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Learning How to Have Joy

The irony is not lost on me that I am an improv teacher, which is about teaching people how to play and have fun, which is what I have the hardest time doing in my own life. (This is a classic case where the teacher teaches what he most needs to learn himself).

Since I was a little kid I have never experienced much joy. My mom would keep reminding me, “You were such a happy baby. What happened to you?”

Even the things that are supposed to bring most people joy, like going on vacation, don’t make me happy. I don’t really start enjoying myself on vacation until the last day when I know I am going home.

I had pretty much given up the idea of every feeling any sort of happiness in my life when someone in my group therapy was like, “You know, if you and Lauren have a baby, it will bring a lot more joy into your life.”

The idea of being a dad didn’t interest me that much, but I was interested in finding more joy.

So on July 2, 2016, we had Betsy, and I thought it was going to be an immediate joy-fest, but it wasn’t. In fact, the first three months were hell, and the months after that were sort of like purgatory.

When people would say, “How is Betsy?” or “How do you like being a dad?,” I had a stock answer: “It’s hard and I am tired.”

Then one day recently, I was taking care of Betsy, and we were in the living room rolling the green rubber ball on the brown coffee table. She was laughing and having a good time hiding the ball under the table and shrugging her shoulders like, “I don’t know where it went?”

My wife, Lauren, comes downstairs and she looks at both of us playing on the floor. And she says: “She brings you joy.”

“What are you talking about?” I say.

“Betsy. She brings you joy. I can see it on your face,” Lauren says, like she caught me in lie. “This whole ‘It’s hard-d-d, I am tired-d-d.’ (Lauren’s imitation of me). It’s your schtick. You tell people you are miserable, but you aren’t. You really enjoy her.”

I hated hearing that because it was true. My wife left out another part, and that is that sometimes when I am enjoying myself I don’t even know it until someone like her points it out to me.

It’s like when I’m at party and someone throws out the idea of playing a board game, and I say, “No, I hate board games.” Then I force myself to play Scrabble and when it’s over, I am like, “That was fun. Really fun, like, I am surprised.” Like a child might say.

Before having a child of my own, I wouldn’t say I hated kids, but it was close. I would say I tolerated them, which is pretty much how I feel about myself. Now, when I hear a screaming kid in a restaurant it reminds me of Betsy. I love watching her get excited on Thursday mornings when the garbage truck pulls into the alley and she starts to point and scream with excitement. She sits on my lap riveted until it picks up everyone’s garbage and then she waves goodbye to the truck like she’s the Pope with one stiff hand as it leaves. We repeat the whole cycle again the next morning with the recycling truck.

And I love at night when I’m holding her in my arms and rocking her thinking, “How safe and secure you must feel right now,” as she closes her tiny little eyes and goes to sleep.

In these moments I feel pure joy, and I feel happy and sad that this will not last, that she will outgrow these simple things, that there will be a time when she will not fit in my arms or like playing with the empty La Criox can for half an hour.

Since having a kid the world seems a lot more scary to me, but it also seems a lot more fun and I have a lot more gratitude.

When Lauren was pregnant with Betsy, some people loved to give me unsolicited advice. The one thing that they would say was, “You are going to learn more from them than they will from you.” And even though I did not like to hear it at the time, they were right.

And yes, it is hard, and yes, I am still tired, but Betsy has given me permission to have more joy in my life, which can only make me a better person, father and improv teacher.

Looking to make your scenes more memorable? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on Oct. 28. Only $79 if you sign up by Oct. 15. Sign up today!

What the Cubs Taught Me About Improv

If you haven’t heard by now, last week, after 108 years, the Chicago Cubs finally won a World Series title. Pretty incredible, especially for me who has been a Cubs fan my whole life.

But if you have been reading this blog with any sort of regularity, you know that a celebration of any kind doesn’t come easy for me, and this one was no exception.

As I stood in the kitchen with my wife, Lauren, nervously listening to the radio as Cubs legendary broadcaster Pat Hughes made the last call of the World Series, I jumped up and down with joy. But in less than two minutes, I was already replaying the moves the Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon had made during the game. Moves that I did not understand. Moves that I thought were mistakes. What the fuck was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be excited? They won, something they had not done since 1908.

That did not matter. My head took over. Why did he pull his starting pitcher so early? Why did he pull his middle reliever so early? Why did he put his closer in so early after the guy had pitched a ton of innings the night before?

It was as if I was ignoring the results. They won the World Fucking Series. The real question is why couldn’t I enjoy it?

The simple answer is this is what I do.

I do this in my life and certainly in my performing, especially if a show has gone well. Instead of feeling excited, or even joy, after a good scene or a good show, I would rather pick it apart, replacing excitement with my drug of choice: shame.

I did this again last Sunday night at Second City where John Hildreth and I were celebrating our five-year anniversary of our show, Jimmy and Johnnie. A pretty big accomplishment. So big that after the show we had a little party to celebrate.

But, you know me, I’m not good at celebrating and feeling joy. Instead, I need to find some shame so I can medicate those feelings. So, during the show I did a character that was not very PC by today’s improv standards. The young audience gasped a couple of times, and I got the hit of shame that I needed. Surprisingly, during the show, I was able to let it go as we moved on to the next scene, knowing I would have plenty of time to pulverize myself about it afterwards, which is just what I did. Despite the fact that it was a good show overall, I used this character choice to beat myself up by replaying it in my head for the next 48 hours.

I often have guests on Improv Nerd who say they don’t analyze or even remember what they did after they improvise a scene. I am not sure if that’s really true or if all of these guests are lying to me. If they actually don’t analyze their scenes after a show, I am impressed. I not only remember every moment, especially the bad ones, but I like to beat myself up about all the moves I think I should have made or not made.

And that is excatly what I did when the Cubs won the World Series. I went right into picking-it-apart mode so I wouldn’t have to feel the excitement or the joy of them winning. Instead I decided to bask in the shame, like a bath of cold, dirty water.

We think as improvisers it’s our duty to dissect every move we make after a show or class, because we think it will make us better. But sometimes it just makes us miserable. I am not saying don’t ever analyze your scenes; that would be unrealistic. Instead, just try to do less of it. Since I obviously I don’t know how to do less of it, I would love your help. In the comments portion below, can you tell me how you celebrate your successes without dissecting them to death? Thanks.

Learning how to play

You would think as an improviser I would like to play in my everyday life. You would think I would at least know how to have fun and be silly.

I am sorry to disappoint, but I don’t. A couple of weekends ago it became very clear that this might be becoming a problem.

On Saturday afternoon, my wife asked me if I would play with our cat Coco or Moosh-Poosh or whatever name we came up for her that week. I agreed so I would not be accused of not playing with the cat. I really don’t see the point of playing with a cat, now that she is no longer a kitten. It does not surprise me that Lauren is afraid that if we are ever lucky enough to have kids that I won’t want to play with our kids. This is real fear of mine as well. Playing is not in my DNA.

So with Lauren watching I threw a string of plastic gold beads on the hardwood floor so Coco could chase them. It was the most excruciating four minutes of my life.

Then on Sunday, Lauren wanted me to do something with her.

Lauren: Do you want to go on a walk to the park and throw the Frisbee?
Me: (long pause)
Lauren: Come on, it will be fun.
Me: (longer pause)
Lauren: It’s beautiful out.
Me: (longest pause….) Oh, ok.

I did not want to go. This is not my definition of fun. Fun for me is anything I can do while I am horizontal. Taking a nap, sitting by the pool, getting an MRI. If I am laying down, chances are I am having a good time, and if I can incorporate reading into the activity, I am in heaven.

So, Lauren dragged my sorry ass to the park where we started to throw the Frisbee to each other. I say it was a Frisbee, but it was not a real one. It was a promotional one that you get at a bank, which we all know don’t throw as well as real ones. Anyway, we start to toss it around, and all I keep thinking is, “When is this going to be over?”

Most people lose time when then do something that they enjoy. When I am doing something that I enjoy, I am usually checking the time, counting the minutes until it will be done. It does not matter if I am at a movie, on vacation, or having sex. The best part for me is when it’s over. For me, it’s hard to hold onto joy because I don’t believe it will last, so I’d rather avoid having any joy at all.

After 10 minutes of playing catch with the wobbly promotional Frisbee, Lauren says my favorite expression: “OK, that’s enough, let’s go.”

I’m not going to lie. I was grateful to go home into the air conditioning. But I was also grateful that I have someone like Lauren in my life who forces me to have fun and experience joy, because I clearly don’t know how to have it on my own.

Beware of the buzz kill

Beware of the buzz kill. That person who is in your group or in your class who takes a perfectly good show or class and shits all over it. They do it with their words. They do it with their negativity. Have pity on them; they don’t know any better. I should know, I am that person. I am the buzz kill.

That is how I am wired. It is a character defect. I cannot let myself have too much fun in my life – and that’s especially true when I improvise. It is as if my thermostat can only go to 62 degrees, and when I try to go higher and am having a great time, a mechanism kicks in and tries to regulate it. I open my mouth and try to find something wrong. The more fun I have, the harder I have to work to find something to regulate the temperature. But I will always find it. I am a professional.

It happened last night, after an incredibly fun show with two people I love improvising with: John Hildreth and Jay Sukow. I am so grateful that I get to work with them. They are both so filled with talent and positivity that I am hoping some of it rubs off on me.

After a show of 45 minutes of pure bliss, John and Jay look like two teenage boys at an amusement park who just got off the roller coaster and want to get back in line to go on it again. I am the dark looming cloud. We go back stage. The excitement is still in the air and on their faces, and I say, “I think we could be more focused in our warm ups before the show, instead of talking about Second City we could spend the last 5 to 10 minutes before we go on stage focusing on what we want to do in the show.” God help me.

The thing about buzz kills is they are usually smart, respected and rationale people. Like myself. They are so noble in their efforts and so full of shit at the time. So their points can make sense, but no one really wants to hear them at that moment, since everyone is still having a great time. The buzz kill’s goal is to have you join them in their misery.

We had a quick, thoughtful discussion on how we would warm up next time. And during that conversation here is the best part: I caught myself. “You know what? I am a buzz kill,” I said. “When I have too much fun I look for something to bring it down.”

I was proud of myself for saying that because you know what? I don’t want to be like that anymore. I really don’t. I actually hate that about myself, I do.

I have been doing this my whole life and believe me, it’s not just with improv.

People say we can use the concepts we learn in improv and apply them to our everyday life, but I believe the opposite is also true. There are things about myself that only become obvious to me before, during or after improvising and one thing is clear, I am a buzz kill and I really don’t want to be that person in the group any more. Who does?

Making auditions fun again

Years ago there was an actor here in Chicago who used to book a lot of commercials, parts on TV and films and voiceovers. He always had a positive outlook and he was one of only a handful of actors in town making a living at acting.

When I’d see him in the waiting room for an audition I would automatically give up and think, “Why did they even call me in?” Because I knew he’d get the part.

One time after an audition, I asked him “What is your secret of getting so much work?”

He said simply: “I look at an audition is my opportunity to perform. It’s my time during the day where I get to come in and perform, showing them what I can do.” As he spoke, you could see the joy coming from his face. I did not look at auditions that way. In fact, I resented auditioning and did not even know it.

That actor gave me that advice at least 10 to 15 years ago, but I’m a slow learner and did not fully understand it until last week.

Lately, I haven’t been auditioning much, and I’ve been improvising even less, and I need that outlet, not only for professional reasons but for psychological ones. So when my agent called and said he had an audition for me for an independent short film, I jumped at the chance. Sure, I liked the script and loved the character, but I wanted to perform.

Typically, when I get an audition I am filled with anxiety because I put so much pressure on myself for getting the part, which is really more about me validating my existence than getting the part. But this time was different. I felt excited and happy to go in and perform and show them what I could do with the part. The thought that “I have to get this part or I am a piece of shit” was gone.

So I hired an on-camera coach, Catherine Head, and even that was different. Instead of thinking, “God, Catherine, help me get this part. I need it for my low self-esteem,” it was replaced by the excitement of getting to learn from her. This was not me. Catherine gave me lots of tips I had heard before, but this time, I heard them differently, and in about an hour, she had me in good shape for the part.

The next day, I went to the audition with my new mantra: “I want to perform. I want to perform.” As I sat in the waiting room with the other actors, I could hear laughter coming from the closed casting room door like there was a party inside and I wasn’t invited.

Sometimes I can use that to psych myself out, but I’ve been around long enough to know that just because you have the room dying in laughter does not mean you going to get the part. I have been on both sides of that equation before. Finally, the door opened from the casting room and out shot three actors. One of them was Brian Bolland, who had been on the Mainstage at Second City and was someone I like and respect. I forced a theater hug on him and he said, “You are perfect for this part.” He knew my work and I felt he meant it, and I really appreciated.

Then I went into the room. I got to audition with the two other actors, which is always better than just reading the lines with the casting person’s assistant or the intern. Then I did what I always do: my nerves and my neuroses kicked in and I rushed through the scene forgetting my new mantra. Then the director gave the three of us notes, and he told me to slow down, which was a note Catherine had given me, and told me that my character was a know-it-all. The second time through, I took his direction and something amazing happened — I discovered the character. It was the most fun I had performing in a while, and I felt proud of what I did.

On the ride home, for the first time in years, I didn’t second-guess myself and my choices or beat myself up, because I knew I had given it my best. That night, I checked my e-mail, and my agent contacted me saying congratulations, the filmmakers wanted to check my availability to do the film.

I hope I end up getting to do this part, because I want to keep performing.

Thanks for continuing to be such a big fan of my blog! I wanted to let you know that I will be teaching only one more Fundamentals of Art of Slow Comedy Class this summer starting on June 21st. I limit this class to 12 people so you get the reps you deserve and the plenty of personal attention. So whether if you are a seasoned improviser looking for a new approach or relatively newbie to improv, I would love to work with you. Have a great summer. — Jimmy

Accentuate the Positive

Accentuate the Positive

In our last rehearsal for Jimmy and Johnnie, our coach, Jack Bronis, said to me and John Hildreth that we need to play every show with joy.

I have been improvising for 30 years and I have never played with joy. I have played with angst and fear and pressure on myself, but certainly not joy. I have not done anything in my life with joy.

If you look at the great improvisers — the TJs, the Susan Messings, the Cook County Social Clubs — there is an element of joy in their work. That is why we love to watch them so much. Messing always says when you play in her show, Messing with a Friend, “If you’re not having fun then you are the asshole.” And given that statement, I am often the asshole.

As Jack pointed out in the rehearsal, I do my scenes in “Heavy Sigh.” He’s 100% right. I live my life in “Heavy Sigh.” I know “Heavy Sigh” to me is reality. I am much more of an Eeyore than a Pooh. And how this effects my improv is that I avoid making positive choices in my scenes because I have hard time making them in my life. This is where improv and life cross, and the thought of making the positive choice about something in a scene, like being happy or excited, seems fake. I tell myself, the tortured artist that I am, that it would not be organic if I were happy in a scene, it would not be truthful.

Recently, I had a chance to put this to the test in the most recent episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was the super talented and lovely Katy Colloton from the Katydids. (Check out their web series, Teachers. It’s awesome.) We did a scene where she announced to me that she was pregnant, and I can tell you my natural reaction would be to make the negative choice. “I don’t want it. Let’s get an abortion.” Instead, I decided to choose something different, as fake and uncomfortable as it was. I chose to be excited about her announcement, which led to whole bunch of discoveries about home schooling the kid, what holiday we wanted to have the baby born on, and that having a baby was like a small business.

As the scene went on, I felt more and more comfortable with the emotional choice of excitement. I can tell you now, playing the positive choice opened me up and surprised me and hopefully surprised my partner.

As Jack further pointed out in the rehearsal, you want to “use your whole palate” of emotions, and I tend to just use the dark colors, while I ignore the brighter ones.

I see some of my students need to use some of the darker colors, because they come to me like they are ecstatically happy and unconnected,and I think I am master of getting students to go the darker, more real place. But like in life, we need balance. We need both positive and negative emotions on stage; that is a truthful portrayal of the human experience.

Recently, a student in one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes said on my feedback form, “I think you’re a closeted optimist, Mr. Carrane. Come Out! Come Out!” I think this student is right. I think the whole Eeyore thing is part of my persona, my schtick, a schtick that is hard to let go off because in my head it held me together. If I wasn’t always negative, who would I be?

My wife, Lauren, disagrees that I don’t have any joy in life. She says I do have joy, I just don’t have words to express it. If you ask me, I’ll say I’m terrified, but she just smiles, knowing deep down I’m excited.

Where I go from here in my improv and in my life I do not know. The only thing is I know is today I am aware of it, and with that knowledge, I have a chance to change.

3 Ways to Empower Your Improv

3 Ways To Empower Your Improv

Jimmy Carrane and Matt Besser on Improv NerdDo you ever get discouraged in your improv and want to quit? Have you tried out for a team and not made it, or watched as other people from your level move up and you don’t? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve felt like giving up so many times throughout the years, I can’t even count.

But lately, I’ve been realizing instead of focusing on what I’m not getting, I need to focus on what I like to do. Once I do that, I’ll be passionate and excited about improv again, and less likely to throw in the towel.

Here are my top 3 tips for what you can do to empower your improv:

1. Do the improv you like and stop judging the rest

People often worry that they’re doing the wrong kind of improv. If they do short form, they think they should be doing long form. If they like long form, they think they should be mastering sketch.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There is no right way to improvise.

I learned this lesson again recently when I was out in LA about to teach at Miles Stroth’s workshop. I woke up that morning and all I could think was, “I’m not the UCB, I’m not IO, I’m not Miles. How am I going to adapt to all of those popular LA styles of improv in this class?”

The thing is, I wasn’t. If I even tried to, I’d be an even bigger fraud than I already think I am. After calling my friend, Dan, who talked me off the ledge and said “The students who signed up for your workshop signed up to get you, not what they already get in LA.”

Oh, how quickly I forget the lesson I teach in my improv classes: “You are enough.”

Today, more than ever, there are not just two flavors of improv. There are close to 31 flavors, something for everyone. Sometimes we squabble over the different styles, and get caught up in whose method is right or wrong or what Del really meant that we lose sight of the fact that they’re all good ways. The only thing that matters is doing the style that you have fun doing. That’s it. So if you like the UCB style, do it. If you like to play slower like TJ and Dave, do it. If you like musical improv or short form or long form, do it. As long as you love doing it, do it, and stop judging the rest, because who cares?

2. Don’t let anyone or any institution say you can’t do it

I have seen great improvisers quit because they didn’t make a team, or their team was broken up, or they didn’t get hired by certain theater. If they knew it or not, they had given all their power to one place. They were looking for permission from one place, and when that place said no, they just gave up.

I have been on teams at IO that were broken up, I was in show called Jazz Freddy and saw most of my friends get hired by Second City. I have taught at institutions that wanted to renegotiate my terms and I chose to leave. Every time one of these blows happened, I was hurt and angry and felt sorry for myself, but after I got over the pain and embarrassment, those moments not only turned into something else good, but they turned into something bigger. We said it in our book, Improvising Better, and I believe it even more now after coming back from LA: Improv is bigger than all the institutions combined.

3. Focus on yourself

I know it’s hard, especially if you are as co-dependent as I am. When I was interviewing Matt Besser last week for Improv Nerd, a student said some people were being allowed to move up the level system at UCB who weren’t very good. What I would like to say to her today is “Focus on yourself.” It’s not your job to change the institution. Who is in the class is none of your business. When you’re thinking “why are they in the class?,” you are wasting your energy and taking away from your learning. Let the UCB worry about who is in the class. That’s why you’re paying them all that money, so you can be freed up to learn and have fun. If you need to say something to the institution to let your resentment go, I support you, but remember that things might not change. Regardless of what you’re focusing on — from the type of students in your class, to the teacher, to how you think the theater handles business — the result will be the same: Your improv will suffer. If you’re looking for drama, you won’t have to look too hard to find it. Just try to use that drama on stage instead of off.

Getting back the joy

Annoyance 25th AnniversaryRecently, a student in one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes admitted she had all these judgments about what you should and shouldn’t do in improv and was trying so hard not to make a mistake that she wasn’t having any fun.

The sad thing was, she hadn’t even been doing improv very long, but already the joy was gone and you could see it in her work. I could relate.

When I first started doing improv comedy, it was simple: I did it because I enjoyed it. I took improv classes and did shows in the back room of skanky bars for the joy of it. At that point, the thought of money or fame or even my status in the improv community didn’t even enter my mind. I was having too much fun doing it to worry about where it was going to lead.

I was letting fun be my compass. If something seemed like it would be fun and I was excited to do it, I would do it.

In fact, back when I was just having fun, some of the best shows I was involved in seemed to just fall in my lap. That’s how I became an original member of The Annoyance Theater in 1989. I had seen a production of Co-ed Prison Sluts and loved the show. I asked Mick Napier if I could understudy for the part of Hamster Man, and six months later I was doing it full time. That led me to joining the theater and creating more shows there, including a one-man show called “I am 27, I still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies,” which to this day has been my biggest hit.

Unfortunately, my motives changed over the years. As people move on and achieved success, I became more cynical. I lost sight of the fun and started focusing on where this was going to take me.

I left the Annoyance after two-and-a-half years, even though I had achieved a fair amount of success. I thought I wasn’t being respected or appreciated enough there, though truth be told, I didn’t respect myself and didn’t appreciate my talents and contributions. So I just faded away from the theater, bitter and resentful towards some of the people and the place.

Twenty years later, I was still nursing this resentment, and I was afraid to go back for their 25th Anniversary show last weekend. Thank God for Susan Messing who encouraged me to go.

At the 25th Anniversary, I was invited to perform a medley of songs with other members from my era from a bunch of shows, some of which I hadn’t been in, so I didn’t know the words or choreography.

But you know what? Once I was there, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know all the words perfectly. What mattered was I was doing it for the fun of it. There was no pressure, since I was in the chorus, and the best part was it brought back the feeling why I did this in the first place: the community, the sense of belonging, the chance to be part of something larger then myself. I will be forever grateful to the Annoyance for the experiences and the friends I had there, and most importantly, for giving me my first opportunity to teach improv classes professionally.

When I look back today, I see that there are a million things that can suck the joy out of our work, and most of them are in my head.

If you’re starting to feel burnt out by improv, remember why you got into it in the first place: To have fun. Stop focusing on doing it “right,” getting picked for a team, a part, or getting seen by an agent.

Instead, remember that improv is all about creating for the sake of creating and letting go of the results. Your best work will come when you focus on the joy.