Dan Schiffmacher

Are You Sick of Improv?

Have you ever been sick of improv? Like, just over it? I am right now, and I hope I’m not alone with this one.

I have been improvising pretty much my whole life, and right now I am sick of it. I have lost my passion. Frankly, I’m just bored with it, and when I feel like this, I usually start thinking, “I am done with improv. lt’s over, I quit.”

Last Friday night, my wife, Lauren, and I went to see some improv at our friend Dan’s apartment on the north side of Chicago. Twenty or so young improvisers began to show up around 8:30 p.m. in his back yard, helping themselves to cans of cold beer from the cooler before finding a folding chair to sit in. As the sky got darker, two lamps lit the cement patio floor, and the show began.

Lauren and I were by far the oldest ones there. We looked more like chaperones than performers. I was there to do some stand up, which I did. About half-way through my set, the lights went out, and someone yelled “Keep going!,” which I did. This set the tone for the evening. Everybody was clearly there just to have a good time and have fun — something I clearly still struggle with doing.

After I finished my set, two different groups went up and improvised for about 15 minutes each. They weren’t performing on a big-name stage to a sold out crowd, but these guys clearly had passion. There was something so pure about their improvising. There was freedom to it — no pressure and clearly no expectations. They were doing it for each other, not to get put on team, not to be seen, but for the love of it. You cannot fake that ever.

I had a great time at the show, but afterwards, I started to feel depressed that I didn’t still feel as passionately about improvisers as they did. I chalked it up to just being old.

Then on Monday morning, I drove down to Lincoln Park to meet Curt Mabry and his wife – two improvisers who were in Chicago from Shanghai — and Dave Pasquesi. I love seeing Dave, I have tremdenous respect and admiration for him, plus he can make me laugh. The four of us sat at one of those long wooden green benches in the park and talked about improv for about an hour and a half. What I found amazing in our conversation is that even Dave, who started improvising before I did, seemed to be even more passionate about improv today than he was when I first knew him, which threw my theory about lack of passion only applying to older improvisers right out the window.

So, then I concluded that it must just be me. I must be the only one in the world who ever feels sick of improv. No one else feels like they’re doing the same scenes over and over again or making the same choices in character and emotions over and over again like you’re in the movie Groundhog’s Day but me.

The last couple of months have been a struggle for me. It was hard putting up Improv Nerd this last season. The guests and my staff were great, but I was getting tired of it. I hope I hid it well from everyone because it’s embarrassing to admit this to you, especially because I feel like I have to be improv’s biggest cheerleader 24/7.

This is not the first time I have fallen out of love with improv, and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be the last. The hardest thing to remember is that “this too shall pass.” But when I’m in this place, I usually scare myself into believing that my boredom of improv is permanent.

I think some of my lack of passion for improv could have been prevented if I had taken my own advice and slowed down and taken care of myself over the past couple of months. But by writing this, I know there is a better chance that this feeling will go away more quickly, and hopefully I’ll get some of my passion back for this art form that has been such a big part of me. Really, what other choice do I have other than to wait it out?

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6 replies
  1. Curt Mabry
    Curt Mabry says:

    This sounds similar to one of your posts from the past. To be honest, I think anyone who does improv for a living would have these feelings. You know Dave better than me of course, but you were not there when Elva and I first met him in Elaine’s. This was one of Elva’s first questions to Dave – does he ever get tired of doing improv – and he said “yes…but not with TJ.”

    SO in my opinion, there are three aspects at play here which are worth considering –

    1) We do improv for a living. These ‘kids’ you saw, they are newer, still on fire with the new passion of a new improviser, and they have faced a lot less rejection and frustration. Based on what I have seen of the Chicago scene, especially now with the influx of non-Chicago people here in the summer, it can become a grind – it looks like the more time you spend ‘in the system’ it becomes less about the joy of discovery and more about the grind to become a professional (get on this team, get this audition, take this class, compete, etc).

    2) You do not perform regularly with someone with whom you have established a connection. This again is my opinion, but when I watched you perform with Jeff Griggs at the last Improv Nerd taping, you were frankly riveting and performed some of the best improv I have seen here – and you even remarked how good it felt afterwards. You are an improv guru, and yes many of us look to you as a teacher and cheerleader – and that’s really unfair. I realized I had put you on a pedestal as my own improv idol – and that is really not fair and you never asked for that. Perhaps we need a performing partner or team to keep us going and trying and experimenting. I have these moments of being sick of improv too, and it’s usually helped by seeing the joy and passion of Zmack. Dave has TJ, to whom he is NOT a coach or teacher of guru, but a partner.

    3) For you especially, Improv is quite deep. You’ve openly admitted you work out your demons and issues with improv, so your passion, your career, and your therapy are all intermingled. This is tough and I respect you for it, in a lot of ways you are taking punches for the rest of us neurotic improvisers and leading the way. That is just hard, there is no way around it. I appreciate it, and I hurt that it hurts you.

    Yet again, this is just my opinion but from one professional improviser to another this is my thinking: You’ll keep having these periodic thoughts. “This too shall pass” is a helpful RATIONAL thought but whoever said emotions are rational? What I’d like to see you do is this – 1) take a holiday each year from your career of improv. Go somewhere, do something just for you and Lauren, and come back to improv refreshed. Don’t read books or see shows during that time. 2) Try rehearsing and performing regularly with a partner or team again, someone who understands your personality and appreciates good scene work. This is what you did when you were younger and there is a reason you did it. 3) believe us when we love and admire you. Loving yourself is tough, and fuck you to anyone who thinks it is like flipping a switch. I crave external approval as much as you do, and I lap up your positive feedback like gravy and slink away in shame from your critical feedback. Time helps, but so do my teammates and my wife and their affirmation.

    Yes, please take care of yourself. Time off would be better than slowing down. I’m re-energized from my time here.

    I love you and admire you, JImmy Carrane, and you have taught me much. I am a good improviser who has accomplished much – look what I have created and built in Shanghai – and much of this is because of YOU.

    I give you permission to take a break, and I remove the pedestal I placed underneath you. If there is one great thing that has emerged from this visit to Chicago its that I now call Jimmy Carrane – a hero of mine, a guru and teacher – my friend. And that’s pretty phenomenal.


  2. dighead
    dighead says:

    Dude. I was at this show. You’re stand up set was great. Super funny and it killed. That group of people you saw is truly magical. We all came up through IO together and hang out regularly and support each other in ways I never could’ve imagined. Check out Polar Pig, Pony Patrol, Moon Roof, In a Pickle, The Second Wind Collective, Small Town Doctor, etc.

    Talking to other folks who’ve made Harold teams or graduated from IO, that’s a very rare thing to keep hanging out like this. I talked to a member of IO now on his third harold team and he said, “I’m so glad that I’m on a team that I actually like.” And I thought to myself, “Are you nuts?! I love everyone in my group!” It’s only when you hear that do you realize how lucky you have it.

    You hung out with a special group of people who I know are gonna be doing great things and will always welcome you back. You didn’t even have to be there but you came anyways! I’m so glad that you were there and I hope to see you at shows and I hope to see you do more stand up. We’re all standing on the shoulders that you and your friends (who I know you had a ton of fun with) created. Thanks Jimmy!

  3. Craig Klugman
    Craig Klugman says:

    Self care always has to come first. You have said in your blogs and in classes that you need to have a life outside of improv in order to bring something to the art. I recall one blog where you told people to take a class in anything other than improv (perhaps extend to other than performing). Perhaps it is not passion for improv waning, but passion. We all need vacations and breaks to refresh ourselves. Give yourself permission to do so. Unfortunately as artists we do not choose to do improv, it has chosen us. Take a break and then give the muse her due.

  4. Steven
    Steven says:

    Three things:

    (1) You hit the nail on the head re: self-care. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about something…if you aren’t taking care of yourself, you’re going to burn it to the ground. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve learned this particular lesson, only to consume all my fuel and have to restart the fire from scratch. The trick (so I’m told) is learning how to manage to a steady flame.

    (2) Sometimes the best thing you can do is anything other than your passion. Expand your horizons, and eventually you will reconnect with the reasons (or find new reasons) that you were passionate about improv in the first place.

    (3) The bottom of an important blog post on your present lack of passion prolly isn’t the best place to market a new workshop. Jus sayin.

  5. Mark
    Mark says:

    Funny how creatives – whether it’s actors, musicians, writers, comedians, painters, etc – all have issues around self care.

    Me too. 🙂

    Hang in there – and take care of yourself!


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