6 Steps to forming a great improv group

Today more than ever, improvisers are striking out on their own and forming independent groups. Nothing makes me happier than this because this is the way people really grow in improv.

However, just because you can form your own team doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Creating a group that really works requires commitment, chemistry and lots of energy.

I was involved in indie improv groups way before they used that name, and the one I was most proud of was the critically acclaimed long-form group Jazz Freddy. Recently, someone asked me what made that long-form group so successful, and I thought I would share with you what I learned from my experience.

1. Start with a vision

A group that doesn’t have a clear vision is going to have trouble sticking together, because it won’t be long before people won’t agree on what direction to take. When you’re picking improvisers to be part of your group, get like-minded people together and make sure they all buy into your vision.

With Jazz Freddy, Pete Gardner had a vision to do more patient, theatrical improv, and everyone who joined the group shared that vision. Though the show evolved and changed over time, as long-form shows do, the vision of the type and style of improv never did. When creative differences arose in the group, and they did, it was never about the vision. That was the one thing that was agreed upon from the outset.

2. Get good talent

When you’re forming an improv group, don’t pick your friends or your roommate just because you happen to hang out with them. Pick the very best people you can find, because there is no substitute for good talent. Without it, you have nothing, absolutely nothing. If you’re lucky enough to combine talent with commitment and a little vision, you have the opportunity to create something wonderful that will influence generations of improvisers.

3. Make the team your only focus

In Jazz Freddy, we made the show our #1 priority. We weren’t distracted by running across town doing other improv shows and classes because Jazz Freddy was the only thing we were doing. The only thing. It’s called singleness of purpose. We treated being part of Jazz Freddy like we had been cast in play at Steppenwolf. We rehearsed three or four times a week and we continued to rehearse once the show was up.

4. Make the hard decisions that are good for the group

I think one of the hardest and best decisions that we had to make as a group happened right before the second run of the show. A couple of cast members had been hired by Second City, and because of their schedules, they couldn’t make the rigorous time commitment to our rehearsals. So as a group, we decided they could not do the run, and with that decision, we were putting the good of the group ahead of the personalities.

5. Take ownership

When some improvisers join a group or a show, they say “I just want to show up and play.” That may work for them, but if you are looking to create something lasting and worth doing, you need people who are willing to do more than that. Everyone on the team needs to help out in some way: putting up fliers, doing social media, booking the venue, etc.

In Jazz Freddy, it was understood that cast members would help out with the producing responsibilities, meaning we would hang posters, get people to donate to our fundraiser, and talk it up with family and friends to get butts in the seats.

6. Invest in yourself

I know you’ve been spending a ton of money on classes and workshops, but if you want your group to be successful, you’re going to have to spend a little money – on posters, rehearsal space, Facebook ads and most importantly, a director. With Jazz Freddy, nobody thought that we were “done” or “above” having a coach. We were willing to pay for it because we were making an investment in ourselves, and it turned out to be a huge benefit because we learned from the show, and half the cast eventually worked at Second City.

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How to land your comedy dream job

Today more than ever the opportunities for improvisers are abundant. There are so many classes to choose take, groups to be a part of and places to perform — which can be a blessing and a curse.

That’s why it’s important to map out a vision for your career before you get in too deep.

Do you want be on the writing staff of The Daily Show? Perform on Saturday Night Live? Tour the country as a stand-up? Direct, produce or teach or be a screenwriter or start your own improv theater or just be a great improviser? All of these are great goals, and to get there, it helps to be clear about your vision.

For me, creating a vision isn’t just about thinking about where I want to go. It’s about writing down my goals and getting suggestions from other people about how to achieve them. It’s like creating a road map for your improv career. Just know that it will never be a direct route to your vision. You will find obstacles and opportunities all along the way, and that is the fun part.

I did this when I was creating Improv Nerd, and I have to tell you that the results have turned out pretty well so far. About two and a half years ago, I sat down with a couple of friends and came up with the idea for a show where I would interview improvisers. They suggested that I improvise with the guests, but I was reluctant, probably because I was scared. But I listened to them, and now that is one of the things that really makes the Improv Nerd podcast stand out.

Here are three steps to take to create your vision:

Step 1: Ask two trusted friends, and not over beers, to sit down with you and ask you this question: “If time and money were no object, meaning you had at least $10 million in the bank and all the time in the world, what would like to do?” Spend about an hour or so talking about your vision while your friends write it down in as much detail as possible. Don’t get caught up in how it’s going to come true. That’s not your business. It will never happen the way you think it will happen anyway. Just get your vision down.

Step 2: Ask your friends to give you simple action steps to start working towards your vision. They should give you about five to ten things that are fairly easy to achieve. If your vision is to write for the Daily Show, for example, and you haven’t written in years, one of your action steps may be to write jokes for five minutes a day. Another action step may be to look into classes that can help you put a writing packet together. The action step isn’t to take the class, it’s simply to look into it. Remember to be gentle and keep the action steps realistic. They are there to build your confidence.

Step 3: Now here’s the hard part. Start taking the actions. For me, I can’t take any action alone. The problem is I think I can, but then I end up taking no action at all. To make it easier, call a friend before and after you take each action step. If one of the action steps they give you is to watch The Daily Show every night for next four weeks, ask your friends if you can call them and leave a message after you watch each episode. This ensures that you’ll actually do the actions steps. Some people call this accountability.

Even if your action steps are very small, you’ll start to feel a shift just by taking them. Feelings may also come up, some positive and some negative. As I moved toward my vision with Improv Nerd and accomplished more, feelings of anger and sadness came up, not the joy and the excitement you would expect. If this happens to you, don’t let those negative feelings stop you. They’re growing pains, and a sign that you’re heading in the right direction.

You may also find that as you move toward your vision that other things that you thought you wanted don’t become as important. This is ok, too. Your vision is flexible. For me, as I moved forward with Improv Nerd, I realized that auditioning for TV commercials wasn’t as important to me as it had been before, and I’ve decided to let that part go.

“Hey, Jimmy, but what if I’m just starting out in improv and I don’t have a vision?” That’s ok! Just know that in a couple of years you might want to have a vision for yourself. For now, let fun be your guide. Pay attention to the things that you do in your life that you enjoy doing and make you totally lose track of time, and know that those things might be in your vision someday. I know for me, when I teach and write I have such a great time that I am unaware of the time – a signal that those two things are probably part of my vision.

Remember, this vision is not etched in stone. It’s a starting off point to help you get some clarity on what it is that would really make you happy in your career. Yes, it may change, and just like any good improv scene, you gain more clarity as you continue making discoveries.

OK, here is your first action step to help you get started on your vision. (Kind of scary isn’t it?). Let us know what you vision is in the comment section of the blog below. What would you like for your improv career if time and money were no object? I look forward to reading them.


TWO-PERSON SCENE WORKSHOP, JAN. 4: Good two-person scenes are the foundation of any good show. No amount of cleverness or fancy editing is going to fix bad two-person scenes. To polish your two-person scene work, sign up for Jimmy’s one-day workshop. Spots still available! For more information, click here.

FUNDAMENTALS OF IMPROV, JAN. 6-FEB. 10: Learn Jimmy Carrane’s unique method of the Art of Slow Comedy. Suitable for those who have never improvised and seasoned improvisers looking for a new approach. For more information, click here.