How I Kill Joy

Joy is something I am trying to work on in all aspects of my life, especially in my improvising and my teaching. For years, I really didn’t know how to feel joy, and I resented people who seemed happy.

God forbid if I met someone who had joy, or worse, had it all the time. In my mind I would write them off as a fake or phony and believed deep down they were more miserable, or at least as miserable, as I was.

Things are starting to change though, through my crazy therapist, my loving wife, Lauren, and even my cat, Princess Coco. Now, I am aware of how little joy I have, and of how when I do get some, how quickly I try to kill it. Today I have a desire to experience more joy in my life. I want to know more about this feeling that seems to have escaped me in my life.

Last weekend I went to the Huge Theater in Minneapolis to teach a series of workshops and do a live episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was Jill Bernard, who along with Butch Roy and Nels Lennes, is truly doing missionary work by spreading the word of long form improv throughout the Twin Cities by operating a booming training center and theater that is running out of performance slots for improvisers.

Jill is also an amazing teacher and performer and one of the most joyful people I know. In fact, she specializes in teaching her students that “they are enough” through joy.

So, during Improv Nerd, I asked Jill, “How do you teach joy?” (The question was more for me than for her.)

She replied in her quirky, somewhat performance artist way, “I pretend I’m a jar of olives.”

The audience laughed, but I was confused. A jar of olives? People fly her all over the country and pay her all this money to teach improv and she is a jar of olives?

Instead of playing with the idea and joining in, like a good improviser, I needed to dissect it even more. “What do you mean?”

She explained that she is not any jar. She’s a skinny jar, with a narrow label, the kind of jar of olives that’s hard to find these days. My brain could not wrap itself around it. She politely pointed out that she could see why I had such hard time with joy. Clearly, I was missing an opportunity to experience joy here, and I was obviously getting more enjoyment out of killing other people’s joy than creating my own.

As she continued to describe the jar of olives in greater detail, I got lost and realized I had no answer to my question and that I needed to move on. Or maybe I had the answer I just did not understand it.

It did not hit me until 48 hours later what she meant. That a jar of olives was getting all this money to teach a workshop. That a jar of olives was flown to Argentina to teach a workshop. That if you really believe you are a jar of olives, how can you take yourself so seriously?

This made sense to me, because I know that many improvisers, me included, take improv way too seriously, so seriously that they are strangling the joy, choking it to death.

And improv is not life and death, though I am one of those people who makes it that way on stage and especially in the classroom, because that is how I live my life. Improv is just joy. Audiences come to watch our shows to see that joy on stage, and if they are smart enough, they eventually take classes in improv to experience that joy.

Even though I have been improvising and teaching for a long time, I keep forgetting this. The good news is today, I am willing to admit that this is something I need to work on, desperately, not only on stage and in my classroom but in all areas of my life. How do you bring joy to improv? I’d love your ideas.

14 replies
  1. c
    c says:

    I’m in the process of getting more joyful and happy too. When I look back, I wonder how improv was even possible before. For me it’s a strange thing of bringing good selfishness into the mix. Before, I only had bad selfishness. Good selfishness to me is being fully enamoured with what you are doing. You’re only focused on what you’re focused on, and how it makes YOU feel. You stop caring about others (which I used to think was a bad thing – which it still is if you’re in a huff and thinking “screw you guys, I don’t care!”) and just get wrapped up in whatever is making you happy at the mo’. With practice, you stop comparing yourself to others at all. The side effect is that others see this and think, “Wow, that person’s happy! What’s making them happy? I’m FASCINATED!”
    However, if you’re doing it right, you couldn’t care less that others find you interesting 😉

  2. Megon McDonough
    Megon McDonough says:

    Jim! Love this. I want to find my jar of olives. I know it’s in there!
    Thanks for helping others find their own jar~ hmm… being a vessel? dang – that serious stuff creeps in there!

  3. Randy
    Randy says:

    Always smile and laugh on the sidelines. The funniest scenes I’ve ever seen are the ones I’m not in in a show I am in.

    Really go wild on stage with your imagination. Anything is possible and the world is wide open to you. Love your scene partner, even if you don’t in real life or the scene doesn’t call for it. Love the moment, even if your character is angry or sad. Love the audience because without them, you would be a crazy person. Love yourself because how else can you experience joy?

  4. xavier
    xavier says:

    This was a great thing to read, Jimmy. I think it’s important to believe that everyone is doing the best they can based on who they are in the moment (to include yourself). Even when you know they (or you) can do better, have compassion and believe that “we’re doing our best”. I think that keeps you from choking up your (or others) joy. Also, take breaks when incapable of having compassion. 🙂

  5. Megan
    Megan says:

    A laughter guru (he was a big, fat con artist) gave me the best advice. Fake it ’til you make it. Pretend joy until it blasts you for real.

  6. Shecky
    Shecky says:

    Randy…those are truly wise words. Like Jimmy, I also take this all way too seriously, sometimes. I need to remind myself of that. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to copy your thoughts and share them with my students. Thanks for the insight.

  7. John
    John says:

    Funny you should mention this. We were holding Harold team auditions recently, and all the judges had the same note on one of the performers: technically very proficient, but just no joy in their improv. And it was sad and frustrating to know that we likely wouldn’t be giving a thumbs up (at least in this round) to someone who otherwise had clearly worked so hard and built strong skills in the craft..

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s plenty possible to have a very honest and full appreciation of all the incredibly sad, tragic, and unfair things in this life, while still (perhaps even more so) having huge joy. For me, the lessons in that came from years of zen study with a Buddhist monk who’s other gig was hospice work–but I think there are all sorts of routes to get that, including from the most awesome of jars of olives.

  8. Dave Ebert
    Dave Ebert says:

    I am a Christian. So, through prayer and remembering where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, I realize, “Dave…you’re on a stage in Chicago, performing for a live audience. Impossible a year ago. But you’re doing it.” Some might see this response and scoff or think I am being preachy, but that is my honest answer.

  9. Jon Jahrmakt
    Jon Jahrmakt says:

    For joy: In workshops and on stage, I ruthlessly support those with less experience and for the veteran improvisers, I try to surprise them with huge choices or make them laugh.

  10. Pops
    Pops says:

    8) 8) 8)

    I remember Shotts telling us about how he would look at Stonelake on the side after a sub par scene and Stonelake would have a massive grin on his face, while Shotts was feeling the pressure from what he thought was bombing. Shotts turned to him and said “Holy Shit this show is going terrible” …Stonelake’s reply “I know it’s so awesome”. ~POPS

  11. Trish Berrong
    Trish Berrong says:

    When my team Spite asked to be an incubator team at the Chicago Improv Festival, my pal the Olive Jar and Jonathan Pitts put us with Nick Johne because they felt like we needed a good dose of not taking things so seriously. I proceeded to break my finger in a game meant to teach us to be light and playful. I looooove the concept of pure play, but get so wrapped up in teaching, coaching, and the business side of improv that sometimes I forget I AM DOING THIS FOR FUN.

    I have, however, successfully figured out how to put joy in the least joyful of places: airport security. Whenever I go through a body scanner, I hold my hands above my head like moose antlers…and then feel totally sneaky for being a moose and getting on an airplane. I like to think Jill has rubbed off on me a little.

  12. Kogros
    Kogros says:

    `I don’t try to judge people. I mean, as humans, it’s rather impossible to not have opinions on people, but I don’t let that affect my work. My Mother has a saying, “You don’t have to be friends, but you should definitely be friendly.” At first I was like, “Why should I be friendly? What if I don’t like them?” But I realized that creating hate will only cause more hate. That being miserable for the sake of being miserable doesn’t help anyone, including yourself. It’s cheesy as hell, but really if we can all just be friendly, we can learn to love each other. And in the words of a great improviser, “If you don’t like these people, and they are really BAD people… appreciate them for the moment. Be nice to them, and once you can: get out of there.”

  13. Jon
    Jon says:

    Awesome post. It’s something I really struggle with too. Don’t get me wrong I love improv, and certainly do get a lot of joy out of it, but I intellectualise it too – which can certainly diminish the joy.

    I recently worked with a young improviser who just lights up with joy, real joy, all the time. Not the joy that some folks can turn on when they go on stage. This kid was just so full of fun, whether he was on stage, in a class, or eating a hotdog. I wish I could bottle what he has – I’d make a fortune selling the stuff.

    Instead all I can do is try and remember him, and try to take on the essence of what was so natural to him. It’s a start. Hell, just writing this comment about him makes me smile.

  14. Michael
    Michael says:

    I have found the most joy when I’ve been with confident, happy, positive people who don’t judge. I think we need to choose our friends well and spend as much time as possible with them.


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