Jimmy Carrane as a kid

Needing to Be the Funny One

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(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.

Short on time? Come study with Jimmy Carrane during one of his Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives! Happening July 15-16, July 29-30 and Aug. 19-20. Sign up today!

6 replies
  1. John Michalski
    John Michalski says:

    James … I came up with some funny people … George Wendt, Tim Kazurinsky, Bill Murray, Alan Wittery, Bill Steinkelner … at that point in our lives I may have been the funniest … I learned early on to be a reactor … I learned how to listen, react, and respond within a characters POV. I learned how to play structure. I learned how to make my scene partners better. In time I learned to dominate, if I chose mostly by playing underneath and by giving those funny people what they needed even when they didn’t know what they needed. I learned that the scenic context was more important than the individual laugh. I learned how to layer setups throughout a scene and then hit them for laughs like fireworks for the end. I learned how to delay the audience laugh … Line … 1… 2 … 3 … scattered giggles building to waves of laughtet as realization spread throughout the room. So yes the laugh was really important, but the type of laugh, and the timing of the laugh became the challenge. I lost interest in the games because so much precious stage time was lost in intros and getting suggestions and comings and goings … I really took to long form free associative styles, especially when I started improvising at the Comedy Store with Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, Robin Eurich and many other amazingly funny humans … problem was most of them were funny but not disciplined and they had no patience … if you layed out a setup somebody immediately hit it. Not as esthetically pleasing, but super entertaining. I started teaching for free to broaden other peoples skill sets. Then when Kate and I moved back to Chicago I got more serious about teaching to create playmates for myself. Players good enough to challenge me on stage. Players willing to help everyone succeed. Then came the Improvisation Institute and the Second City Training Center, then Florida and nack to L.A. I may or may not have been the funniest person in the room, but I knew the mechanics being used by the funniest player in the room and I could make them better in any given scene … or not. I came from a really violent part of Chicago. My family and neighbors were super dysfunction. My dad was a mean violent drunk. The opportunity to make people laugh became a healing path. I was a street cop, and one of the funniest people I have ever met was a street cop named Collins who never played a stage. Later I worked for a multinational distribution center where one of the tech guys was the most naturally funny human beings to walk the earth. He too never played a stage. I have worked many years in Public Service. Improv has been a spiritual path for me. Comedy … making people laugh is a healing path. When I was younger you would be hard pressed to support a family. Looks, from the outside, like that too has changed. Love you Jim.

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