Susan Messing

The Number One Rule in Improv

The number one rule in improv — over “Yes, And…,” listening, finding the game in the scene, environment, adding specifics, and developing character and emotions — is “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.”

It has happened to all of us. We make a Harold team, or get hired by a big comedy theater, or finish a program at a competitive training center and one morning we wake up and we are taking ourselves way too seriously. Suddenly we have this entitlement and think that what we are doing is the most important thing in the world. We think we are above everyone else, above other players, our teachers, our directors, and worse, the audience.

It may last a couple of weeks, or months or even years. I know people who it has lasted their entire career. But once you start taking yourself too seriously, you may be funny on stage, but you have no sense of humor in life. Trust me, nobody wants to be around these people. We tolerate them.

This is how I felt watching the Oscars on Sunday night. Here were all of these great actors, writers, directors, and producers who make a wonderful living being creative, and I felt alienated from them. I found the show pretentious and self-important. And, God, talk about people taking themselves too seriously.

All of the actors in the audience seemed like they had forgotten why they had gotten into the field in the first place – to have fun, to express themselves, and to not have to work a crappy office job with no health insurance. They need to remember why the rest of us are tuning in the first place — to celebrate movies.

I love the movies. Movies are fun.  We’re supposed to go grab a bucket of popcorn and spend two hours escaping our everyday lives, laughing, crying, and enjoying ourselves. And the Oscars should be a giant pep rally for all the loyal moviegoers watching at home to get us excited about seeing more movies. If done right, the Oscars should be the greatest four-hour infomercial in the history of mankind.

How about thanking us for spending our hard earned money and investing our time to go to the movies? I don’t want to feel alienated. I want to like you, Hollywood, because I love what you do. But I feel you give me no choice.

For me to have such a strong reaction to this, I must be guilty of this kind of behavior. Yes, I am. I cannot tell you how many times I have had disdain for the audience when they did not respond to me on stage the way I thought they should. I have always thought I was superior or smarter or better than they were because I was on stage and they were not, even though they paid with their time and money to come see me. That is called ungratefulness, look it up.

Over the years I have been guilty of taking myself way too seriously, in my acting, improvising and teaching, especially early on in my career when I had achieved some success. This made me a pain in the ass to be around and to work with. I have traveled in circles with a pack of improvisers where we would judge other improvisers, and if they weren’t doing it the way we were, we would put them down and write them off. I could be a prick. A big prick who worked really hard to hide that side of myself, but underneath I was a Hollywood phony. I still can be. I have improved considerably over the years, however, or I could not be this honest in this blog. But despite my huge progress, you are never fully cured from this disease. It will flare up from time to time, usually when I’m afraid.

The Oscars were a really good reminder to me that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously in improv, because, after all, I am doing it to have fun. In improv, the most necessary ingredient in what we do is the people — the other performers, the teachers, directors, producers, and ourselves. And the more that I can let go of my ego and just have fun, the more I know everyone around me will have fun, too.

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7 replies
  1. Jared Wade
    Jared Wade says:

    Thanks for this Jimmy! I had a difficult time watching as well, and I couldn’t put it into words when talking about it to my friends and family. “Alienation” summed it up for me. I feel if you watch the Tonys vs this Oscars, you will see a drastic separation between entertainers and enter-deservers, those that feel they deserve more in the entertainment field than they actually do. The movie world would gain more of my money if they focused on the passion and selflessness of the actor, vs the $$$ they will bring in. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Eric Hobbs
    Eric Hobbs says:

    great post, Jimmy! Makes a lot more sense to create instead of compete! What if we all focused on creating instead of competing with each other? We as humans have been raised for 1000’s of years to compete against, I’m ready and willing to evolve into something more profound

    Reply
  3. Laura Ann
    Laura Ann says:

    Yes, yes, yes! We are there as part of what the audience experiences when they come to see a show or play or movie; we are not THE experience. Cogs in the creation wheel, not the whole wheel.

    Reply
  4. Frank Fusaro
    Frank Fusaro says:

    Thank you for this post. I have been thinking the same thing since the Oscars and haven’t been able to articulate it as well as you have here. This is something I always fall back on when teaching improv or doing any kind of performance exercises with my own troupe, students, employees, or just interested people. I needed to read this today and I am going to share it with my circles. Thank you again.

    Reply
  5. Gregor
    Gregor says:

    Along the way, I began feeling as though improvisors were using the idea of “support-support-support” as a mask concealing competition.

    They were. And good for them. It used to hurt my feelings. I felt stepped on. I felt left behind.

    But now I see it for what it is, for what it’s always been: ambition. Few things are sexier than ambition.

    I have noticed it’s hard to get to the other side of ambition, where taking yourself too seriously falls to the wayside, and playfulness outshines ambition.

    Speaking of self-congratulatory reach arounds, the Oscars were exhausting…

    Common & John Legend gave a moving performance. Their song deserved to win, even though “Selma” was more of an after school special than a movie.

    “Birdman” was walk-out-able.

    “American Sniper” was a brilliant story about how difficult it is for soldiers to let go of being soldiers with purpose and embrace being husbands with no greater purpose than making a loving home.

    Lady Gaga made no earthly sense in the telecast and Neil Patrick Harris got in the way more than he helped move things along.

    Reply

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