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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.

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What should I do next?

Does this sound familiar? You have just finished a class or an improv show, and before you can even enjoy what you’ve done, a panicked thought sets in: “What I am going to next?”

I see this a lot, especially with students who finish taking my Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv class. After studying with me for three terms and putting up a great long from show for their friends and family they will pull me aside and ask me, “What should I do next? Should I go to Second City? Should I go to iO? Should I go to The Annoyance? There are some people from this class who want to form a team; should I do that?”

This last part is the best part of their answer, and I tell them that.

“Yes, but my agent said it would be good to get Second City on my resume, and at IO I can get stage time and I want to go to The Annoyance because I heard I should study with Mick.”

All true, but what about staying with the people from class and doing a show? They have asked you to be part of it.

“Yes, but I want to be on Saturday Night Live.”

That’s great. I get that I was too subtle. You want my answer?

“Yes, that is why I am asking you.”

Here is my philosophy: Do what is right in front of you. Don’t over complicate it. If you had a great time with the class and they want you to form a group and have invited you to do a show, say yes. Because that is the next right thing to do. If you are an improviser and you live in Chicago for at least 18 months there is a 90 percent chance you are going to end up taking classes at iO, Second City, and The Annoyance, probably at the same time.

So many times, we think that to get ahead, we have to be striving, taking a huge leap to something that is “big time.” But often, all we need to do to get ahead is say yes to what is right in front of us.

I am still learning this lesson. I cannot tell you how many opportunities I have turned down over the years that were right in front of me that I still regret not taking. I was, and still am, the worst kind of liar and that is I lie myself. And when an opportunity would present itself I would make some bullshit up in my head like “How is that going to get me hired?” or “I am a performer, not a writer,” or “I don’t really want that.” So I walked away from opportunities that were literally right in front of me.

Back in the early ’90s, I was performing with the Comedy Underground, and the whole cast was hired to write for a late night talk show on NBC that was being filmed out of Chicago. Since it was such a big cast, we would have had to rotate days we worked. I turned it down. The reason? I was an artist and I wasn’t going to sell out to write for a show.

Another time I had an audition for SNL. They were flying me out to New York, and I had my plane ticket in my hand, but I decided not to go because I was scared and I told myself “I don’t want to do sketch.”

Ever since I was a teenager, I had wanted to get hired by Second City and be on the Mainstage. The closet thing I got to working there was teaching in the training center and working at the business theater. I was well liked at the business theater and Scott Allman took me under his wing and told me he would try to talk to Kelly Leonard to get me on the touring company. Pride, fear and lies got in my way and I said I wasn’t interested.

On the reverse side, some of the best things I was ever part of just fell in my lap and I was lucky enough to get out of my own way to say yes. Naked with Stephanie Weir, Jazz Freddy, being in the original cast of Armando at iO and godshow were all things that I was asked to be part of and they were all high points for me creatively. Those opportunities fell out of the sky.

I know that “yes, and…” is an easy improv concept to embrace in theory, but in practice, when it comes to our careers, we tend to want to pick the “right” thing that is going to get us ahead. But the universe doesn’t work like that. There is no way to perfectly plan your career. There is no straight line from point A to point B. What we have to do is let go of outcomes and trust that saying yes will get us exactly where we need to go.

My Fondest Memories of my Improv Career

This past week, I was working really hard and feeling depressed, because I felt like my work wasn’t getting me anywhere. So I went on Facebook to try to feel better.

And it didn’t work. It made me feel worse. Everyone I knew was posting about some part they had just gotten on a TV show or some amazing press they were getting, and all I could think about myself was that I haven’t really accomplished anything, I’m not famous, I suck.

But yesterday, my wife, Lauren, suggested I make a list of the five improv shows I’m the most proud of, and as I thought about it, I realized I have a lot to be proud of in my improv career. I hate when she is right, and I know that if I want to grow, I need to appreciate what I have done, instead of always beating myself up for what I haven’t….blah, blah, blah.

So today I’m going to tell you about some of my proudest moments in improv, and I’m going to trust that by talking about them, I will start believing that maybe life is going ok.

1. I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies — Annoyance Theater
I have never had a bigger hit than my autobiographical one-person show — a brutally honest and humorous look at what happens when an ungrateful child moves back home with their parents and they fight about whose job is it to buy Diet Coke. The show was directed by Gary Rudoren, and critics loved it.  It played to packed houses for a year and half at The Annoyance Theater back in ’90s.

Fondest Memory: I was fat when I did “I’m 27…”, like around 270 pounds, and one night, ten minutes into the show, I spilt my pants right down the crouch. I panicked. I couldn’t leave the stage, instead I told the audience what had just happened and took the cardigan argyle sweater I was wearing and tied it around my waste like an apron and continued on. That night, I became a professional.

2. Jazz Freddy– Live Bait Theater
What a cast. What a time. Jazz Freddy was a long form group consisting of Pete Gardner, David Koechner, Brian Stack, Kevin Dorff, Noah Gregoropoulos, Miriam Tolan, Rachel Dratch, Pat Finn, Susan Karp, Stephanie Howard, Chris Reed and me. We were all young and hungry and we had something to prove. We all shared Pete’s vision of doing a slower, more thoughtful long form show in a theater and we ended up influencing a whole generations of improvisers who followed.

Fondest Memory: Years after Freddy had ended, I was at a press screening for the film Elf and was talking to the director, Jon Favreau, who by now was super famous. We were in a conversation, and this short little guy with thick Coke bottle glasses kept lurking around, and I thought he was waiting to get Jon’s autograph. After a couple of minutes he interrupts us and looks at me and says, “I loved Jazz Freddy,” and darts off. I felt proud and then embarrassed that he recognized me and not Jon.

3. Naked – iO Chicago
Stephanie Weir is hands-down one of the best improvisers and most talented people I have every worked with. The show was probably one of the first duo improv shows around at the time. It was just Stephanie and I, improvising one long relationship scene for one hour. It was Rob Mello’s idea and he directed both of us in it. She was brilliant and so easy to perform with. I wish that show would have gone on forever.

Fondest Memory: I was angry person in those days, much more angry than I am today, and I had been super jealousy of Stephanie’s talents, although I was unaware of it. My jealousy was coming out sideways during the show, and I was always making angry choices in my scene. After one show, Rob and Stephanie confronted me about it in the green room, and though at the time I felt a huge amount of shame and felt like they were ganging up on me, they were 100 percent right. Sometimes your fondest memories are the ones you learned the most from.

4. Godshow — Second City ETC
Godshow was Tim O’Malley’s show about redemption and recovery. It was a Second City review-style show about Tim’s life. He was the main character and narrator, while the four of us in the cast got to play multiple characters. I loved the story, and recovery is something close to my heart. Norm Holly directed, and I had been telling myself for years that I couldn’t do characters, but in this show I shined doing a wide range of characters – everything from a junkie, to a black woman to a British director to God himself.

Fondest Memory: One of the characters I got to play in the show was Martin DeMatt, one of my favorite improv teachers. Martin had died a couple of years before, and people who knew Martin said I was channeling him in the scene. One night before the show, Tim told me that Patty DeMaat, Martin’s sister, was in the audience. I was terrified. How was I going to play him? I didn’t want to offend her or have her think I didn’t respect him, so I dialed it down, a little less Martin, if that is even possible, and I remember briefly speaking to her back stage about it and she seemed really honored by what I had done.

5. Pent – iO Chicago
I was asked to join the cast of four improvisers for this long form show at iO that was started by Dan Bakkedahl. We would rehearse one hour before the show and Dan would show us a couple of moves and techniques from “Four Square,” a great long form show that he had been in. I used to always feel a little in my head whenever I played at iO, until Pent. It was so much fun rehearsing and improvising with these people, and I was sad when Charna broke us up. I performed with an all-star team after that for a short period of time, which was fun, but not like Pent.

Fondest Memory: There’s isn’t one show or rehearsal that sticks out in my mind. Instead, I remember the overall experience of the form and how it created a sense of freedom I had never experience in improv before. I also learned a valuable lesson when Charna broke us up. At the time, I was in my early 40s and was also teaching at iO. Pent was made up of all A-lister improvisers, and I learned that Charna’s decision had NOTHING to do with talent, and I’m glad that I learned that lesson, even late in my life.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy classes start April 12 (Advanced) and April 14 (Intermediate). Plus, he has a Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on April 5! Register today.