One of the fun things about writing an improv blog is that I often get questions from people all over the world asking for my advice. They often want to know what their next step should be in their career, whether they should move to New York or Los Angeles, or how to deal with a problem in class.
Today, I thought I would answer some of the recent questions I have received. To help me out, I asked Will Hines, teacher and performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, to weigh in with his thoughts, as well. Will is the former head of the UCB training center in New York, and he has been part of the UCB community since 1999, so he has a lot of perspective to bring to the discussion. He also writes a popular improv blog at improvnonsense.tumblr.com.
Q: I have a severe insecurity over my intelligence level. I was a terrible student, dyslexic and barely graduated high school. I work now in comedic TV shows and commercials, but I’m scared to death of improvising. My agent asks me why I’m not at UCB or The Groundlings. I always make up some excuse, but really it’s because I don’t feel smart enough! I walked through my fear recently at The Groundlings but quit after Level 2 because I felt incapable. Is there hope? Suggestions? Thank you!
Will: I think this is a really brave and honest question. I wish my answer was as brave, but I get a little technical and wordy and I apologize in advance.
Insecurity over intelligence: This is a tough but very common fear. I think a lot of people have it. I think it’s totally natural when you take an improv class to feel that you have to be unbelievably brilliant or else the class and teacher are going to think you’re no good. I notice it most in Level 1 classes when two people are in a scene, and one person brings up a movie or TV show or worst of all, a book, that the other person has not heard of. You can see the other person be overcome with fear: oh no! I don’t know what the movie is, and everyone else knows it, and I look dumb! It’s a genuinely scary moment!
But the reality is that you can never know about every single thing that gets brought up in an improv scene, and that you just have to learn to be calm and do a combination of kinda faking that you know, and being willing to just calmly admit it when you don’t. If you watch seasoned improviser do improv, you will definitely see countless moments where someone either doesn’t know something or doesn’t understand something. They never let it rattle them because they know it’s just part of the deal when you don’t have a script.
Here’s the main dirty secret when it comes to being smart in improv: it doesn’t really matter. It’s way more about emotional intelligence than witty knowledge. Really. People who don’t do improv assume that improv is about being brilliantly witty, meaning SAYING FUNNY AND SMART THINGS. It’s not. I mean, funny and smart things do get said — but the ability to come up with a brilliant phrase is low on the priority list for a good improviser. I’d say the main skill of a good improviser is something much close to just emotional intelligence: being in the moment, and reporting very honestly how your character feels. That is a much more valuable skill. If you can calm your fears down (not always easy) and just hear what’s being said and then report back honestly — you will be a great improviser.
Jimmy: Yes, there is hope, and I hope we are not going to lose you because you think you are not smart enough to improvise. There is a misconception in improv that you need to be some sort of brainiac or have some incredible reference level to be good at it. Intelligence can be overrated in improv. It doesn’t matter what your IQ is or what your SAT scores were in high school. If you can listen, agree, emotionally react to your partner, find the game, and not be an asshole you will do just fine. I have seen smart people be terrible at improv and people who weren’t that smart soar. It’s your life experience that matters. Being a terrible student, having dyslexic and barely graduating from high school is your life experience. You just need to embrace that and use it in your improv. Here are my suggestions to get your butt back into class:
First ask yourself why are taking these classes. My guess is that you are an actor who wants to book more on-camera work. You may be taking classes at The Groundlings to eventually be on SNL, I don’t know, but I think to be honest with why you are taking the classes will take some of the pressure off yourself. This is important because when you study at places with such famous alumni as The Groundlings, you can sometimes be intimated and have a huge expectation for yourself, which can make it weird and competitive. Once you are clear about why you are taking classes, such as because your agent thought it would be a good skill to have for auditions, then you can focus on learning and having fun.
The second thing I would suggest, which you may think is crazy, is to admit to the entire class that you are scared to improvise because you don’t think you are smart enough. You are not looking for the teacher or the students to fix you or say, “Of course, you’re smart enough.” You just want to admit it. When you go back to take Level 3 at The Groundlings, you could say, “I am back taking Level 3, and I am terrified that I am not smart enough to take improv.” We don’t have to hear your life story, just your fear. You may or may not get a reaction from the students or teacher. That doesn’t matter. You just need to say it to get out of your own way. I cannot tell you how freeing it is when my students get an opportunity to speak about their fears out loud. I have had people wanted to quit the class before they gave themselves permission to speak their truth. Also, usually at least one person in class will speak up and say they can relate.
Only a few spots left in Jimmy’s upcoming class and workshop! Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Class starts Jan. 7. Pay only $249 before Dec. 24! Or sign up for his Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on Jan. 3.