(Who’s the funniest one in the pic above? Hint: I’m the one with the sunglasses).
When I started out in improv my goal was to be the funniest one on stage. In retrospect, that wasn’t a very noble one goal. At the time, it seemed important to me for many reasons — primarily, if I stood out from the rest of the group it would prove to myself that I was the star I believed I was destined to be and that I had made the right choice. Every class, every rehearsal, every show was a test to see if I was the funniest one, and if I was not, I felt I had failed. I was devastated. I was depressed.
After having been around the improv scene in Chicago for more than 30 years, I have seen just as many people who are the so called “stand outs” or the funniest ones in their shows go on to have successful TV and film careers as people who weren’t.
I have actually been in shows where I have been the “stand out,” the funniest one, and it really has not made a difference in my career.
So why was it so necessary for me to try to be the stand out? I am fascinated by this, maybe even obsessed with it, and I’ve come up with a theory based on my own life and wanted to share it with you to see if maybe you had a similar experience.
I grew up in dysfunctional family where I was pretty much neglected growing up. I fought with my other brothers and sisters for my parents’ attention. I was not good at sports, or good looking, or good at school, so I had to carve out a niche among my siblings. So I developed a wicked sense of humor. I was the fat funny one. I had a quick wit and more importantly, I knew how to make my parents laugh. Especially my Dad. No one in my family could challenge me for the title of the funniest one the same way I could not challenge my brothers at being good at sports.
Then I found improv, and I was around people who came from similar families as I did, except they had more confidence and they were funnier than I was. I was jealous and threatened that I would be replaced as the funniest one.
Because being funniest meant that I was loved. It was my whole identity. It was my role in my family and losing it felt like I was being abandoned. As a fat, insecure teenager, entertaining my family and friends was important, because being funny was really the only thing that I got my self-worth from, so I tried to protect it at all costs. Yes, I was a sad clown, as sad as it gets, but that’s who I was for the first 20 years that I was in improv.
Coming to this conclusion — as well as group therapy twice a week, a loving wife, supportive friends and a little spirituality — has helped me realize that I don’t have to be the funniest one to be loved. Having a big, full life outside of improv has made it feel not as important to be the funniest one. And recently, having a daughter has been an even bigger help.
It’s not completely gone, but it doesn’t take over my life as it once did, which makes performing and teaching that much more enjoyable.
If you’ve suffered from the same crazy thinking that I have, I’d love to hear what things you did to overcome it.