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How a Bear Taught Me to Follow the Fun

I have learned in improv that if something is fun in a scene, do more of it.

I get that’s how it works in improv, but I’m not as good at applying that same concept in my own life.

But the other day, I was driving home from the grocery store with my two-and-half year old daughter, Betsy, and when I turned down the alley behind our house, I saw a gigantic tan stuffed teddy bear sitting by the dumpster. He looked so lonely leaning on the brick wall, so I said to Betsy, “Do you want him?”

Kind of a stupid question. What toddler would not want a brand new (looking) huge stuffed bear that was close to five feet tall?

This is where I would usually let my “real life” self get in the way of me following the fun. Practically, I was concerned about germs. Spiritually, I was concerned about the energy I was bringing in from the previous owners.

But for once, I put those thoughts out of my head and just decided to embrace the fun.

Even though no one else seemed to want him, I still felt a little self-conscious getting out of the car and squeezing him into the front passenger’s seat. I didn’t want my neighbors seeing me picking a toy out of the trash for my daughter. I mean, as an improv teacher, I have an image to uphold.

As I pulled into our garage, which is about 100 yards from the dumpster, I started to have doubts, as most parents would, that I didn’t do the right thing by picking up the bear. I didn’t know the circumstances about why this orphan bear had been left in the alley. I did like the idea that we were saving him, though.

Still unsure about my decision to bring this stuffed animal into our home, I told Betsy we could only keep him for two days. She agreed.

That night after she want to sleep, I moved him from the den to the garage, figuring if he did have some bad energy it would be contained to the garage.

The next day, Betsy and her nanny headed out to get bagels, and they put the bear in the car with them. By the time they got home, Betsy had named the bear Pete.

Soon, the bear was back up in our family room, making himself part of the family.

That night Betsy and I put a blanket on him and she wanted to scratch his back and sing him a song to put him to sleep, just like I do when I put her to sleep. I even added a voice to him that she seemed to really love.

The next morning I needed Pete’s help. Betsy was scared to go to preschool because she was going to have a substitute teacher, and I figured Pete could be a positive distraction for Betsy’s fear, so I told her to feed him breakfast (a chocolate Dunkin’ munchkin), and he came back in the car with us again.

As you can guess, we’ve now gone way past the two days that Pete was allowed to stay. I mean, how can you kick someone out who is earning his keep?

What has become clear to me is that I didn’t pick Pete out of the garbage for Betsy. I did it for me.

We are taught in improv to follow the fun, and if something is fun just keep doing more of it. Maybe I am starting to take my own advice. Thanks for the lesson, Pete. Stay as long as you like.

Starting to think about your summer? Make plans now to take one of Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives! Happening July 27-28 and Aug. 10-11. Sign up today!

Finding ways to have more fun

We are told all the time in improv just have fun up there and everything will take care of itself.

But what if you don’t have fun in your real life?

Well, then you are screwed.

I am speaking from experience.

I cannot give something away that I don’t have. And when I try to fake fun on stage or in life, I look and sound fakey.

So what do you do if you are miserable and your life sucks?

Well, I can tell you if you want to do better improv, the problem may be that you aren’t having enough fun in your life.

I should know. I have been doing extensive research on this topic for over 40 years, and I have not made any progress until the last couple of years since we had my daughter Betsy.

Now that she’s a little over 2-and-a-half, that kid is at the age when she’s all about play. Everything is about having fun.

She wants to play tipping me over.

She wants me to call her Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett’s character from the movie Annie) or Miss Hanna for short.

She wants to call me Daddy Warbucks (again from the movie Annie).

She wants her stuffed bear, Chloe, to not only change her stinky poopie, but look at it and smell it. (I have taught her she can’t touch or eat her stinky poopie, because that is what good dads do).

Brooms are guitars.

She makes up songs in the back of the car.

Everything is a game with no rules.

Everything is play.

What she is in life is what I would like to be on stage: She is free.

For me, I believe in the cliché, “Those who can’t, teach.” That takes nothing away from my teaching, I am great teacher who keeps getting better. But it is not lost on me that the reason I was attracted to improv in the first place is, unlike my daughter, I did not get to play as a kid. Yes, I am trying to get my childhood back and help others do the same. I just did it not think it would take being a father to get me there.

I’m not saying you have to have kids to have fun, but you do have to find ways to have fun in your life in order to bring fun to your improv. So, go bowling. Or plan a murder mystery party. Or sing in the car. Or use a British accent when you order your take-out. Just find a way to make yourself play, and you’ll be amazed how much more free you will feel  in your improv.

Want to get better at improv? Just have fun

The other night after an extremely fun Jimmy and Johnnie show, a former student who was in the audience came up to me and my wife, Lauren. I asked if he was still doing improv, and he said to me sheepishly, “Yeah. I have been improvising for six years now, and the problem is I don’t know if I am getting any better.”

Then Lauren jumped in asked him a question. “Are you still having fun?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Well,” Lauren said firmly, “If you are still having fun, that’s all that matters.”

Wish I had said that. Because she is right. It is that simple, it’s just not that easy.

The whole point of improv is to have fun. When we take our first improv class, we all fall in love with the freedom we feel in class, the ability to just let loose and be creative. We like it because we’re having fun.

Then somewhere along the line, it becomes competitive. We want to make it on a team, or get a part in a show, or we simply start comparing our progress with other people’s progress – “They do better characters, or make stronger choices” — the list can go on and on. We end up putting pressure on ourselves, which is the number one killer of improvisation.

One of the most common ways we put pressure on ourselves is by saying, “I have been doing improv for X number of years,” or “I went through all the levels at Bob’s Improv School.” When you say this kind of stuff, you usually think you should be farther along than you think you are, and without knowing it, you’re putting even more pressure on yourself.

When we put pressure on ourselves, we take the joy out of improvising. If you want to put pressure on yourself, you should become a high powered lawyer, not an improviser.

The problem is we are in a hurry to get better. Unfortunately, we don’t have control over when we get better. In fact, in my experience, it rarely happens on my time table. Actually, it works just the opposite: If you don’t care if you are getting better, you get better faster.

I have been doing Improv Nerd for over four years, and you know what? This last run of live shows, I finally felt I was getting better as an improviser. It only took 30 years, hundreds of shows and 165 episodes of Improv Nerd for me to feel this way.

How did this happen? Because, I stopped caring if I was going to do a good show or not. I stop worrying if I was getting better. Letting go of those things gave me more room to have fun, which is the true goal in improv. And guess what? When I started putting my focus on having fun instead of being good, I got better without even trying.

So, please, for me, let go of the idea of getting better. Right now, assume you are getting better and that you don’t need to worry about it, ever. And remember, I am a slow learner and this took my over 30 years to learn. I just hope it happens faster for you than it did for me. In the meantime, just have fun.

Want to have more fun doing two-person scenes? Sign up for Jimmy’s one-day Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on Jan. 2! Only $79.

Learning how to play

You would think as an improviser I would like to play in my everyday life. You would think I would at least know how to have fun and be silly.

I am sorry to disappoint, but I don’t. A couple of weekends ago it became very clear that this might be becoming a problem.

On Saturday afternoon, my wife asked me if I would play with our cat Coco or Moosh-Poosh or whatever name we came up for her that week. I agreed so I would not be accused of not playing with the cat. I really don’t see the point of playing with a cat, now that she is no longer a kitten. It does not surprise me that Lauren is afraid that if we are ever lucky enough to have kids that I won’t want to play with our kids. This is real fear of mine as well. Playing is not in my DNA.

So with Lauren watching I threw a string of plastic gold beads on the hardwood floor so Coco could chase them. It was the most excruciating four minutes of my life.

Then on Sunday, Lauren wanted me to do something with her.

Lauren: Do you want to go on a walk to the park and throw the Frisbee?
Me: (long pause)
Lauren: Come on, it will be fun.
Me: (longer pause)
Lauren: It’s beautiful out.
Me: (longest pause….) Oh, ok.

I did not want to go. This is not my definition of fun. Fun for me is anything I can do while I am horizontal. Taking a nap, sitting by the pool, getting an MRI. If I am laying down, chances are I am having a good time, and if I can incorporate reading into the activity, I am in heaven.

So, Lauren dragged my sorry ass to the park where we started to throw the Frisbee to each other. I say it was a Frisbee, but it was not a real one. It was a promotional one that you get at a bank, which we all know don’t throw as well as real ones. Anyway, we start to toss it around, and all I keep thinking is, “When is this going to be over?”

Most people lose time when then do something that they enjoy. When I am doing something that I enjoy, I am usually checking the time, counting the minutes until it will be done. It does not matter if I am at a movie, on vacation, or having sex. The best part for me is when it’s over. For me, it’s hard to hold onto joy because I don’t believe it will last, so I’d rather avoid having any joy at all.

After 10 minutes of playing catch with the wobbly promotional Frisbee, Lauren says my favorite expression: “OK, that’s enough, let’s go.”

I’m not going to lie. I was grateful to go home into the air conditioning. But I was also grateful that I have someone like Lauren in my life who forces me to have fun and experience joy, because I clearly don’t know how to have it on my own.

10 Tips for Good Long-Form

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

As another one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv class prepares to do a long-form performance at The Upstairs Gallery in Chicago this Saturday, I want to share with you some good reminders on what you need to make a long-form work.

1. Have Fun — When you play with Susan Messing in her long-running show, “Messing With a Friend” at The Annoyance Theater, she says “If you are not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Nobody is getting rich off improv. We do it because we love to, so bring the joy, bring the fun, bring the love on stage. If you do, you will surely NOT become the asshole.

2. Use Variety — This is huge in doing good long-form. With longer scenes, you don’t want the audience to get bored, so make sure there is variety in your piece. You can accomplish this by using different energies, different numbers of people in your scenes, different styles or genres. If the group has just done a slow, two-person relationship scene about a couple breaking up, the next scene needs to have a different energy. If you are doing a series of two-person scenes, break it up with a group or a three-person scene. If you are playing a real and grounded scene with a lot of emotions, in the next scene should can play some silly, big characters or do a genre scene, just to mix things up a bit.

3. Name Your Characters — Naming is specific, easy, and can help you discover your character. It is also the simplest way to call a character back later in the piece. All you have to do is say their name and your partner will already know who you are to each other.

4. Focus on Editing — Editing is such an important skill and it can make or break a long form. Edit on the laugh. If you don’t get a laugh, look for the scene to come full circle or some other conclusion. Great editing is a balancing act. You don’t want to leave the other players out there way too long and you don’t want to step on a good scene with clumsy editing.

5. A Form is Only as Strong as the Scene Work — I believe Jason Chin said this: “The form is for the players, and the scene work is for the audience.” It’s true. Form is never a good substitute for good scene work. Scene work is the foundation that any form can be built on. If you are struggling with doing solid scene work, simplify your form until you get back on track. Put scene work first and everything will follow.

6. Don’t Overdo the Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting – These elements are a spice, not the main course. Too much will over power the main dish and provide no substance.You will leave you and your audience hungry. When using Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting, pay attention to overall rhythm of the piece. If we just saw a series of Tag Outs, unless it specific to that particular form, wait to use them until later in the piece.

7. Walk On For a Good Reason – When you walk into a scene, ask yourself, what are you adding to it? Are you going out there because you have been hanging back and this is a safe way to go out there? Is this an opportunity to get a laugh at your team’s expense? You need to be adding information, or heightening, or placing the other characters in an environment. Ask yourself, “What can I give to the scene to enhance it?” instead of “What I can take from it?”

8. Sometimes a “Walk-On” is Really an Edit — If a scene has been going on for a while and your instinct is to do a “walk on,” try an edit instead.

9. Don’t Get Hung Up on the Theme — The theme is there to inspire you, not for you to hit it over the audience’s head. If “shoes” is the suggestion, think about what you relate to “shoes.” For me, shoes would make me think of running, and that would let me know how to embody someone in an emotional choice/character. Maybe I am person running from relationships or someone who is afraid to get close to people. If the theme puts you in your head, throw it out for a while, and let the audience make the connection. I would rather see you do scene that you think has nothing to do with the theme (which is impossible by the way),than to do one about two people talking about the shoes they just bought at Shoe Carnival.

10. You Always Have Something — If you are on the back line and you feel confused, start a scene where you are confused.If you feel scared, start the scene being scared. When I did Armando when it first started, I was intimated by all the players, and I was genuinely scared. I must have done 40 scenes playing someone who was scared since that was what I actually was. I was so terrified that I could not use the theme, until I was less afraid.

Time for a Break

Time for a break

Jimmy, Jet, Johnnie, Scott AdsitThere is a myth among improvisers that the more classes you take and more shows you do, the better you will be. We can become addicted to this art form, always hungry to do more.

But sometimes, you can do more by doing less. If you feel burnt out or over-extended by performing, by all means, slow down, stop and take a break.

Symptoms of improv burn out:

  • Feeling like you’re not having any fun
  • Feeling resentment when you are doing a class or a show
  • Feeling annoyed at your teammates or classmates, or people in general
  • Daydreaming during a class or show that you are back at your apartment watching cable TV

Most people, including myself think they can muscle their way through these feelings and keep on performing. Let me tell you, this doesn’t work. Improv requires creative energy, and we only have so much.

In some cases you may be burnt out and don’t even know it. I should know. It just happened to me two weeks ago.

I was really pushing myself by teaching improv classes, adding extra Improv Nerd podcasts, and doing more long form shows. At one point I did four shows and class in a 24-hour period.

I was telling myself that “this is how people get ahead.” Whatever that means.

The problem wasn’t that I was doing too much, it was that I wasn’t enjoying it. One of the four shows was with Scott Adsit from 30 Rock, John Hildreth and Jet Eveleth, and I was looking forward to it. It was for the Chicago Improv Festival, and we had a packed house. We improvised together for 40 minutes and the audience loved it. It was a great show, or so I was told.

My wife came up to me after the Scott Adsit show and told me it was the best show she had ever seen me do. I could not feel it, I could not see it, I could not believe it. By this point, I was burnt to a crisp, and the first thing to go is my perception. When I’m burnt out, I can’t be objective. Instead, I stop having fun and I think everything I do sucks.

And here is the sick part: When I think my performing is terrible, I think the solution is to work harder. So I tried that, and that led to me becoming even more annoyed, angry and impatient.

Why did this happen? Simple. Because I made improv my higher power, my god, the thing that will provide me with unlimited happiness. And in the process, I stopped taking care of myself and stopped doing things that are good for me, like working out, reading and connecting with friends.

In my head, I think if only I could do the perfect show (the one that doesn’t exist), then I will be whole again. And the irony is even if I did do the so-called “perfect show,” it would be wasted because I wouldn’t be able to feel it!

So after I supposedly “sucked” in the show with Scott Adsit, I was sitting on the couch with my wife in the office of our couple’s therapist bitching for 10 minutes about how I feel numb about all of the good things happening in my life and how nothing on stage or off is providing me with any joy.

And this is what he says: “You can get more done by taking a break.”

What the…?I was kind of shocked at first, but later I realized he was right. I needed to slow down, stop and take a break. I like what our therapist said because it reminds me that I have to take care of my life, because if I don’t, it will deplete my art. And when my art is depleted, that is hell ― improv hell.

I am happy to report that I took two days off this week, and I am beginning to feel some joy again. Hope you do, too.

There's no right way to improvise

SNL's Tim Robinson and Jimmy Carrane
SNL’s Tim Robinson and Jimmy Carrane

THERE’S NO RIGHT WAY TO IMPROVISE

Last month Eric Voss of Splitsider wrote an excellent article about the importance of finding “the game” in an improv scene, quoting some of the biggest names in improv, including myself. Then a couple of days later, Sally Smallwood of People and Chairs wrote a wonderful response to Voss’s piece called “How I Lost Interest In The Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun.”

If you read both articles you may be confused, asking yourself, what is the right approach to improv?

Well, this reminds me of the long-standing feud that the legendary improv guru Del Close and Bernie Sahlins, one of the founders of Second City, had for years here in Chicago. Del believed improvisation was an art form unto itself. Bernie believed that improvisation was a tool for developing scripted material for sketch and not an art form.

Guess what? They were both right. Improv is an art form and it also is still one of the best ways to generate material for sketch.

Improv by nature is limitless. It is whatever you want it to be. You can’t define it. If you would have told me when I was first started taking improv classes way back in 1985 that I would be teaching the concept of “Yes and…” to big corporations, I would have thought “No, no, no, I can’t do that. It’s an art form.”

In the last decade improv has gotten huge and as more people have started doing it, there are more and more styles and opinions about how to do it “right.” There’s the fast-paced, game-focused style of improv they do at the Upright Citizens Brigade, or the “take care of yourself first,” really out-there style of play of The Annoyance, or the “play at the top of your intelligence,” more organic approach of the iO.

But here’s the thing. Since improve is an art form, that means it’s subjective, like music or theater or comedy. Some people love Will Ferrell and think he’s the funniest thing ever, while other people can’t stand him. It doesn’t mean Will Ferrell’s style of comedy is right or wrong, it’s simply just that: a style, a matter of taste. And in a way, the fact that there are so many differing opinions about how to do improv actually proves that it is an art form.

In my improv classes, the Art of Slow Comedy, I teach the kind of improv I like doing. It’s a particular style that I have always gravitated towards playing.I have some students that are blown away by my approach and others who don’t get much out of it and find some other styles that work better for them. It doesn’t matter that my approach isn’t for everyone; what matters is it’s the one that works for me.

We said in our book “Improvising Better,” that there is only one way to Improvise: Yours. And I still stand by that statement. Your job is to find what works for YOU. It’s a personal art form, so what works for one person may not work for another. If finding the game in the scene works for you, by all means keep using it. If it gets in your way, throw it out. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong way to improvise, unless you are not having any fun, then you have a problem.

And that one you are on your own with.