek says:

    it’s hard to remember, sometimes, that you’re not the ONLY PERSON ON A STAGE. I’ve done some standup and some improv and, at times, I have to force myself out of the “hey, I’m going to get all the laughs” mentality of standup and remember to share. Sure, I could just talk for an entire scene and garner some laughs but it wouldn’t be satisfying. I find that if I just do the basics: share focus, listen, respond, be real and say ‘yes,’ the laughs happen naturally and that’s pretty darn satisfying.

    Reply
  4. Andy
    Andy says:

    Can definitely relate. What I’ve tried to do is look at the bigger picture ie how was the show as a whole and did I contribute, whether it be getting a laugh or just setting up a scene or even just an add on. Did the group function well? Did we have fun? If those last two are met then I’m fine with it overall.

    Its the shows where I’m performing with people I don’t normally work that I start to take account of laughs, rights and wrongs and a billion other things instead of having fun. I feel challenged and unsure of myself because I never know where I belong in those scenes.

    Reply
  5. Rob
    Rob says:

    This doesn’t exactly relate, but then again it does. I once asked TJ how he handles a bad show (like he would ever have one) and he said (paraphrasing) “I don’t let the good shows take me up too far and I don’t let the bad shows take me down too low.” It’s almost like performance can trigger a bipolar reaction to a person’s experience of being in the world. TJ’s advice is good medicine.

    Reply
  6. Cal
    Cal says:

    I think we are at our best (ensemble-wise) when we are doing the thing that makes the ENSEMBLE the best. Can I initiate scenes? Yup. After more than a decade at this thing I better be able to. Are there others I play with that are stronger initiators? Hells yes. Does that mean I never initiate? Of course not, I would be a jerk if I maintained that I only did things I was good at. I think this is all directly applicable to the “funniest guy” syndrome you’re pointing at.

    When we play (and MAN have I been there) as if WE are the show instead of the ENSEMBLE being the show we sometimes lose patience or sweep early or talk over or… or… Why? Because we (egotistically) think that it is up to us to get it right instead of trusting the ensemble and the form.

    In fact, you’ve been instrumental in me getting this sorted: hold tight, walk don’t run, and trust.

    Reply
  7. Dan Cogan
    Dan Cogan says:

    I sooo feel this. I don’t have a problem with others getting a good laugh, but if I’m not I do feel like I’m letting the seen down.
    I can’t always tell if the other players feel supported when I’m don’t feel like I’m bring it. I have a show tonight and will set myself up to have fun, but not have to be funny. Thanks for the post.

    Reply
  8. Uncle John
    Uncle John says:

    I never knew this was a thing. I imagine that joke-counting would distract you from the scene. It seems to me it would lead to set-up/punch line scenes instead of anything fun & creative. I guess I figured that “we” got laughs. I’m gonna chat about this at practice tonight.

    Reply
  9. Bu-De McQueen
    Bu-De McQueen says:

    When you’re on stage think of it like this, you are the funniest, always, The laughs your partners get are 49-51% yours, it’s improv and a 100% attributed to one person laugh isn’t what is preferred. Even on the side those scenes need your attention and without you their laughs don’t exist as purely. Change your mind it’s the easiest/hardest thing to change. 8)

    Reply
  10. Christie
    Christie says:

    I love this piece. I am not an improve person, but all of your principles speak to me. I want to be the funniest, best, superlative everywhere I go. I enjoyed this immensely.

    Reply
  11. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    I once worked with a girl who always got the attention and all the laughs. She demanded attention both onstage and off constantly and I became extremely jealous. I’m a great straight-man, so I’d set her up to get some great laughs. It drove me crazy that after shows SHE would be the one getting accolades from the audience and people would walk right past me, even though I was the reason she appeared so funny. I’ve since left the country and left her far behind but I’m sure she’s still up to her old tricks.

    I’ve found happiness with a new group. I think that as much as you focus and rely on yourself, you are still affected by those you work with. If your group isn’t truly supportive of you as an actor and artist and supports you selflessly then that group isn’t where you fit. It’s a balance between taking care of yourself and letting others take care of you.

    Reply
  12. pamela jackson
    pamela jackson says:

    😥
    I am a product of academiacentric folk.
    Older sister a doctor, next older a lawyer, dad a scientist, and all I ever wanted to do was act and sing.

    I loved to make people laugh.
    That was MY thing. (I also got the good grades, I am a closet nerd)

    This resonates big time.
    Today, working with “up and comers” one thing I do concentrate on, is imparting a good sense of self-worth and concentrating on the execution of the craft, cause there in lies the true satisfaction

    . Accomplishing that goal, not getting the biggest laugh.

    Thanks for these posts!
    😆

    Reply
  13. Banan
    Banan says:

    Hi Jimmy,
    I experience the same, I’m always trying to be the best or the funniest of the team and frankly, I don’t think that’s interesting for an audience to see.
    Recently I learned (in Holland of all places) a great lesson: let the other players shine. It’s similar to what Greg wrote. Making a great scene or story is about is all about giving it to your fellow players. Let the others shine and you will shine too.
    And once a scene is over, forget about it, you can’t redo it.
    Good luck! I’m still trying too let the others shine, it’s a slow process too. 🙂

    Reply
  14. mike latone
    mike latone says:

    Yes, while studying at Second City Players Workshop, we had classes where other events on stage were ignored, because they were not “funny” or part of the scene where the attention was growing, usually around a few select “funny” people in class. Being “in the moment” is key but sharing the “funny” needs to be part of the scene as well. Yes, easier said than done, for sure.

    Reply
  15. Dave Ebert
    Dave Ebert says:

    :sigh: My life story, too. I dealt with bullies who though because I was nice, I was weak and worth making to feel low. I dealt with the fact that I was twice the size of my average classmate and not feeling adequate in the eyes of my dad by being funny. Self-deprecating humor was the largest order of the day. If I make fun of myself, what do they have left? Right?
    And I am in that same pattern…I feel validated by “MY” laughter. I feel weak if my teammates get more, ESPECIALLY if I’m in the scene. I am going to study this concept of letting go and sharing.
    A concept that we discussed in my improv class this last term is scene responsibility. If there are 2 people, each only needs to do 50%. 3 people, each 33 1/3%. 4 people, about 25%. Just handle your percentage, and trust the others to do theirs.
    Thank you for this post!

    Reply
  16. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I certainly relate to all of this. I’ve been working on not measuring the quality of my improvising (or my quality as a human being) on the number of laughs I get, but when it comes from a place of “this is what makes me a special person” it can be a little tricky. I’m not sure if this is helpful, but lately I’ve been playing with less experienced performers, some former students of mine, and I find that I actually want to set them up to get laughs, to make them the focus of the scene. It feels very nurturing, not only to my partner, but to the scene- and it is (almost) as satisfying as getting the laughs myself. I’m not sure how to implement this across the board, but it did give me some glimmer of hope that mayyyybe I’m starting to let go a little more.

    Reply
  17. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    Have you ever considered that perhaps your insecurity has driven your success? I ask because I remember hearing the story of Howie Long’s career as a professional football player. If you don’t know him, he is a Hall of Famer and apparently during his career he lived week to week convinced that he’d be fired. It wasn’t until he was elected into the Hall of Fame that his achievements really sank in. And, that made me wonder when I heard about it if he would have become such a great player without that insecurity. As I read your post I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps your insecurity is the root cause of why I’m even listening to you in the first place. Because without that insecurity, that want to be accepted and seen as special; why improvise, why get better, and why make people laugh to begin with? I’m all in favor of being healthy but almost no healthy people do the things that make life colorful and amazing. That said, you can still try to be the funniest without being insecure.

    Reply
  18. Tarryl
    Tarryl says:

    Maybe this might help you (but for the wrong reasons). I think everybody does the laugh-counting, so don’t think you’re the only one. However, by being cognisant of the laughs, the audience can TELL that you’re relishing / counting the laughs. It shows on your face if your brain freezes and puts itself out of the moment to recognize the laugh. this, in turn, makes you less funny. So by “ignoring” the laughs and just focusing on those in your scnee, you should actually come off as funnier. There’s nothing less funny to me than a comic who acts completely conscious of the laughs they receive. It’s so self jerking off ish

    Reply
  19. Topher
    Topher says:

    There is a passage in the Ancient Text that says “you will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the time you were disconnected from Love”. The “shame” I carried I constantly tried to clean up using the laughter of people. When this word jumped at me I grabbed it up put it in my pocket and pulled it out whenever I was feeling competitive. I coupled it with a saying I’d tell myself, “I am not a competitor but a contributor. These words ,Spoken to me by the Love King, became words I spoke over my own soul. They have even healed me of Bi-polarity. For years I would drag myself into a bathroom at a party shove myself in a mirror and let the Lion out speaking these words. I find the times I need to pull this pearl from my pocket are much fewer these days.

    Reply

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