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What I've Learned after 50 Episodes of Improv Nerd

What I’ve Learned After 50 Episodes of Improv Nerd

Next week we will be airing our 50th episode of Improv Nerd. It’s been less than two years since we started Improv Nerd, and recently I’ve been reflecting on how it all came about.

For more than ten years I was a contributor for WBEZ, a public radio station here in Chicago. I started out interviewing authors for their morning newscast, Eight Forty Eight, and then I got my own segment on the show called Studio 312, where I specialized in interviewing comedians and celebrities. I got to interview tons of comedy legends like Conan O’Brian, Shelley Berman, Harold Ramis, Adam McKay, Jeff Garlin, Tommy Chong, Robert Klein and, believe it or not, Cindy Crawford. The segment was popular, and I was doing something the station needed — making fun of public radio. I could tell by the response I’d get when I would run into a listener that I was doing something they really appreciated.

But after ten years, I wanted more exposure, a little more money, and most importantly, my own weekly radio show. It seemed only logical: I was already familiar with the station and popular with listeners. All we had to do was expand what we were already successfully doing to an hour-long show. So I set up a meeting with management.

I brought my friend Darryl, a former used car salesman, to act as my faux agent. We met in a windowless conference room and talked about the potential of making Studio 312 into a show. After several meetings, nothing came of it, nothing. I was devastated, and worse I was taking it personally. I was hurt, angry, disappointed, sad, and afraid my dreams of being the next Howard Stern were over. I would never be on the radio again, ever. I thought I had wasted all those years and achieved nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The problem was not WBEZ, it was thinking that WBEZ was the only way I could get a show.

As improvisers, we thrive on creating something from nothing. But sometimes we need to let go of the something we already have to create the nothing we need. Unfortunately, I work slowly, so it wasn’t until almost two years (and a lot of self-pity and self-hatred) later that I created Improv Nerd.

The idea was to create a live interview show that would be recorded for a podcast where I would interview legends of improv, then improvise and talk about what we just improvised. I would combine two things I was good at: interviewing people and improvising. As Jet Eveleth said to me the last time I gave her a ride home, “You are combining your passion with your passion.”

We put up the first season at Stage 773, and the hardest part was asking the guests. I think I wanted them to say no to being on the show more than I wanted them to say yes. I remember how terrified I was interviewing Dave Pasquesi and how much shame I felt asking Tim Meadows to be on the show.

We are now finishing our seventh season and have another season coming up in the fall. And people are listening. I’ve gotten emails from people as far away as Australia and Northern Ireland who’ve listened to the show. People who have asked for my autograph and invited me to come teach. People who have contacted me and told me that I’ve helped them.

I wish I could end this blog by saying I no longer want validation from famous institutions. I wish I could end by saying something like “This is a big world with lots of opportunities. I can shape my own destiny.” But that would not be entirely true. There is a part of me, a big part, who is still looking for someone else to validate me because I still don’t really value what I do. I still sometimes tell myself that Improv Nerd doesn’t matter, it’s just a silly podcast, and I’m not worth anything unless I am on a network sitcom or writing for Conan or co-staring in some big studio comedy this summer.

Yes, I am sad to say I am still waiting for my big break, some big name job that will help me finally start to feel like I’ve made it in comedy. And until that comes, the only advice I can give you is this: Continue to create, because I’ve found that nothing else makes the waiting more enjoyable.

Making a Commitment

Upright Citizens Brigade foundersMaking a Commitment to your Improv Group

Long-form improvisation has been booming in the last ten years, but for some reason, there still only seem to be a handful of improv groups that are truly great.

We all know them. We all inspire to be like them. Then why aren’t there more? The answer is simple. It’s the thing that is hardest to do in life, and even harder to do in a group, and that’s called commitment. I’ve seen it firsthand. I have performed in, directed, and watched good groups become great because of it, and I’ve seen groups with great potential die without it.

Back in the ’90s, there was a group here in Chicago called The Upright Citizens Brigade. You may have heard of them. It was made up of Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts. After a couple of years of success here in Chicago, the group decided to move to New York with a lot of raw talent, a vision and most importantly, a commitment to each other. (It has been rumored that Besser picked New York over LA so the group would not get cherry picked by talent agents and people in the biz.)

Years ago, I interviewed Matt Walsh on public radio and he told me that once they got to New York, the four of them would get together every year and make a commitment to the group for the following year. They didn’t just assume they had a commitment to each other; instead, they all sat down and said it out loud.

In the sometimes passive world of improvisation, that commitment paid off, leading to a TV series on Comedy Central and the creation of a theater and a training center in both New York and Los Angeles. Whether they knew it or not, they were creating something bigger than the four of them combined. Today, the UCB is one of the most respected institutions in comedy, and that came directly from commitment.

A little before the time the UCB left to go to New York, I was lucky enough to be part of a long-form group in Chicago called Jazz Freddy. Our show was ground breaking; we took long-form and turned it into theater. Sure, we had some talent and we had a vision to play a certain style, but what made our group great was our commitment to each other and to our process. We agreed that we were going to treat Jazz Freddy like getting cast in a play. We freed up our schedules to work only on the show. We rehearsed three times a week for six weeks, and if you had too many conflicts you were out of the cast.

Years later Dave Koechner, a member of the group, told me that he thought maybe we were a little too harsh with all of the commitment we demanded. I disagree. I think we put the process first and the personalities second, and because of it we became a cohesive group. People started to notice us. Some people in the cast who had been forgotten by Second City got hired off of our show, and we began to get respect.

In this sometimes lazy art form, improvers have to realize that great groups don’t just fall out of the sky. If you want to take your improv group from good to great, you must start by making a commitment to each other. Once that happens, watch out. The next thing you know people will be taking you seriously, and with that will come respect, admiration and influencing others.

Commitment can transcend talent, but sadly, most improvisers never even give it a try to find out.

Today, I know it may be unrealistic to have a group to commit to a year together without doing any other shows. Usually improvisers are afraid they’ll miss out on other performance opportunities that will come along. So what if you committed for a run of a show, really committed like you had been cast in a play? Spend eight weeks working with just one group, and then you are free to do as you please. What is the worst thing that could happen?

Maybe five years from now some young students will come up to you at a bar and say “I saw your show, and I went back to my group and said ‘Let’s do what they are doing!’” Would that be so bad?