Jimmy Carrane, Will Hines Answer Your Improv Questions, Part 3

When you get to be an improv teacher as respected as Will Hines, former head of the UCB Training Center in New York, who happens to write a great blog (, you get flooded with questions from improvisers all around the country. When you’re me, you just tag onto Will’s questions to make yourself sound smarter.

This week, Will and I are reprising our segment, “Ask Will, Ask Jimmy,” to give you more answers to your burning improv questions. If you have a question for either of us, please let us know!

Q: I’ve recently become interested in doing improv, but my issue is that I’m not the funniest person, nor am I super quick on my feet. I know that when my friends and I joke around with each other and go into all these scenarios I’m the straight man because I can’t think of things quick enough to say to keep up with them. This scares me because I know improv is about reacting so you can move things along, and I wouldn’t want to hold my group/partner back because I can’t react well/quickly.

Will Hines: Hmm. The short answer is that you should just try improv and see if it feels good. Like, don’t worry about how you are it if you’re never even tried it.

A longer thought: Your question also reminds me of something I hear people who have not done improv say when they talk about improv: “How do they come up with all those things to say?” They seem to imagine that improv is about being the fastest, wittiest person. It implies that everyone in a scene is racing against each other to win.

A surprising thing about improv is that you don’t really HAVE to be the WITTIEST person to do it. You do have to be quick on your feet, but not impossibly so. You have to listen and be able to be truthful and be able to pretend to have opinions that you don’t really have in a realistic way. But there are very few times when the pressure comes down to come up with something amazing FAST. It happens, but not on a regular basis.

Given a choice between a witty person, and a person who listens and understands deeply — I’d take the second kind of person every time.

Jimmy Carrane: I love that you don’t think you are the funniest person and not quick on your feet. Actually, this is an asset, not to mention the fact that you are very comfortable being the straight man. I hate to tell you this, but you are built to improvise. Here’s why.

Some people start taking classes in improv because they were the funniest person at their fraternity or at their office and someone said to them they should take an improv class. The funniest person usually ends up relying on their wit and cleverness and ends up cheating themselves out of an improv education. They are scared to be real because they are afraid that being real isn’t funny, and they think improv is all about being funny.

As long as they are getting the laughs they are fine. Nobody is going to tell them what to do. They start out strong and then fade quickly. Oh, sure, it may work for them for a while and then people who they started out in class with them pass them by, because they are learning what improv is really about it — building a scene and listening and agreeing.

Now the funniest person from the frat or the office has hit a wall and they are either going to go over the wall and become a serious student of improv or they will quit. My experience is that 90 percent of them quit.* (*Totally made up statistic.)

By admitting that you aren’t that quick or funny, which I question, you have just saved yourself at least two years. The other thing that is important is that one of the skills we teach people in improv is to think on your feet. If you listen and respond to the last thing that was said by your partner, you will be naturally quicker. You still may not be able to come up with zingers or one-liners, but you will be quicker in being able to respond, trust me.

One more thing: It’s been my experience that some of the best improvisers are not always the funniest people in the room, but rather the most serious people. And sometimes the funniest people in the room can be lousy improvisers. So, for God’s sake, please take an improv class. My guess is that you will be pretty damn good at it.

Do you have to be the funniest?

Do You Have to Be The Funniest ON YOUR TEAM?

I have recently discovered a flaw of mine that is impacting my improvising — and not in a good way.

Since I started improvising, I have always strived to be “the best improviser.” You might think that would be a good thing, but in fact, it’s done nothing but fill me with doubt and self-hatred. To me, being the best improviser always meant being the funniest person on stage, and I always think if I’m not the funniest, then I have failed.

Of course, this started way before I got into improv. Growing up, I had two brothers who were good athletes and popular, and two sisters who were good students and popular. Me, I was 300 pounds and ate way too many Little Debbie Snack Cakes and watched way too many re-runs of Dick Van Dyke and The Andy Griffith Show. Obviously, not popular. And even though I was enormous, I was invisible.

The only way I could compete with my siblings for my parents’ attention was to develop a lighting-quick sense of humor. By the age of 12, I had cemented my role in the family as the “funny one,” and this is where I got all my validation. As I got older, into my teens, being funny became my identity. It gave me self-worth, and no one in my family was equipped enough to challenge me for the role.

All that changed when I took for my first improv class when I was a somewhat-depressed, fat 19 year old. Suddenly, I was surrounded by funny people, and though it was the first time in my life I felt I had found my tribe, I also felt threatened.

I was like that boy who was the star quarterback at a tiny high school of 300 students in a rural farming town in Illinois who goes to play football at Michigan State. Sure, he’s excited to be playing in The Big Ten, but he realizes he’s no longer the star.

So from my first class on, I have been striving to be the funniest — to get back to the top of the mountain I came from in my family. I cannot tell you how many shows I’ve done over the years where I am not only counting the laughs I am getting but the ones my teammates are getting, too. This accounting system of self-hate is what I use to determine if I have a good show or not. And on top of it, I tell myself that this is just a device to motive me, when it’s just the opposite.

After years and years comparing myself to my teammates, it has never helped me — NEVER. It’s like playing blackjack in Vegas: You think the odds are in your favor, but at the end of the night, the house still has all your money.

All that comparing myself to others does is bring me down and make me feel less than.

Yet, I can’t stop comparing myself to others and trying to be the “best.” It’s too ingrained. I am sharing this with you because I am hoping that you will have some experience in the “got-to-be-the-funniest” department. Maybe you suffer from it, too, and maybe you have had some relief from it. If so, I would love it if you’d be willing to share. I could use the help.