Jimmy Teaching

Embracing Our Weirdness

Last week I went to Worcester, Mass., to teach improv at Claremont Academy, a high school made up of a diverse population of teenage kids. Not only are you dealing with different races and cultures, you are also dealing with adolescents.

For an improviser, this was not a glamorous gig. It was not writing for Colbert or being cast on SNL. This was missionary work. I have taught improv to teens before, and I’ve seen how it can work magic on their self-confidence. I am not exaggerating when I say you are saving lives.

Just ask Danny Balel, who is an excellent improv teacher and heads up the program at Claremont. When he was in high school, he was getting high and had no direction. Then in ninth grade he was kicked out of school for concealing a weapon. When he transferred to a new high school, improv and theater saved his life.

Improv was not available when I was growing up. If it had been, I can only guess how my life might have been different.

I was thinking a lot about my own experience in high school when I walked in to teach the freshman class, which consisted of 18 rowdy students, right before lunch. We were in an area of the school that was more hallway than classroom, where people could pass through. You needed to be conscious of the sound, since there were no doors.

Freshman year is hard, as you awkwardly make the transition from eighth grade to high school. And I was working with them at the start of the year, when there is still a lot of turbulence before they make a smooth landing.

As the class settled down, they wanted to know about me before we started. It was hard to tell if they were curious or just stalling.

One girl with thick black glasses sitting in the first row asked me if I was professional.

“Yes, I am,” I said somewhat confidently, which surprised me.

Then a girl with an oversized gray sweatshirt and braces asked: “Why did you get into it?”

I wanted to relate to them. So, I said “I was neglected growing up and came from a family where we weren’t allowed to express ourselves. I took improv so I could express myself.”

I am sure it went completely over their heads.

As we worked through the morning, it was clear that this class had a hard time suspending judgment of one another, which is necessary to do improv. It became obvious during a scene when a tall, goofy guy made a wonderful initiation to dance with the girl with the braces. She refused to dance with him.

I stopped the scene. “Why did you say no to his initiation?” I asked.

“Because he’s weird,” she said.

I looked at the goofy kid, who reminded me of myself, and I felt speechless and sad. Then suddenly I said, “I am weird, too. No one is more weird than me.”

The goofy kid’s face lit up and he got all excited and he gave me a high five. My guess is that he had never been validated for his wonderful imagination. Then I found my footing and asked someone to tag her out and support the dancing initiation, and a guy came out and they danced together, which is a very brave thing to do in the self-conscious world called high school.

That day, I realized how much improvisers really are weirdos. We get up in front of complete strangers not knowing what we are going to say, and purposely make ourselves look foolish on stage. Who does that?

But the quicker we can embrace our weirdness, the better we will become. By embracing our weirdness, we embrace our own brilliance.

8 replies
  1. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Hi! My name is Wendy, and I’m a weirdo to. Improv is the place I feel at home. I’ve done a lot of different theatrical art, if you could call it that, and improv loved me more than the others.

    Reply
  2. Dee LaBelle
    Dee LaBelle says:

    Jimmy, what a wonderful opportunity to share your gifts. You changed lives that day. What a wonderful way to turn your childhood wounds into salve for others. Our “mess” is really in our message. Beauty from ashes. And isn’t that what it is all about? Keep saving lives Jimmy! I Am proud of you. And totally inspired by your story today. (And mostly, I am embracing my WEIRD.)

    Reply
  3. Clare
    Clare says:

    I can absolutely say improv’s saved my life in so many ways. I started doing it in high school too, and was lucky enough to participate in an after school program taught by iO performers. It turned my life around, made me a better improviser, and a more confident person. Being validated for taking risks and making connections with others is one of the best ways for teenagers to grow into themselves.

    Reply
  4. Gregor
    Gregor says:

    46-years old. Still taking improv classes. It don’t get much weirder than that!

    At this age, what else is available to me? Golf? Poker? Sport Fucking & Chronic Dissatisfaction?

    I guess the answer is “D: All of the Above.”

    Every now and then, I feel it, the weirdness, the wishing I was somewhere else, the impulse to flee, the vow to be done with this nonsense.

    But then I let go. The age differences stop mattering. The race differences vanish. The gender roles turn upside down.

    By the end of class, like going to the gym, I’m euphoric, in a completely different mood than I was at the beginning of class.

    Thanks for putting yourself on the front lines of comedy, Mister Carrane. Those kids at Claremont Academy don’t know how lucky they are, having met you, so early in the game.

    Reply
  5. Jordan Weimer
    Jordan Weimer says:

    Jimmy,

    I was really lucky in high school to have a youth group that I went to that allowed me to be cool for being weird and funny. It was a blessing that I haven’t really understood until recently. In school it was too easy to run into that person that would wait until you’d contribute to a riff to stop you and condescend, “it was funny, then you killed it.” They are self conscious and need to establish their place above you in the social hierarchy. They’re saying, “See, I’m normal.”

    When I was taking a film writing class at the SCTC, I gave a short synopsis of my main character. I had planned on writing “Level A”, a series that was more or less autobiographical about a character who overcomes his deep seated anxiety and relationship problems by learning embrace failure and take risks, not only on stage but eventually in his own life. I told the teacher that he wants nothing more than to be normal and, as immediately as the words came out of my mouth, the teacher responded, “why in the world would anyone want to be normal?” I really had no answer to that until now.

    I desire deeply to be normal because some fuck head in school was condescending, despite the fact that now that person works as a middle manager somewhere. It’s hard to acknowledge the fact that being normal is it’s own kind of tragedy, when all you want is to gain people’s approval. But, it’s much easier to see once you’ve said yes to who you are.

    So, now at the very least, I know that my character starts out wanting nothing more than to be normal, but by the end has settled into the idea that being weird might just be extraordinary.

    Thanks,

    Jordan

    Reply

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