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5 Things to Avoid in Your Improv Classes

Art of Slow Comedy

I’ve been teaching improv classes for a long time, and over the years, I’ve seen students do the same things over and over again that get in their way. Here are the top 5 things that improvisers should avoid doing in class and suggestions about how you can do it differently.

1. Don’t apologize after a scene or when you’re given a note
A lot of times, when people finish a scene in improv class or get a note from the teacher, they say “sorry.” You don’t need to say this. I should know — I was one of those people who said sorry all the time after a scene or an exercise. I was apologizing for not being perfect. I was apologizing for wasting your time. I was apologizing for existing.

“Sorry” means you did something wrong. I am here to tell you, you did nothing wrong. You are improvising – and that means it’s impossible to make a mistake. I understand you think you made a mistake, but you didn’t. So give yourself a break and stop apologizing for learning.

Suggestion: Next time, substitute the word “thank you” or “oh” for “sorry” and see if you feel differently.

2. Don’t be defensive
This is a hard thing to address because if you’re defensive and you’re reading this, you probably don’t think this applies to you. Boy, do I wish I had a way to get through to you. I have taken improv classes with defensive people, I have taught improv classes with defensive people, and these people would rather be right than learn. Every note from the teacher to the student becomes some sort of justification why the student did this or that. If you find yourself justifying why you did something, rather than just taking the note, you are being defensive. And when you’re defensive, you’re not learning, you’re just surviving.

Suggestion: If you have an inkling that you might be defensive, get help for it outside of class, because you are wasting your time and money taking improv classes, or, to be honest, any kind of classes.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity when you get a note you don’t understand
I have a friend who’s taking improv classes and he called me up for some advice. He was getting the same note over and over again from different teachers, and he didn’t really understand what they meant. I asked him if he got clarity on the note. “No, I don’t want to be one of those students who takes up all the time during improv classes.” Here’s the thing: If you don’t understand a note, this is the time to be one of those students because it gives the teacher the opportunity to share their experience with you, or better yet, come up with an exercise that can help you. As a teacher, I love these opportunities. It’s exciting, because now the class and the teacher are improvising together, and the chance that we will learn from each other is pretty good.

Suggestion: If you don’t understand a note, ask questions. Be ok with taking up time in your improv classes. It will only help you get more comfortable taking up stage time.

4. Don’t be polite
Most students are super polite and hold back in improv classes, especially in exercises that are quick and designed for the players to go multiply times such as 30-second scene, three-line scenes, etc. These games are designed for you to learn through repetition, and by jumping in as much as you can, you help the group as whole. Don’t be polite and let other people take all the turns. Trust that if you are getting out there too much, the teacher will reign you in. There is old actor/director tip: It’s easier to tell an actor to bring it down if he’s playing it too big than to have an actor who is playing it too small and have him play it bigger.

Suggestion: Keep pushing yourself out there!

5. Don’t hold back, even if you’re feeling insecure
If you feel off or you’re having one of those days where you don’t have any confidence, make sure you don’t hide out in class. Instead, be the first one up. Ryan Archibald once gave me the best piece to advice. I was doing a long-form show at Second City called Summer Rental, and I showed up backstage before the show and told some of the cast members that I felt off. Ryan said: “Make sure you are in the first scene.” Man, he was right. I did a scene with Joe Canale and we nailed it. I think being scared helped me do some of my best work.

Suggestion: Your mind will want to tell you to hide out. Do the opposite and get out there.

Want to take your scene work to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on April 14!

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

Jazz FreddyJealousy exists, especially among improvisers and actors, though no one really wants to talk about it. It’s part of the human experience, much like anger or sadness. But we think it’s too ugly of an emotion to talk about, something we’re not “supposed” to feel, so instead, we deny we feel jealous at all.

Over the years, I have had real problems with jealousy.

When I started improvising in Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we all wanted to become famous. And some of us actually did

Chris Farley played on a team at the Improv Olympic at the same time I was on a team. He then got a slot on SNL and left for New York. Mike Myers would join our team once in a while, too, before he went off to SNL. Stephanie Weir and I did a brilliant show called Naked, before she got hired for Second City’s Mainstage before going on to Mad TV. I played with Rachel Dratch in Jazz Freddy, and knew Tina Fey back when she was chunky with bad hair, before they both, you guessed it, moved to New York and got on SNL.

And every time someone got something, I wish I could say I was happy for them, but I was not. I secretly hoped they would fail. I really turned being jealous into an art form. I could turn someone else’s success into “I must be doing something wrong.”

But the worst was when my best friend and roommate, Dave Koechner, got hired to become a cast member on Saturday Night Live (years before he moved to L.A. and got parts in Anchorman and The Office). That day, I threw out our television and considered jumping on the ‘L’ tracks to have the Brown Line run me over.

As my friends left Chicago for LA and NY for bigger opportunities, I turned jealousy into bitterness.

Then somewhere in my 30s and 40s, things started to change. My first step was reading a list of all the people I was jealous of to my friend, Eric, one Saturday afternoon in his kitchen in tiny garden apartment, and after reading it, some of the horrible jealousy began to lift.

Along the way I found some other tools that helped me that I want share with you.

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

1. Admit it
Admit that you are jealous and that there’s nothing wrong with jealousy. Find people you trust — friends, therapist, support groups — where you can admit these jealous feelings without being judged. You want them just to listen to you. Not, “Hey, I am jealous of Tina Fey,” and then they say something like, “Oh, there’s no reason to be.” Or worse, going into some sort of character assassination of the person for an hour. You just want someone to listen to you so you’re not alone with it. Jealousy is energy that needs to be released. If you don’t release it, it turns into an emotional cancer of resentment and bitterness, which does nothing to help you with your creative process.

2. Remember, they might help you in the future
One way to feel less jealous of people who go on to be successful is to remember that someday they may be in a position to help you out in the future. Oh man, this was so so helpful for me because I am one of those selfish people who needs to see what I can get out of something. Improv Nerd has been great with this. I have been jealous of many of our guests at one time or another, and when I realized they not only could help me out but also were willing to help me out, the jealousy started to fade rather quickly.

3. Create, Create, Create
The best medicine I have found for curbing jealous is creating. My jealousy is at an all-time high when I am not performing, writing or improvising. When I’m not creating, I just sit around asking “Where’s my piece of the pie? Is it ever coming?” But when I am in my creative process and writing or doing a show, I lose myself and everyone else’s careers don’t seem to matter so much.

10 Off-Stage Tips to Becoming a Better Improviser

Jimmy Carrane Improv classes10 Off-Stage Tips To Becoming a Better Improviser

Students ask me all the time, “What can I work on during the week between improv classes to become a better improviser?”

My answer is work on your life. Improv is a very transparent art form, and the more you have a rich, full life, the more you will be able to bring that onto the stage. So here are 10 things you can work on outside of improv classes that will make you a better improviser, some of which have nothing to do with improvising.

1. Break your daily routine. Find at least one thing to do differently every day. If you always take a shower in the morning, one day try a bath. If you always drive to work, take public transportation. If you’ve never tried Indian food, try Indian food. Your goal here is to try new experiences. If you can start doing that in your life, you increase your chances on taking chances on stage.

2. Write. Write a poem, write a blog, write a scene, write a short story, write in a journal, just write. Writing will help you put your thoughts together and help you with your dialogue when you go to improvise.

3. Take off a night, or two. Improv can be addictive, especially if you are running around town doing shows and going to rehearsals and improv classes seven days a week with no time to yourself. As we said in Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser, your job as an improviser is to reflect life, and if you don’t have one outside of improv, you have nothing to draw from and you’ll be creatively bankrupt. Look at your week and designate at least one night as your night off, and if you really want to get good, designate two.

4. Take care of yourself. If you want to take care of your art, you have to start by taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep, exercise and sunlight. Eat right and drink lots of water. Though this stuff seems obvious, a lot of improvisers I know stay up late, are stuck indoors, eat pizza and drink too much beer. Being great at improvising takes a lot of physical and emotional energy, so you need to take care of your body. Don’t use up all of your energy at the bar after a show.

5. Have connection with the outside world. Improv can be all-consuming. Did you ever have a friend who every time they started dating someone would blow off your friendship and stop calling until they broke up with the person? You don’t want to be that person. Being friends with normal people outside of improvisers will help keep you grounded and give you perspective, and you’ll feel less like have joined a cult.

6. Always look for inspiration. If our job as improvisers is to inspire, we need to be inspired. We cannot give away what we don’t have. When was the last time you went to a movie or a play? Or rented a movie or read a novel or short stories? Creatively, you want to keep filling yourself up like a pitcher of water until you are over-flowing with inspiration.

7. Do something nice for someone. If you haven’t noticed, improv is filled with a lot of dysfunctional people. Most of us come from dysfunctional families so we don’t have much self-esteem. The way to build self-esteem, I’ve been told, is to do esteemable acts. They don’t have to be grand; just give someone a smile, a compliment or a ride home after a show.

8. Ask your way to the top. Another side effect of coming from dysfunctional households is that we improvisers often think we are a piece of shit and we don’t deserve anything. We are afraid to ask for anything. Instead, we’re like mice grateful for the crumbs on the floor. We deserve more. To get it, start asking for what you want without worrying about the results. Let go of the results and just practice asking. Ask to be on a team, or for an audition, or to go out to with someone for lunch. Warning: Shame will come up, followed by self-confidence.

9. Learn to say ‘No’. Improvisers become master of yes and…  on stage. In life, they say yes for the wrong reasons: out of fear, or because they think they are going to miss that next big thing, whatever that is. Sure, it’s an honor to be asked to be in a show, but that doesn’t mean you have to say yes to every show. Your time is valuable, but until you start respecting it, no one else will. If you start saying “No” to the things you don’t want to do, you create more space for the things you really do want to do.

10. Get outside help. As we wrote in Improvising Better, if all else fails, get outside help. A lot of improvisers have insecurities about their performing abilities and about their talents. These are the things that will block them on stage. Improvising will only take you so far with healing this part of you. If you look to your improv class or your team hoping for validation, you’re sunk because the problem is much deeper. If you are struggling with thinking you are not good enough, or any other issue that may be blocking you from your full potential, get into therapy, a 12-step group, or group therapy. As you get help with your issues, you’ll bring more honesty and confidence to the stage.