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Just Good Enough

“Perfect is the enemy of good.” — Voltaire

For most artists, creating is the fun part. The problem comes when they want to get their work out in the world. They have been bitching and moaning that they’re nobody recognize their art for years, but when they have the chance to put themselves out there, they fold. They hide under the covers, they don’t return e-mails or phone calls. Since they are clever people, they come up with clever excuses like, “I am not ready,” “People are born with talent, and I don’t have it,” or “I am going to make a fool myself.” These are lies, and not even original ones at that and they’re coming directly from Perfectionism, which, as we all know, is a big fat liar.

Let’s address these lies one at a time:

  1. “I am not ready”
    I have said this my whole career, especially when faced with a new opportunity. And guess what? When I have pushed myself to do the thing I am terrified of doing, 85% of the time I am pretty good at the thing I thought I wasn’t ready for, and when it is over, I can’t tell you how proud I feel that I followed the fear did it anyway.
  2. “People are born with talent, and I don’t have it”
    Everyone’s talent has to be developed. I started out in the Chicago comedy scene back in the ’90s and I saw a lot of people make it big. The people who made it certainly had talent, but they didn’t just have talent. They keep pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. Stephen Colbert was one of those people who was at Second City around the time I was at iO. And Colbert said he learned a very important lesson from his director, Jeff Michelski: “You have to learn to ‘love the bomb.’ It took me a long time to really understand what that meant. It wasn’t, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t, ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing…”  Though Colbert was talented, he realized he still had ways to go in developing it.
  3. “I am going to make fool of myself”
    What does that really mean? Are you going to feel silly or feel embarrassed by putting yourself out there? The answer is yes. But really, this feeling is all in your head, because people really aren’t thinking about you as much you think. When I started out in improv, I really sucked at it. For years I sucked at it. When my friends and family would come to my awful shows, and they were awful, in the back of a seedy bar, they never criticized me. Actually, it was the opposite. They always admired me for doing it, even though I wasn’t very good. Who feels silly now?

There is no such thing as perfect, ever.

I’m not saying cut corners and just throw some half-baked idea out there, but on the other hand, don’t wait until every fucking star aligns, you’re at your perfect weight, and both of your parents are dead to show your work to the public.

So many artists have dreams of making it big, but they wait and wait and wait so long to actually write that screenplay, finish that book, film that pilot, etc. that they never actually do it. And the reason they’re waiting to do it is because they want it to be perfect.

Some artists actually wear perfectionism like a badge of honor. They like to talk about what they are working on more than they like showing it to the world. That’s fine, but I’m not sure this makes you an artist.

The reality is there is never a perfect time or a perfect theater or a perfect publisher… or a perfect agent. You get where I’m going with this? You will hate me for saying this, but I have performed thousands of scripted and improvised shows for more than 30 years and I have never, ever done a perfect performance. Why? Because like the Loch Ness Monster, it does not exists.

I have not written a blog, including this one, that I have not wanted to make changes to after it was published. I have never done an improv show that when it over and I didn’t wish I had made different choices. I have not performed a story on stage that I didn’t think could have gotten stronger laughs. I have done tons of incredible performances, gotten great reviews, standing ovations and performed to sold-out crowds, but even those shows had flaws. They were not perfect. This can either drive you crazy or keep you humble. Most of the time, it keeps me humble.

If you have been taking acting, improv, sketch, stand up, or storytelling classes for years, at some point you are going to need to get out there in front of an audience and risk the chance that you are not going to be perfect, and maybe even awful.

If you have been slaving away for decades writing a play, a book, or a film/TV script, at some point you are going to have show it to someone who actually could do something with it like produce it or publish it or at the very least represent you. And yes, when you show it to one of those people, you take the risk that you’ll be flat-out rejected, but you also take the chance that they can help you get it out to the world.

And when you do get rejected or get horrible review or you bomb, and hopefully you will, Perfectionism will tell you this is the end of the line. Quit now. That is what Perfectionism wants. It would actually prefer that you don’t even start in the first place, and it’s pissed off that you’ve gotten this far. If this sounds painful, it is, and if you haven’t experienced this, then you haven’t put yourself out there. Perfect is not a goal; it’s a suicide attempt. Aiming for “Just Good Enough” is realistic and practical, and speaking from experience, every time I put any of my art out in the world, even when it’s just good enough, it always comes back a little closer to perfect.

Are you a storyteller who would like to get more laughs? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Finding the Funny in Your Story Online Storytelling Workshop on Nov. 21!

Why It’s OK to Fail in Improv

Our goal as artists is to evolve, and the best way to do that is to constantly challenge our way of thinking and our approach. One way effective way to do that is by reading books about improv. The goods ones, and there are a lot of them out there, make you look at things differently.

Rich Baker has written a new book called Improv Made Easier. Rich is a very accomplished improviser and teacher who spent years working in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles. His book is practical and is written in an easy-to-follow style. It is filled with some great tips and exercises to help you become a better improviser. (I even tried one of his tips this weekend).

At the beginning of his book, he talks about the importance of failing in improv. Reading it made me feel better about some of recent failures I’ve had and it helped put things in perspective for me. That is inspiration.

Rich was kind enough to let us run the excerpt on failing from the book as a guest blog. I hope you find it as inspirational as I did.

* * *

One of the most important phrases I say as a teacher that I want you to understand before you go any further in this book is “dare to fail.”

I repeat this to my students over and over again. Sometimes I’ll say it twenty times or more in a three-hour class. I’ll say it as many times as I need to remind you that it’s okay to fail. I dare you to fail in front of me. I dare you to fail in front of your classmates. I dare you to fail again and again. I sincerely want you to fail… really.

Why?

Because that’s how you learn.

Many people fear failure. I certainly did. There was a time I felt awful the rest of the class — sometimes the rest of the day or even the rest of the week — when I bombed a scene in front of my teacher and classmates. I remember questioning whether or not I should continue even being an improviser after a bad scene or a bad show. Thankfully I didn’t quit, but I sure could have benefitted from a different perspective on failure.

Now I see failure much differently. I’ve learned that everyone fails. Inventors, writers, politicians, lawyers, athletes, actors and just about every other profession that relies on mastering a set of skills requires failure. Those failures are necessary parts of the process.

The first Harry Potter novel was rejected by twelve publishers before it went on to be one of the biggest pop culture phenomenon in modern times. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team before eventually becoming the best that ever played the game. Just about everyone who was ever great at anything had to fail hundreds or even thousands of times before finding success.

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” — Brené Brown

I need you to redefine the word “fail” in your vocabulary. Failure is not only necessary, but it’s also awesome. It’s a sign that you’re trying and learning. You must fail before you will succeed. You are going to be awkward on stage sometimes. You’ll occasionally (if not often) find yourself in boring, awful scenes. Don’t feel bad about that at all. Embrace it. Love it. It’s a great thing.

Think of every time you get up to improvise as a step forward and remember the Chinese proverb “even the longest journey begins with a single step.” Learning improv is a journey. Many of the steps you take a long the way, especially in the beginning of your journey, are going to be failures. Great. Celebrate those steps. Learn from them. It’s still a step forward.

The more scenes you do, the more you have a chance to learn and grow in the art form.

I probably improvised five thousand scenes before I got to the point where I was consistently good. The number is arbitrary, but just know that there is a number of scenes you will have to get through in order to become good. Some of those scenes will be good, but most likely a large number of them will be awful. Embrace every awful scene and learn from them as you go.

In fact, the mantra “dare to fail” helped me write this book. When I didn’t know how to write something, I just dared to write the worst thing I could. And that got me to writing even when I felt stuck. You might think that since I repeat this so much as a teacher that I wouldn’t need to be reminded, but the truth is, I need constant reminders. The fear of failure was prevalent in my life for so long that if I don’t keep reminding myself I will default back to my old mindset on this. So, there’s no shame in repeating it over and over and over.

It’s one of those lessons that is both incredibly helpful and versatile, but also very simple which in turns makes it easy to forget. That’s why I’ve repeated it so many times and will continue to do so.

I dare you, Improviser, to adopt this phrase as a regular part of your mindset from now on: Dare to fail!

Excerpt from Improv Made Easier, by Rich Baker
Available now on Amazon
$16

To Be Great, You Have to Be Bad First

I have been performing since I was in my 20s. And when I started out, I wish to God someone would have told me that to get good at improv, you’re going to have to get comfortable being bad at it for a while – in public – before you can master it.

There are no short cuts.

I don’t care how funny you were in high school or college or how talented you are or that you are a natural.

Unfortunately, the only way to really learn how to do improv is to do it in front of an audience on a regular basis when you are not very good. This is still the most painful part of the process for me.

Talk about being vulnerable. Talk about being exposed.

This was torture for a perfectionist.

I went through this recently when I put up my one-person show, “World’s Greatest Dad.”

Each week the show was not where I wanted it be, and I was torturing myself because I knew the show wasn’t as good as it could have been, but there was no way to make it better without putting it up on the stage.

But each week the audience came in and enjoyed it anyway. The only person who was not enjoying it was the guy on the stage because I had expectations that I would be awesome on the first night.

I also knew the only way to get the show to where I wanted it to be was to do it in front of an audience on a regular basis and listen and learn what the audience likes and doesn’t like. Let them help me find the story.

As long as I have been performing, I still don’t like this part of the process. Who wants to go out in front of an audience and suck? But the only way to avoid this part of the process is to quit. And at this point, I am not interested in that. I’m glad that I walked through the shame of the first few shows, because by the time I got to the last few, I finally felt like I had shaped the show into something I could truly be proud of.

Want to get some tips on how to get better at improv faster? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensive happening Aug. 10-11! Only a few spots left!

Prepare to Fail

If there is one thing that is certain in improv, it’s that you are going to fail. Hopefully, you will continue to fail throughout your career, because in improv, if you don’t give up, that failure eventually turns into success. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, you cannot have one with other. Unfortunately, that’s how it works in the arts.

For us to fail on a regular basis we must take risks. Most of us avoid taking risks because we are sacred that we will look stupid or be rejected, which in our minds computes to failure. So we live our lives protecting ourselves from any form of rejection. We play it safe.

That is why we would rather send an email than pick up the phone. It’s why we hide behind Facebook and Twitter instead of talking to people in person. It’s why we don’t ask that person out on date. When we avoid taking risks, we are not living a life — we are in damage control.

But what if you could look at it a little differently? What if you could take a risk and actually embrace failing?

Because I’ve improvising for a long time, I’ve gotten pretty good at taking risks, both in the classroom as a teacher and on stage as a performer. Taking risks has become part of my DNA. But even though I’ve taken risks, I was never really comfortable with failing. Anytime I took a risk that didn’t turn out well, I’d beat myself up about it. Until two weeks ago.

On Super Bowl Sunday, John Hildreth and I trudged out in the cold Chicago weather to do our show to a very appreciative audience. We were joined by three great, old-school improvisers: Pat Musker, Scott Levy and Mark Czoske.

The first scene turned into a musical improv, which I am not very good at it and I sucked. My song did not make any sense, I had no idea what I was singing or saying. Thank God for the rest of the cast.

For me, improvising a song is an enormous risk, one I typically avoid. And this risk really ended in a bomb. But the miracle is that I wasn’t upset at myself that I failed. In fact, for one of the first times in my life, I was simply proud of myself for having taken a risk.

When the scene was over, I thought to myself, “Good! I took a risk and failed, and now I have an even better chance of succeeding tonight.” Who was this guy? Where was the perfectionist ready to beat me up for making myself look so stupid?

I don’t know, but he wasn’t in the theater, that’s for sure.

Neither was the guy who usually has to over compensate for a bad start and puts pressure on himself to make up for his “so called” mistake.

Or the guy who is so filled with shame after a mistake that he stays stuck in the back line until the show is over.

Taking the risk at the top of the show had forced me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to do characters and play with energies I hadn’t before with the support of these really great improvisers. I felt free. The show was a blast. Was that the only so-called mistake I made? No way, I made plenty more. In one scene, I entered in accidentally and didn’t know if they wanted me to stay or go, so I was a bit lost and felt I might have screwed them up.

Regardless, I felt great after the show. I learned a lot that night. A.) That there is no such thing as a perfect show. Sure, we can shoot for it, but it does not exists. And B.) That even when you have a great show, there a lot of things you wish you had done differently.

I think the problem we all have in taking risks is that if it does not pay off immediately, we think we did something wrong. We then stop taking them on stage and even worse in life.

But what if we gave ourselves credit for just taking the freaking risk and trust that we will be rewarded later, just like in this show?

It’s really sad to think about all of the risks that I avoided taking throughout my career — like turning down an audition for Saturday Night Live, saying no to a TV writing job, or leaving or closing successful shows too soon — all because I was afraid of rejection. (My therapist may argue I was afraid of success).

I don’t feel regret that I didn’t get those things, but I do feel regret for not having the courage to experience failure, because the Universe always rewards you for taking a risk. Sometimes you are rewarded directly, and sometimes indirectly, but there is always a reward.

But the truth is, I did not see that until this last show. So now hopefully, I can pass this lesson down to my students, to my daughter and now to you.

Looking to take your improv to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Feb. 28! (You don’t need to have taken Level 1 to take this class). Early Bird pricing ends Feb. 14!

How bombing made me a better improviser

We recently held a little contest to win a free spot in my upcoming workshop. We asked improvisers to tell us about a time that they had bombed, and what they learned from it.

Like every improviser, I’ve had more than my share of shows where I have bombed.

I have not only bombed on stage, but in all aspects of my life. In my improv, in auditions, in my teaching, in interviewing people for the podcast, in actual paying gigs. Bombing is never pleasant. But unfortunately, if we try to avoid it, it only makes things worse. No one wants to bomb, but to get good at anything you need to have “bombed” many times over. The arts suck that way. Some people will learn from it. Others will use it as an excuse to quit. It’s up to you. The thing I’ve learned about bombing is that it never goes away. You just start to experience it differently.  The longer you try at something, the higher the level of your bombing.

We got so many great submissions for this contest. The stories of bombing you shared with us were all too relatable! But Daniel Anderson’s (ultimately positive) experience with bombing took the cake, and also won the contest.

“The Flower Shop Bangers were having their third show together. We really felt we had good chemistry and so we were filming this submission. The show had mixed reviews among our cast. I felt the show was awkward, another person really enjoyed it, and I don’t remember the third guy’s opinion. Well, we posted the video on YouTube and shared it on Facebook.

“I then woke up one morning to find our video was getting comments… lots of comments. I was trying to figure out how this happened, and I noticed that one of them said, ‘You always comment on /r/cringe videos.’ At that moment, I knew that our video had been posted to the cringe section on reddit.

“I shared it with my team. We agreed that it was pretty cowardly for someone to anonymously post this on the Internet, and it is not helpful when trying to foster a supportive community. We made a pact to take this as constructive criticism. Since this experience of ‘free coaching,’ we have been committing ourselves to making more relationship-based choices. Two of us are still in Chicago today and still perform as the Flower Shop Bangers on a regular basis.”

Daniel turned a “bombed” performance into a real learning experience, and handled the criticism of strangers with grace. Thanks to Daniel for sharing your experience and congrats on winning the workshop contest. And thanks to everyone brave enough to submit their stories. I hope we all keep bombing our way up the ladder.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for the Art of Sow Comedy Level 1: (Fun)damentals now. The early-bird discount ends Aug. 31st and spots are limited, so hurry!