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6 Steps to forming a great improv group

Today more than ever, improvisers are striking out on their own and forming independent groups. Nothing makes me happier than this because this is the way people really grow in improv.

However, just because you can form your own team doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Creating a group that really works requires commitment, chemistry and lots of energy.

I was involved in indie improv groups way before they used that name, and the one I was most proud of was the critically acclaimed long-form group Jazz Freddy. Recently, someone asked me what made that long-form group so successful, and I thought I would share with you what I learned from my experience.

1. Start with a vision

A group that doesn’t have a clear vision is going to have trouble sticking together, because it won’t be long before people won’t agree on what direction to take. When you’re picking improvisers to be part of your group, get like-minded people together and make sure they all buy into your vision.

With Jazz Freddy, Pete Gardner had a vision to do more patient, theatrical improv, and everyone who joined the group shared that vision. Though the show evolved and changed over time, as long-form shows do, the vision of the type and style of improv never did. When creative differences arose in the group, and they did, it was never about the vision. That was the one thing that was agreed upon from the outset.

2. Get good talent

When you’re forming an improv group, don’t pick your friends or your roommate just because you happen to hang out with them. Pick the very best people you can find, because there is no substitute for good talent. Without it, you have nothing, absolutely nothing. If you’re lucky enough to combine talent with commitment and a little vision, you have the opportunity to create something wonderful that will influence generations of improvisers.

3. Make the team your only focus

In Jazz Freddy, we made the show our #1 priority. We weren’t distracted by running across town doing other improv shows and classes because Jazz Freddy was the only thing we were doing. The only thing. It’s called singleness of purpose. We treated being part of Jazz Freddy like we had been cast in play at Steppenwolf. We rehearsed three or four times a week and we continued to rehearse once the show was up.

4. Make the hard decisions that are good for the group

I think one of the hardest and best decisions that we had to make as a group happened right before the second run of the show. A couple of cast members had been hired by Second City, and because of their schedules, they couldn’t make the rigorous time commitment to our rehearsals. So as a group, we decided they could not do the run, and with that decision, we were putting the good of the group ahead of the personalities.

5. Take ownership

When some improvisers join a group or a show, they say “I just want to show up and play.” That may work for them, but if you are looking to create something lasting and worth doing, you need people who are willing to do more than that. Everyone on the team needs to help out in some way: putting up fliers, doing social media, booking the venue, etc.

In Jazz Freddy, it was understood that cast members would help out with the producing responsibilities, meaning we would hang posters, get people to donate to our fundraiser, and talk it up with family and friends to get butts in the seats.

6. Invest in yourself

I know you’ve been spending a ton of money on classes and workshops, but if you want your group to be successful, you’re going to have to spend a little money – on posters, rehearsal space, Facebook ads and most importantly, a director. With Jazz Freddy, nobody thought that we were “done” or “above” having a coach. We were willing to pay for it because we were making an investment in ourselves, and it turned out to be a huge benefit because we learned from the show, and half the cast eventually worked at Second City.

Want to make your improv as easy as having a conversation? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Feb. 28. Only $259 if you register by Feb. 14!

Do you have to be the funniest?

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.