Posts

Going Outside of Improv To Get Better At Improv

Lately, I have been trying my hand at stand-up and storytelling, doing some open mics around the city. So far, the results have been mixed, but where I am starting to see it pay off is in my improv.

Doing things outside of improv only makes you a better improviser. A lot of times I think that when I’m in a rut or have had a series of bad improv shows, the answer is to force a solution and just work harder. But the truth is, more improv doesn’t necessarily make me better. Sometimes it makes it worse. That is when I need to go out and do something that brings me joy so I won’t put so much pressure on myself when I’m doing improv.

I need to remember that it’s important to be filled up creatively, not only for my improv, but also for my teaching, and if you ask my wife, my life. Yes, I am easier to be around when I am creatively fulfilled. Having another creative outlet gives me more to give to my classes, to my scene partners on stage and to the audience, as well.

For me, I feel creatively fulfilled when I’m expressing myself, and sometimes improv can do that for me and sometimes it can’t. Any art form has its limits, and I get in trouble when I think I can get all of my needs met in one place. That is when I get stuck and frustrated.

That is what was starting to happen. Most of the time when I was doing a live version of Improv Nerd, I was making it life or death. I was putting way too much pressure on myself – all because I wasn’t allowing myself to have enough fun in the rest of my life. My whole life was serious, so my improv became serious, too.

Then this summer, I decided to take a stand-up class at the Lincoln Lodge. I spent time writing my set and perfecting my delivery. This led me to doing a few storytelling events at The Abbey Pub, Louder Than a Mom, and Surprise Party. And suddenly, out of nowhere, improv started to feel fun again, and isn’t that the point of all of this stuff anyway?

This past Sunday I had one of the best times I’ve had at an Improv Nerd show in a long time. Then after the show, I had to drive to Second City to celebrate the third year anniversary of a little improv show called “Jimmy and Johnny” that I do with the super talented John Hildreth. Each month we ask a special guest to join us to improvise. Our guest this time was one of my favorite people to improvise of all time: Susan Messing. We have known each other for more than 25 years and I love her. Of course, those two were great as always, and even though I thought I was a bit off, I had a blast working with them.

I actually came home that night feeling invigorated and, dare I admit it, happy. (No, not a typo or misprint. You read it right, happy.) That was the direct effect of me finding a way to fill my need for creativity outside of improv. Now, I just have to keep remembering it.

Don’t forget to get a copy of Jimmy’s new book, The Inner Game of Improv! Now available as a PDF or for Kindle at Amazon.

Lost in Creation

Sometimes in one of my improv classes, a student will say after doing a great scene with a strong character, “I felt lost. I did not know where the scene was going.”

“Good,” I will say in an ironic way. “Stay lost. It’s working for you.”

In our creative process, it’s a good thing to be lost. It means we are learning something new, and it’s right where we need to be. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and painful, but both can be great motivators. The creative process is not a straight line from point A to point B. We are attempting to make art, and sometimes we need to be lost, not knowing what the hell we are doing or why we are doing it. That is incredibly messy and hard to explain, not only to ourselves, but also to others.

It’s much more comfortable when life is predictable, but predictable and art don’t go together.

It’s kind of like if you were a sculptor and were making something out of clay, you need to get in there and get your hands dirty, molding the clay until it takes a shape. At first it just looks like a blob, and you wonder if it’s going to turn into anything, but eventually you reach a point where you stop and call it art.

Recently, I’ve been going through a similar process. For a couple of months, I had been posting on my personal Facebook page like it was my full-time job. I was posting 15 to 30 times a day, sometimes more, jamming up people’s news feeds. Whenever I had a thought, I put it on Facebook. If I had sex, I put it on Facebook. If I hated myself that day, it was on Facebook. Loneliness? Facebook. I had found a character, and I loved writing in that voice. I felt freedom. I felt I was becoming a better writer. I was enjoying it.

Some people liked what I was posting and others hated it. I was polarizing. At the same time, I was starting to feel resentment that I was working so hard and not getting paid. I was hitting a wall or hitting rock bottom, depending on how you looked at it.

I brought it up to my crazy shrink in group therapy. He suggested I stop writing on Facebook, and instead write the posts down in a spiral-bound notebook and save them for another one-man show, because at least then I could make some money off of them.

I got off Facebook that night, and since I didn’t have the instant gratification of an audience, my writing seemed to stop altogether. I was bitter and angry, like I had lost my best friend. I was detoxing. Two weeks later I found my muse as I was on the L heading downtown. I quickly wrote 20 or so posts in my spiral-bound notebook and I brought them into the session and read them out loud. I read 15 or so, after hearing them, the crazy shrink had another crazy suggestion. He encouraged me to get two separate spiral-bound notebooks, one for my “ironic posts” and one for my “sarcastic posts.” What the hell…? (I have neither written any new posts or brought the notebook since then. By telling on myself in this blog, I am hoping that I will get the willingness to go out and start writing again).

For a few seconds, after the crazy shrink said his crazy idea, I felt some shame, thinking that posting like a mad man for the last few months was a waste of time and in the end it had caused more harm than good. I can’t tell you if I am ever going to write another one-man show again, but to me, that does not matter. Because when those six seconds of shame had lifted like a fever, I realized I needed every one of those Facebook posts to get to this point in my creative process.

I am still lost, scared and confused, but one thing is clear: I don’t where the hell this is going to lead me. All I know is I am totally lost in this new process, and it’s exactly where I need to be right now.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Spots are still available in his next Fundamentals of Improv Class starting June 28. Or, you can take his one-day Art of Slow Comedy Intensive on July 6. Sign up today!