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Being Happy Where You’re At

Great improvisers are in the moment.

They have no need for the future or the past since they know it will not serve them.

They do not have an idea of how the scene will end.

They thrive on the uncertainty.

They are happy where they’re at.

This is the hardest thing for me to do, especially since I suffer from that disease of “what’s next?” It’s an affliction that saps my energy, robs me of my joy and steals my creativity. It floods my mind with obsessive thoughts about what I need to do to take my career to the next level. It’s relentless until there’s no joy left in what I’m doing.

Joy is the lubricant that keeps all the creative gears moving smoothly. Without it, life is a grind, and it’s a matter of time before my improv is a grind too.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, my “what’s next” disease always cropped up whenever Second City would have auditions for the Touring Company. At the time, I was performing the Harold a couple of times a week at iO Chicago. As soon as I got a touring company audition at Second City, my improv at iO would suck.

I was in my “what’s next” disease. I wanted to get into Second City so badly, that everything suffered, especially the thing that I needed most to get hired — my improv.

As you can imagine, I always tanked my auditions, and worse, I am sure that I missed out on lots of other great opportunities that were right in front of me at the time because I was so focused on the “one” thing that I thought was necessary to get ahead. (That’s another common side effect of the “what’s next” disease.)

I have seen this in my students’ lives as well. Last summer, for example, I talked to a former student who told me that one of his goals was to get an agent so he could audition for commercials and TV shows that are shot in Chicago.

When you are starting out and you don’t have many credits, getting an agent can be challenging. You send out mailers, hit up your improv friends to talk to their agents, and get headshots — all in the hopes you’ll get representation.

Talking to this former student, I recognized he was suffering from a little of the “what’s next?” disease, and since he had a pretty packed schedule of shows, we agreed that he should let go of trying to hustle for an agent for the time being.

I knew that if he just focused on doing what was fun and what was right in front of him, instead of “trying” to get somewhere, things would work out on their own.

And guess what? Last week, when we talked on the phone, an agent came to one of his improv shows and wants him to come in for an audition for representation.

I need to hear these kind of stories because they help remind me that if you’re doing what is right in front of you and you’re happy where you’re at, the Universe has a way of just dropping things in your lap. And those usually turn out to be the best experiences.

Want to try improv for the first time, or experience a new approach? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Intro to the Art of Slow Comedy Workshop on Feb. 8. Only $49 if you sign up by Feb. 1!

Improvising on vacation

Two weeks ago, Lauren and I went on vacation. Our friends Stephen and Amy were renting a house up in Eagle River, WI, for a week and we were going up to meet them from Tuesday to Friday.

So Tuesday morning we packed up the Honda CRV and drove the six and a half hours up there, more like seven if you count stopping at Ruby Tuesday’s for lunch. We were about five miles outside of Eagle River when and I called Stephen on my phone for directions to the house.

“Hey, Stephen, we are here!” I said, exhausted and excited.

There was a pause. “What?” he said.

“We are here,” I said. “We need directions to the house.”

“Are you kidding?” he asked.

“No, we’re here.”

“We are not going up there until next week. I thought you were doing a bit.”

If I was ever going to apply improv to my life, this probably would be a good time to do it.

I was not quite ready for that yet. I was tired, angry and felt like an idiot. I wanted to blame Stephen, Amy, my wife and myself.

We got out of the car and decided to stretch our legs for a couple of minutes. I was in shock. “How could this happen?” I said to Lauren inside one of the many gift and moccasin shops in Eagle River.

My first instinct was to reverse our mistake by getting back in the car and driving back the seven hours to Chicago, waking up in my own bed the next morning and pretending it was just a dream. But Lauren suggested we drive south until it got dark, find a hotel for the night and decide in the morning what we were going to do for the rest of the trip.

Sometimes when my improv students are doing a great scene, afterwards they say, “But I didn’t know where it was going,” like they did something wrong. Just the opposite, they did something right. The not knowing is what makes improv so exciting for the players and the audience.

Now I knew how my students felt, except I was in the deep woods of the not knowing and if I could let go of my insane plan of driving back to Chicago like a lunatic and listen to Lauren, maybe something good would come out of this stupid mistake. (BTW, I hear in improv there are no mistakes.)

So a miracle happened inside that gift and moccasin shop, right by the dream catchers. I listened to my wife and we decided to drive south for two hours until it got dark. Once I got in the car, compulsiveness started and I wanted to drive another 160 miles to Madison, but again, I listened to her and pulled off in a town called Wausau, WI. We drove into the downtown and when we were parking the car, we asked another couple if there was a restaurant and hotel they would recommend.

They said the nicest restaurant and the nicest hotel were about 100 feet away.

The meal was great, and afterward I told the hotel clerk the sad story about our trip and she upgraded us to a suite. The room was beautiful, with two huge fireplaces, and the next morning at breakfast at this old timey dinner with great eggs and even better hash brown potatoes, we agreed the thing that made the most sense was to stay in Wisconsin and have a vacation. This meant I had to drop my insane idea of driving back home and coming back up the following week.

To really do great improv, you must trust, and the same rule applies in life. So I started to trust: the people in the parking lot, my wife, the hotel clerk and even the universe. And if I continued to do that, maybe, just maybe, this trip would be better than anything we could have planned. That’s what’s so scary about the unknown — it usually goes better than you can imagine.

My students will often say on the first day of class that they are afraid of failing. Bullshit. You’re not afraid of failing, you’re afraid of succeeding. You would not be taking improv if you were afraid of failing because it’s all about failing. It’s creating things that are beyond our imagination that terrifies people, and once I slowly surrendered to that on this trip, it started happening for me. It became an adventure and exciting and really fun. We went hiking, ate at some cool restaurants, went to Madison, and when we came home, both my wife and I felt the same way: That this trip had forced us to be in the moment and go with the flow. It felt more like we were on some spiritual journey than some cheesy vacation to Wisconsin.

It’s the same exact feeling I have when I do a great improv show.

Due to overwhelming demand, Jimmy has added one more Art of Slow Comedy Intensive this summer! Study with Jimmy in this 4-hour workshop on Sunday, Aug. 10 from 12-4 p.m. at Stage 773. Only $79 if you sign up before July 31!