Recently, a student in one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes admitted she had all these judgments about what you should and shouldn’t do in improv and was trying so hard not to make a mistake that she wasn’t having any fun.
The sad thing was, she hadn’t even been doing improv very long, but already the joy was gone and you could see it in her work. I could relate.
When I first started doing improv comedy, it was simple: I did it because I enjoyed it. I took improv classes and did shows in the back room of skanky bars for the joy of it. At that point, the thought of money or fame or even my status in the improv community didn’t even enter my mind. I was having too much fun doing it to worry about where it was going to lead.
I was letting fun be my compass. If something seemed like it would be fun and I was excited to do it, I would do it.
In fact, back when I was just having fun, some of the best shows I was involved in seemed to just fall in my lap. That’s how I became an original member of The Annoyance Theater in 1989. I had seen a production of Co-ed Prison Sluts and loved the show. I asked Mick Napier if I could understudy for the part of Hamster Man, and six months later I was doing it full time. That led me to joining the theater and creating more shows there, including a one-man show called “I am 27, I still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies,” which to this day has been my biggest hit.
Unfortunately, my motives changed over the years. As people move on and achieved success, I became more cynical. I lost sight of the fun and started focusing on where this was going to take me.
I left the Annoyance after two-and-a-half years, even though I had achieved a fair amount of success. I thought I wasn’t being respected or appreciated enough there, though truth be told, I didn’t respect myself and didn’t appreciate my talents and contributions. So I just faded away from the theater, bitter and resentful towards some of the people and the place.
Twenty years later, I was still nursing this resentment, and I was afraid to go back for their 25th Anniversary show last weekend. Thank God for Susan Messing who encouraged me to go.
At the 25th Anniversary, I was invited to perform a medley of songs with other members from my era from a bunch of shows, some of which I hadn’t been in, so I didn’t know the words or choreography.
But you know what? Once I was there, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know all the words perfectly. What mattered was I was doing it for the fun of it. There was no pressure, since I was in the chorus, and the best part was it brought back the feeling why I did this in the first place: the community, the sense of belonging, the chance to be part of something larger then myself. I will be forever grateful to the Annoyance for the experiences and the friends I had there, and most importantly, for giving me my first opportunity to teach improv classes professionally.
When I look back today, I see that there are a million things that can suck the joy out of our work, and most of them are in my head.
If you’re starting to feel burnt out by improv, remember why you got into it in the first place: To have fun. Stop focusing on doing it “right,” getting picked for a team, a part, or getting seen by an agent.
Instead, remember that improv is all about creating for the sake of creating and letting go of the results. Your best work will come when you focus on the joy.