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Cinderella’s Funeral

My almost four-year-old daughter, Betsy, was playing with her two-inch tall plastic Disney princess dolls, when Cinderella’s head fell off and rolled under the couch. She looked and looked and couldn’t find it.

So she decided to have a funeral for Cinderella. She lined up all the other Disney princesses on the coffee table and sat them in her tiny toy chairs as if they were sitting in a church.

Betsy has both Playmobil people and Fisher Price Little People, and she’s given each of them names and in some cases even a back story, like Gary, a Fisher Price person whom she says owns a Home Depot and also works as a doctor at the hospital. And, as expected, the other toy people came to pay their respects, since Cinderella was beloved by so many.

And then, one by one, the Disney princesses got up and said something nice about Cinderella.

Snow White said she was kind to animals, even mice.

Sleeping Beauty said Cinderella was beautiful inside and out.

And Rapunzel said she loved everything made out of pumpkin — pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread.

When I came into the room and Lauren told me what they were playing, I was sorry I could not attend, because I love funerals. I get that from my mom, and now apparently Betsy gets it from me.

As a parent I was conflicted about this whole funeral game. Was it appropriate for her to be playing it? Growing up Catholic there was a lot of mystery and shame about death. As a kid, you instantly knew it was a taboo topic and something you didn’t joke about. I certainly would not have been allowed to have a pretend funeral.

So on the one hand it’s healthy, I think. Since I’ve been spending so much time with Betsy because of Shelter-in-Place, I’ve seen how much joy and laughter an almost four-year-old brings to the party. I also see as a parent how selfish I have become because I don’t want her to ever grow up. I want to make time stop so she will always be in this constant state of wonder, where she can laugh for 30 minutes playing a silly, totally made up game by her dad, or get excited about little having an impromptu dance party to Kelly Clarkson.

There is also a sense of pride that I have that she is getting something I did not get, and that is the freedom to express herself and the encouragement by both of her parents to use her imagination.

But I am not going to lie. I am a bit worried she got her dark sensibility from me, which I have been trying to hide from you for years, even though you can see it a mile away.

We still have not found Cinderella’s head, and I am told by Betsy that if we do find it, Cinderella will come back to life. Which is good to know, and means we will all live happily ever after in the end.

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Taking In the Love On My Birthday

May 5th was my birthday. I turned 56. It’s been a tradition of mine, a week or so before my actual birthday, to get more depressed than normal, followed by a wave of self-pity. Thank God, with everything that has been going on in the world and that fact I have not left my house in two months, I figured I wouldn’t have to work as hard to get depressed this year.

But it turns out, I actually enjoyed my birthday more than I ever have.

It had something to do with my three-and-half year old daughter, Betsy, who likes to celebrate anything and loves a good party. I want to make it clear she did not get that from me. So when she found out last week that my birthday was coming up, she began to get excited and wanted to start planning a party, which she also did not get from me.

She wanted to do a puppet show party, so we started by making a puppet theater out of cardboard, complete with pink curtains.

Then on the morning of May 3rd she began jumping around filled with urgency and joy. “Come on Daddy! We have a lot of work to do for your party. We need invitations.”

So, we quickly made a guest list of my closest friends and some local merchants. Then we started making invitations. We had quite an efficient assembly line going as I hand wrote the invitations and she put them in envelopes and sealed them up.

We then got in the Honda and drove to the post office where I pretended to put the invitations in the mailbox, but instead put them in my coat pocket.

The next day, she and Lauren made a chocolate cake with green frosting, because that is my favorite color, never mind that I don’t eat sugar.

That night, a strange thing happened. I started to feed off of her excitement about my birthday, which was the next day. So when Betsy was asleep, I took out a big piece of paper and made a sign in magic marker saying, “Happy Birthday Daddy,” and then went to the garage and pulled out some Christmas lights and put them around the sign.

In my head, I was telling myself that I was making the sign for Betsy, so she would be surprised in the morning, but the truth is I was making it for both of us.

I have never been this into my birthday before. Sure, I’ve had big parties with lots of people, like when I turned 40 and 50. But those parties seemed forced, like I was trying to please my therapist. I always felt uncomfortable and embarrassed by the all of the attention on me.

And I’ve had smaller birthday parties, too, and they’re not really any better. Usually, I’m running around obsessing about the food or worrying that people are having a good time, forgetting that people are there to celebrate me.

At 7:18 a.m. Central Time on May 5th, Betsy came barreling into our bedroom like it was Christmas morning saying, “Daddy, Daddy! Wake up! It’s your birthday!”

By this point, Betsy had changed her mind that she wanted to have a pool party. So, after having pancakes, which are reserved for special occasions like holidays and birthdays in our house, she put on her bathing suit, which she wore all day.

But in all our pretending, I had forgotten to add a disclaimer. Betsy really believed that people were physically going to come over to our house for a pool party.

Lauren told me this in the late afternoon when I woke up from a nap and said, “I just told Betsy that we’re not having a real pool party and nobody is actually coming over. She has tears coming down her face. She doesn’t understand.”

Though the party scenario was pretend, the feelings my daughter was having were real. Betsy has been experiencing a lot of disappointments in her life lately, so I at least want to prevent the ones that are caused by my pretending.

To make things even more complicated, Lauren had organized a surprise Zoom sing-a-long party for that night, and didn’t tell Betsy because she was afraid Betsy would tell me.

But thank God I am trained in improvisation because I told Betsy we would have a pool party after all and I turned our bathtub into a pool.

It was total DIY. All it took was a couple of stools, a sign that said “pool” and our bathing suits. We both got in the tub and pretended to give her three dolls swimming lessons. We had our swim party and at the end she said, “Daddy, that was a blast.”

If that was not enough, that night at 6 p.m., some of my closest friends joined me on Zoom for my surprise sing-a-long party. As you can imagine, a sing-a-long on Zoom is technically a clusterfuck. I didn’t care. We sang some of my favorite sad songs like, “Fire and Rain” and “Piano Man.”

One of the biggest character defects in my life is my inability to take in love. I always seem to be distracted by low self-esteem.

But this year was different. Thanks to my daughter, Lauren, and all of my friends from all over the country who took 45 minutes out of their day to show up for me, for once, I was really able to take in the love.

 

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Announcing My New One-Person Show, ‘World’s Greatest Dad(?)’

I have big news to share with you today. I am really excited to announce that my new autobiographical one-person show, World’s Greatest Dad(?), is going to be opening at Second City’s Judy’s Beat Lounge next month. The show will run on Saturdays at 6 p.m. from June 15 through July 20.

If you’ve been following my blogs for the last several years, you know that my dad died in March of 2016, just a few months before my daughter, Betsy, was born.

Being a father was never something I was really interested in doing. Since taking my first improv class back in the ’80s I wanted to become famous, because I want to be feel good about myself. I had a huge hole that I thought could only be filled by fame. But after having a child at 52, I realized that that hole could be filled from the love I got from my daughter.

In this show, I talk about my journey to becoming a father at 52 at the same time that my own father was dying, and through this roller coaster of life and death, I realize that you don’t have to be the “greatest” to be a good dad.

I’ve been working on bits and pieces of this show for a while now, putting it up at various storytelling performances, and I’ve really excited to share the entire piece in its entirety.

It’ll actually be the fifth one-man show I’ve ever done. My first show, “I’m 27 and I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies,” was a runaway hit, opening at the Annoyance Theater in 1991 and running for more than a year-and-a-half. Since then, I’ve written and performed several others including “Since We Last Talked” (1994), “Dog Tales” (1999), and “Living in a Dwarf’s House” (2001).

But this will be the first one I’ve done in 18 years (can you believe that?), and I’m really excited to see what you think of it.

Tickets aren’t on sale yet, but check back soon here to see when they’re up. I’d love to see you there!

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Being Grateful for Where I Am

Next week is Thanksgiving, and I think the older I get the more I am starting to understand gratitude.

When I started out doing improv in my 20s, I was so obsessed about becoming famous. So much so that it took all the fun out of it and affected my relationships. Fame was my higher power.

When friends of mine who I started out together in Chicago got success, I could not be happy for them. I took it personally, and went into a deep depression and was convinced I must be doing something wrong.

By the time I was in my 50s, my anger had turned into bitterness and jealousy, and I was ashamed to admit it, afraid what you would think of me.

It affected my marriage, too. Lauren would get annoyed about me about not being grateful for the things that were right in front of me, including our relationship. My life had never been better, and I could not see it.

Then Betsy was born, and after about six months, after we decided to keep her, things started to change. Before Betsy was born, other fathers would say to me: “Just wait. After she is born, she will change you.” I didn’t know what they meant. But they were right. It happened gradually.

I can’t even put the change into words, but the long and short of it is fatherhood did change me, for the better.

I am happier. Even Lauren noticed I can be easier to be around. She has said, “You don’t seem so obsessed with fame since Betsy was born.”

Thank God. I am not perfect. My desire to become famous still comes back occasionally, but today, I am far more grateful for what I have than I was in years past, and I am no closer to being famous. I would say that is progress.

Have a happy Thanksgiving.

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What a Toddler Taught Me About Rejection

As actors and improvisers, we deal with rejection on a regular basis. And even though I’ve been improvising and auditioning for a really long time, it’s still hard to not to take rejection personally, because I am still looking for outside things to put a big stamp of approval on my forehead.

When I audition for something and I don’t get it, I say to myself that I am loser and I want to blame the script; the director; the reader; the casting director; my wife, Lauren; our cat, Coco; the traffic; the economy; the state of Illinois; and the state of the world for me not getting the part. Really, I am angry and full of shame, but I mask it as blame. Blame is drug I use to medicate my real feelings, which are hurt and sadness.

Last week my daughter, Betsy, turned two years old. She is now in the “I only want Mommy for everything” stage. I only want Mama to put me in my high chair, get me my yogurt, change my diaper. “No Dada, only Mama.” The other day she got so angry at me in the kitchen when I tried to pick her up that she started physically pushing my legs and saying “No, Mama! No, Mama!”

If I am honest about my feelings, I felt a little angry, but mostly hurt and sad. I talked about how I was feeling with Lauren, some of my friends, in group therapy and in every 12-step program in the state of Illinois.

But no matter how much I talked about it, it still stung, and what I found interesting is that I did not blame her for “making” me feel angry and hurt. And even more surprising, I had compassion for myself, unlike how I typically feel after I fail an audition. Oh believe me, I still had my feelings. In fact, I still have some left over from a week ago, but I realize Betsy has nothing to with my feelings, and I also realize I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s really hard to take rejection personally coming from a toddler.

What I finally realized was that my feelings were not about Betsy. They were about the rejection I have experienced in the past. For me, it was rejection lite, all the taste of rejection without the shame.

This was something totally something new for me. Could I have my feelings of hurt, sadness and anger and not make it anyone’s fault, especially mine? Could my two-year-old daughter actually be teaching me something about rejection in my career? That if I don’t get something, there is a 99 percent chance it is not about me or my talent. And that I don’t have to take rejection personally and use it to berate myself for living.

If I’m right about this, my daughter is lucky, because I won’t have to waste so much time blaming others when things don’t go right, and that means she’s going to have a lot more time to play with her Dad.

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Learning How to Have Joy

The irony is not lost on me that I am an improv teacher, which is about teaching people how to play and have fun, which is what I have the hardest time doing in my own life. (This is a classic case where the teacher teaches what he most needs to learn himself).

Since I was a little kid I have never experienced much joy. My mom would keep reminding me, “You were such a happy baby. What happened to you?”

Even the things that are supposed to bring most people joy, like going on vacation, don’t make me happy. I don’t really start enjoying myself on vacation until the last day when I know I am going home.

I had pretty much given up the idea of every feeling any sort of happiness in my life when someone in my group therapy was like, “You know, if you and Lauren have a baby, it will bring a lot more joy into your life.”

The idea of being a dad didn’t interest me that much, but I was interested in finding more joy.

So on July 2, 2016, we had Betsy, and I thought it was going to be an immediate joy-fest, but it wasn’t. In fact, the first three months were hell, and the months after that were sort of like purgatory.

When people would say, “How is Betsy?” or “How do you like being a dad?,” I had a stock answer: “It’s hard and I am tired.”

Then one day recently, I was taking care of Betsy, and we were in the living room rolling the green rubber ball on the brown coffee table. She was laughing and having a good time hiding the ball under the table and shrugging her shoulders like, “I don’t know where it went?”

My wife, Lauren, comes downstairs and she looks at both of us playing on the floor. And she says: “She brings you joy.”

“What are you talking about?” I say.

“Betsy. She brings you joy. I can see it on your face,” Lauren says, like she caught me in lie. “This whole ‘It’s hard-d-d, I am tired-d-d.’ (Lauren’s imitation of me). It’s your schtick. You tell people you are miserable, but you aren’t. You really enjoy her.”

I hated hearing that because it was true. My wife left out another part, and that is that sometimes when I am enjoying myself I don’t even know it until someone like her points it out to me.

It’s like when I’m at party and someone throws out the idea of playing a board game, and I say, “No, I hate board games.” Then I force myself to play Scrabble and when it’s over, I am like, “That was fun. Really fun, like, I am surprised.” Like a child might say.

Before having a child of my own, I wouldn’t say I hated kids, but it was close. I would say I tolerated them, which is pretty much how I feel about myself. Now, when I hear a screaming kid in a restaurant it reminds me of Betsy. I love watching her get excited on Thursday mornings when the garbage truck pulls into the alley and she starts to point and scream with excitement. She sits on my lap riveted until it picks up everyone’s garbage and then she waves goodbye to the truck like she’s the Pope with one stiff hand as it leaves. We repeat the whole cycle again the next morning with the recycling truck.

And I love at night when I’m holding her in my arms and rocking her thinking, “How safe and secure you must feel right now,” as she closes her tiny little eyes and goes to sleep.

In these moments I feel pure joy, and I feel happy and sad that this will not last, that she will outgrow these simple things, that there will be a time when she will not fit in my arms or like playing with the empty La Criox can for half an hour.

Since having a kid the world seems a lot more scary to me, but it also seems a lot more fun and I have a lot more gratitude.

When Lauren was pregnant with Betsy, some people loved to give me unsolicited advice. The one thing that they would say was, “You are going to learn more from them than they will from you.” And even though I did not like to hear it at the time, they were right.

And yes, it is hard, and yes, I am still tired, but Betsy has given me permission to have more joy in my life, which can only make me a better person, father and improv teacher.

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My greatest birthday gift

Friday is my birthday. I will be 53 years old. In improv, that makes me ancient. Each year I have the same birthday ritual: I go into a major depression. It usually stems from thinking about how I wish I was more successful, more famous, and have more money — like my friends that I started out with back in the ’90s do. It then ends up with me getting pissed off at God, yelling at him with a fist clenched to the sky saying, “Why haven’t I made it yet?” This is annual ritual is designed to make me feel crappy about myself, and so far it has never let me down.

But this year is different.

Yes, I still want all those things my friends have, but the desire isn’t as burning. I don’t feel as desperate. I think the one thing the podcast has taught me is that no amount of success will take away my low self-esteem, self-loathing and self-hatred. That is separate work from my art.

There’s no question that improv comedy has given me a way to express myself, but somewhere along the line I misused it as a way to validate myself. That is always dangerous, because you cannot fix your insides with something outside of yourself. Success, fame and money can’t fill that gaping whole inside me; it’s not possible.

Lately I feel more gratitude for the things I do have. Especially my family — my wife, Lauren; my daughter, Betsy; and my cat, Coco — and all the people around us who have given us so much love and support.

If you’ve been reading this blog on a somewhat regular basis, you have noticed that my own personal forecast has gone from cloudy with a chance of thunder to partly sunny. I owe that to my little joy machine, my daughter Betsy Jane. People say kids will change you, and after ten months, I am realizing they are right, and I am looking forward to even more changes in myself. Being a parent is the hardest, most demanding, most rewarding thing I have ever done. I still question our choice of having a kid, now more than ever since she has started to crawl and it’s hard to keep up with her at 53.

When I look back at my tiny little career, the things that I am the proudest of are the things I either created or were a part of that were built from scratch. I don’t why, but they have always been the most fulfilling and rewarding. I think about my first one man show, “I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies,” or being part of Jazz Freddy, or starting the podcast Improv Nerd. All things created out of thin air, and now Betsy is on the list. She is my best creation yet.

So, happy birthday to Betsy’s father. She is the greatest gift he could have ever gotten.

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