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How to Have Better Bad Shows

Is your goal in improv to never have a bad show, scene, class or rehearsal? If so you are doomed. Get out while you can.

Improvising is not an exact science. You are never going to master it. That’s why some of us are in it for life.

What you need to be striving for is always challenging yourself to leave your comfort zone. That’s where the learning will be the fastest.

How will you know you are outside your comfort zone, you ask? You will feel uncomfortable, frustrated and out of control.

I have seen this hundreds of times: A student or even a whole class leaves a class frustrated, feeling like they’re not very good and never going to “get it,” and then they show up the next week and they’re different, like they’ve passed a kidney stone, and they knock it out of the park. What happens between classes, I don’t know, but I think it’s the classes where they feel frustrated are actually the ones where they’re learning the most.

I saw it last night in my Art of Slow Comedy class. A couple of my students were really brave and shared with the class the frustrations they were having with their improvising. One guy thought he was not getting it, and another woman said she was more comfortable with more structure. Both were frustrated.

I am proud they spoke up. It takes courage to not sit on your feelings and instead put a voice to them, and if they knew it or not, the students were helping the class tremendously. The class gave them feedback, although sometimes students don’t even need feedback, they just need to speak about how they’re feeling.

I shared with the class that I have done a thousand bad scenes to get where I am today, and you know what? I still have thousands of bad shows left in me. That is humbling and discouraging at the same time. For me it is a fact. I’ve performed with a lot of groups over the years and we have had good shows and bad shows. The better the team, the fewer bad shows we had, but we still had bad shows.

I was on Carl and The Passions at IO-Chicago with some of the best improvisers around, and we had a running joke that when Shad Kunkle, Bill Boehler and I would come out and do a scene together, it would go nowhere. We called it the Bermuda Triangle of Improv. You would think with the years that we all had been doing it, we would be killing it every night. Not true. Yes, we had killer shows, shows that were so great you had a high for days afterwards, but we still had bad shows, bad rehearsals and bad scenes.

I believe it was Mick Napier who said that the goal of improv is not to be perfect, it’s just to increase your percentage of your success rate. Nobody is going to have a 100 percent success rate. Nobody is going to be the perfect improviser. It’s like saying you’re going to 1000% percent hitter in baseball. It’s never happened because the game isn’t designed that way. Same with improvising.

So save yourself some time and misery and accept the bad shows, rehearsals and classes as part of the process. Nobody understands the pain of that more than I do. I’ve written about how I often want to kill myself after a bad show. That has not changed. But in my despair, I try to remember “If you want to do something well, you need to do it poorly first.”

So if you’re goal has always been to perfect improv, my suggestion is to throw that out and get a new goal. If you want to, you can use mine: To have better bad shows.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy class start June 2. Hurry! Early Bird Pricing ends May 19. Register today.

Bad shows still suck

Jimmy Carrane and John Hildreth in Improv NerdBad Shows Still Suck

After more than 25 years of doing improv shows, the one thing I can tell you is a bad show still sucks, almost as bad as when I first started.

Oh boy, I had one on Sunday, working with two really talented improvisers I respect, John Hildreth and Rachael Mason, which makes it worse. I left the show feeling awful, like I had exposed to them how truly awful an improviser I am.

The messages in my head go from productive to suicidal: “I was tentative. I was scared. I was too plot-heavy. I had no emotional response. I was too verbal. I could have committed more. I sucked. I hate myself. I want to die. I want to kill myself.”

This is not an exaggeration. These messages are on a continuous loop that won’t stop. Which leads to an awful night’s sleep, waking up remembering the specific scenes and reliving the shame.

Over the last few days, when I am not replaying the scenes in my head, I am imagining ways I can take my life. The irony is I am surrounded by love: a beautiful wife and a new kitten all in the same bed. And despite that, I’m still miserable; nothing can help me at this point.

My wife tries to help, but when you are that far down in the hole of self-pity, it’s really a waste of time. She said something that I imagine I would say to my students: “You have to have the bad shows to appreciate the good ones.”

Of course I could not hear that, the same way I could not hear what my good friend and improviser Bill Boehler said on the phone the other night: “You learn more from the bad shows.”

I was too busy wanting to kill myself, questioning my existence, and listing the ways I still suck.

It’s a form of self-mutilation. Instead of cutting myself with a sharp instrument, I do it with the voices in my head. The bleeding is internal, the pain is excruciating, and the messages continue.

“You suck. You have been doing improv for over 20 years. You teach this stuff? You are a fraud.”

I had students in the audience on Sunday, and now I am embarrassed to go into the classroom. Maybe I am not the best improviser in the world, but I thought I was a great teacher, and now that is all gone in one show. One terrible show.

And the more I think about this the more I want to die.

I wish I had more hope to offer about how to get through a bad improv show. I wish I could tell newbie improvisers that it gets better over the years. But I am sorry to say that suffering after a bad show is still very much part of my process. I guess there is hope that I’m still here to talk about it. If any of you figure out how to get through a bad show, let me know. You may be saving a life or two.