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Embracing Virtual Improv Classes

It is an understatement to say things have changed in the world, and improv is no exception. For the time being we cannot safely meet in person to do shows, hold rehearsals or attend classes. All the performing arts are in limbo.

Some improvisers have moved fast, and have already started doing online classes, rehearsals and even shows, using Zoom, which is a video conferencing service.

When I heard this, I was skeptical. I was resistant. Just ask my wife Lauren.

I would rather walk around filled with gloom and doom than take action. (Side note: I don’t like change. And there’s enough change going on in the world that I could not accept another one).

I wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid this whole virtual class thing, but I knew I needed to at least look into it.

So, I started calling my friends who were already doing what I thought was impossible — teaching improv online. Kevin Reome, who teaches at Second City, spent over an hour on the phone going over his lesson plan with me, and reassuring me that doing improv online was actually fun.

Then a couple of days later, Noah Gregoropoulos e-mailed me asking me if I would like to improv on Zoom with another old friend of mine, David Koechner.

Noah was going to teach his improv class online for DePaul University and wanted to get comfortable with the technology and record some scenes to show his class. Then Thursday at 5 p.m., Noah, Dave and I all met on Zoom.

It was a reunion — an unexpected benefit from the virus. The three of us go way back to late ’80s in Chicago, where we did lots of shows together, drank too much together and hung around in coffee shops eating omelets and burnt toast after we drank too much together. We were young and arrogant, and for someone who never went away to college, this was my college and Dave and Noah were my fraternity brothers. I loved them.

The three of us met on Zoom and Dave and I did a couple of scenes.

It was like a Zoom time-machine for us. It took me back to the first time I had meet Dave and worked with him in one of Del’s classes above a Swedish restaurant on Belmont Ave. The first day we met, we played two guys looking at the sun. I cannot remember the details of the scene, except that it was magical, and we both got laughs after each line, and more importantly, Del’s approval.

In the session with Noah, Dave and I did a scene where he played an artist and I was security guard at the art gallery. Even over this video conferencing where there is slight delay, our chemistry and rhythm was back. We had to listen a little harder, which is not a bad thing for an improviser. When I saw the quality of work that can be done on Zoom, I thought, “I can do this! It will not replace doing live shows or live classes, but it’s great alternative right now.” It made me excited.

On Monday, I taught my first online improv class to a group of very experienced improvisers, and I was impressed at how agile they were with the technology and how quickly they were able to adapt to the new medium. Their scene work was outstanding.

When the class ended, a couple people mentioned that they had been skeptical, too, but were really pleased with how it went. And one person said, “I even forgot about what is going on in the world.”

Even in our isolation, we need connection. We need distraction. We need to express ourselves even more than we usually do to reduce our stress and calm our fears. I cannot speak for my class, but I know that is what doing improv online did for me.

Today, more than ever, I have gratitude for the long-lasting friendships I have made in the improv and can say that up until now I have taken them for granted. Maybe that is one of the gifts we will get from this whole paramedic situation — new priorities of what is really important. But, just like predicting when the virus will end, it’s too early to tell.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading this blog.

Are you a storyteller who wants to make your stories even funnier? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Virtual Storytelling Workshop on April 18! Sign up today!

Happy 60th Birthday, Second City!

The Second City in Chicago turned 60 this week. Though I was never on the Main Stage or even in the touring company, Second City has always had a special place in my heart. I taught at the training center, worked in the business theater and have done plenty of shows there. And the best part of my time there has been all of the friends I have made, going all the way back to when I first started taking classes there back in the ’80s.

Although Second City has expanded and changed a lot recently, especially in the last five years, it’s still an amazing institution. So in honor of Second City’s 60th birthday, here are my top eight memories from Second City.

  1. Improv Nerd with Rachel Dratch in The Main Stage
    I recorded this live version of Improv Nerd in front of a sold out crowd in the Main Stage. I joked at the top of the show that “I always dreamed of being on Main Stage; I just didn’t think it would only last an hour.” Rachel gave an honest and hilarious interview, and it was so easy and such a joy to improvise a scene with her again. When Rachel was on the Main Stage in ’90s, she was beloved, and after that show, you could see why.
  2. “God Show”
    I loved being part of “God Show,” a beautiful and funny story that Tim O’Malley wrote about his life. It had the feel of a Second City revue. It was directed by Norm Holly, and I loved working with him and the talented cast, which included Michael Gellman, who was returning to performing. I did two runs of the shows on Tuesday nights at the ETC and we sold out immediately and always got standing ovations.One of the high points of the show for me was the number of characters I got to play. I had always been someone who had resisted playing characters, and it was fun to not only challenge myself to do them, but also to succeed. And I loved playing one of my favorite improv teachers, Martin DeMaat, in the show.
  3. The People
    It doesn’t matter if you are an alumni of the Training Center or a teacher there or you worked in the box office – there is something about working in that building that connects people forever. It was such a fun place to work. Some of the best times I had were when I would be talking to people near the front bar or chatting with Joyce Sloan in her office about the Cubs or politics. When two or more people gather who have worked at Second City, it’s very rare that it’s not brought up and/or gossiped about.
  4. Teaching at The Training Center
    I first started teaching improv at the Annoyance and iO and didn’t start teaching at Second City until I was in my mid-30s. It was really exciting to be teaching there because they had just built new classrooms and the faculty included some of the most respected teachers in the country at the time. I got a lot of help and mentoring there, which made me a better teacher, and most importantly, I felt like I was part of a community. I saw Nick Johne the other day, and he reminded me of a very found memory when Michael Gellman, Nick and I would go eat at Boston Market together on the day we taught and talk about improv.
  5. The Community
    The one complaint I hear people say about the place is that “it used to be a like a family,” and today it’s more corporate. I think there is something to that, but I think the sense of community is still there. I have attended several memorial services over the last decade at The Second City, and I have to say, it’s such a touching thing to witness people coming together, and I always leave proud to be part of the community.
  6. Business Theater
    The early to mid-’90s was a hard time in my life when all of my friends were getting hired to be part of Second City’s touring company or were getting cast in the resident companies. I was jealous and scared. Then Dave Koechner put in a good word in for me, and I got hired to be part of Second City’s Business Theater, where I did shows and taught improv workshops for corporations. Joe Keefe, Scott Altman and Mark Belden took me under me under their wing and showed me the ropes and taught me a lot. I was raw and very unprofessional, and a bit arrogant at the time, and I made a lot of mistakes, but they had patience and faith in me. I was fortunate to do a lot of fun projects, and I had the opportunity to travel and make some good money, which was especially nice for an improviser who had been doing shows for free.
  7. “Living in a Dwarf’s House” and “World’s Greatest Dad”
    I have been lucky enough to put up two one-person shows at Second City — 18 years apart. The first was “Living in a Dwarf’s House,” and the second was “World’s Greatest Dad(?),” which I just put up this year for two separate runs in Judy’s Beat Lounge. Both shows did extremely well critically and had great audiences. So why don’t I do one every year?
  8. Second City’s 50th Anniversary Party
    Ten years ago when Second City was celebrating their half-century anniversary, they had a big party and all the famous alumni came in. I was teaching there at the time and did not want to go the party because I felt slighted by Second City and because I felt shame that I wasn’t famous. Again, Koechner helped me out. He invited me and my then-girlfriend, Lauren, and a bunch of other people out to dinner beforehand and made me go the party. The non-famous people out-numbered the famous people there, and everyone I saw was so happy to see me. I am so glad I went.

158: Rejection

Jimmy explores the process of rejection in comedy with guests Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer from Broad City, David Koechner, Dan Harmon, Colbert writer Brian Stack, and more.