5 Things to Avoid in Your Improv Classes

Art of Slow Comedy

I’ve been teaching improv classes for a long time, and over the years, I’ve seen students do the same things over and over again that get in their way. Here are the top 5 things that improvisers should avoid doing in class and suggestions about how you can do it differently.

1. Don’t apologize after a scene or when you’re given a note
A lot of times, when people finish a scene in improv class or get a note from the teacher, they say “sorry.” You don’t need to say this. I should know — I was one of those people who said sorry all the time after a scene or an exercise. I was apologizing for not being perfect. I was apologizing for wasting your time. I was apologizing for existing.

“Sorry” means you did something wrong. I am here to tell you, you did nothing wrong. You are improvising – and that means it’s impossible to make a mistake. I understand you think you made a mistake, but you didn’t. So give yourself a break and stop apologizing for learning.

Suggestion: Next time, substitute the word “thank you” or “oh” for “sorry” and see if you feel differently.

2. Don’t be defensive
This is a hard thing to address because if you’re defensive and you’re reading this, you probably don’t think this applies to you. Boy, do I wish I had a way to get through to you. I have taken improv classes with defensive people, I have taught improv classes with defensive people, and these people would rather be right than learn. Every note from the teacher to the student becomes some sort of justification why the student did this or that. If you find yourself justifying why you did something, rather than just taking the note, you are being defensive. And when you’re defensive, you’re not learning, you’re just surviving.

Suggestion: If you have an inkling that you might be defensive, get help for it outside of class, because you are wasting your time and money taking improv classes, or, to be honest, any kind of classes.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity when you get a note you don’t understand
I have a friend who’s taking improv classes and he called me up for some advice. He was getting the same note over and over again from different teachers, and he didn’t really understand what they meant. I asked him if he got clarity on the note. “No, I don’t want to be one of those students who takes up all the time during improv classes.” Here’s the thing: If you don’t understand a note, this is the time to be one of those students because it gives the teacher the opportunity to share their experience with you, or better yet, come up with an exercise that can help you. As a teacher, I love these opportunities. It’s exciting, because now the class and the teacher are improvising together, and the chance that we will learn from each other is pretty good.

Suggestion: If you don’t understand a note, ask questions. Be ok with taking up time in your improv classes. It will only help you get more comfortable taking up stage time.

4. Don’t be polite
Most students are super polite and hold back in improv classes, especially in exercises that are quick and designed for the players to go multiply times such as 30-second scene, three-line scenes, etc. These games are designed for you to learn through repetition, and by jumping in as much as you can, you help the group as whole. Don’t be polite and let other people take all the turns. Trust that if you are getting out there too much, the teacher will reign you in. There is old actor/director tip: It’s easier to tell an actor to bring it down if he’s playing it too big than to have an actor who is playing it too small and have him play it bigger.

Suggestion: Keep pushing yourself out there!

5. Don’t hold back, even if you’re feeling insecure
If you feel off or you’re having one of those days where you don’t have any confidence, make sure you don’t hide out in class. Instead, be the first one up. Ryan Archibald once gave me the best piece to advice. I was doing a long-form show at Second City called Summer Rental, and I showed up backstage before the show and told some of the cast members that I felt off. Ryan said: “Make sure you are in the first scene.” Man, he was right. I did a scene with Joe Canale and we nailed it. I think being scared helped me do some of my best work.

Suggestion: Your mind will want to tell you to hide out. Do the opposite and get out there.

Want to take your scene work to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on April 14!

Judging Your Idea

Do you ever judge your scene partners’ ideas? One of the basic tenets of improv is to accept everything that our scene partner says as a gift and go with it.
I don’t know about you, but I know this concept is way harder than it sounds. I know I am guilty of judging my partners’ ideas, and I’ve seen lots of other improvisers in my classes and on stage who do it, too – unfortunately, a lot of the time.
Here’s how my judgment works. Let’s say someone makes an initiation at the top of a scene like “Hey, we are little kids at water park!” (Or insert the dumbest idea you’ve ever heard here).
My first thoughts would be:
1.    I hate playing little kids.
2.    I hate players that have to vomit out the who, what and where in the first line. I don’t like to play that way; I like to work more organically.
3.    I hate water.
Now, many judgmental improvisers will take the idea of “kids in the water park” and just ignore it and replace it with their better idea or simply deny it from the get go. And the more sophisticated judgmental player will identify the person on their team or in class who makes those so called “stupid” initiations and will find ways to avoid playing with them.
Me, I lie to myself and think, “I’m not judgmental. I would never deny your idea.” So instead of denying your idea on stage, I’ll just shut down and passively do nothing. No agreement, no yes and… nothing.
It’s like I go into a void, a black hole, and in the meantime the scene is on pause and I have taken you to improv purgatory.
And the sad thing is I thought all this judgment made me better. The truth is I have had this problem since I started taking improv classes as a fat, insecure and sarcastic teenager. As I got better at improv, I got worse at judging what was funny and what not, and I became more of an improv know-it-all than an “improv nerd.”
I hope I am bottoming out on this because it is killing my work.
Last weekend, I took Improv Nerd to Denver and my guests were Eric Farone from the Bovine Theater, Kerstin Caldwell from Yes! Lab and Justin Franzen from the Voodoo Theater. The interview was focused on the Denver improv scene, and then the four of us performed a group scene. We took a location for the suggestion, and someone shouted out either bed or bedroom.
Before we started the scene, I asked each of my guests how they were going to break down the suggestion, and I was already judging their process in my head. Then we went into the scene, and they moved four black bar chairs up against the back wall to make a bed. Eric, who is big and tall, starts the scene by squeezing himself under the four chairs. Judgment One: He is either a kid or an animal, both “bad” choices.
Then Justin declares it’s a fort. Judgment Two: We are kids.
Because I was judging the idea, I was paralyzed and was not “trying to make my partner look good.” I was doing the opposite — running from the scene of the accident. I was stuck, frozen. I could not move my body or my mouth, and it was clear I was not helping anyone look good, including myself.
After what seemed like the longest 60 seconds, I decide to improvise and join the scene and support Justin and Eric in their creation. We made discoveries that they were twin brothers and Kerstin and I became bickering Christian parents who were more concerned about appearance and what people would think if our kids were not in church with us. It turned out to be funny and real and silly. We all contributed our different styles to the scene and the audience seemed to really enjoy it. Most importantly, I enjoyed it.
After the scene, I shared that I was judging it, because I realize that admitting that I am being judgmental is the best way for me to change.
So if you’re caught in this trap as well, my advice is to first be aware that you’re doing it and don’t judge yourself for doing it. Understand that when you’re judging someone else’s idea, you’re really just afraid and want to control things you can’t control. Then, I would say jump in immediately — fake it ’til you make it. Go over the top with the agreement. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but it will help.
If you’ve got any other ideas that you have used to get over this issue please let me know. I am still a work in progress on this one, and I promise I won’t judge them. Well, most of them.

How to Deal with Fear Before a Show

How to Deal with Fear Before a Show

Long-Form improv classesFear before a show is unpredictable. Sometimes I have it, and sometimes I don’t. Last month, I had it before doing “Messing with A Friend” with Susan Messing.

I love Susan as much as a person as I love playing with her. Having Susan ask me to play with her in her improv show is not only an honor, it’s a joy.And that’s where the fear comes in. Any time I’m afraid I’ll lose something that brings me joy, my thinking goes a bit wacky. The day of the show, I started having thoughts like this: “I am going to have a bad show. It’s going to be so bad that Susan will never ask me to play with her again.”

As I went through the day those thoughts became a mantra and that mantra was dangerously close to becominga self-fulfilling prophecy if I didn’t do something about it.

By the afternoon, I was still not in enough pain to tell on myself.  I have a high tolerance for pain and anxiety.So, finally at dinner that night, I told my wife all my doubts and fear about the show that night. My wife Lauren, is wise and supportive and smart, and she just listened, and didn’t try to fix me or worse tell me that I should not feel what I was feeling, which always leads to shame. Immediately I felt some relief, because as painful as it was, I had admitted it, and that helped. But the show wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. I had four more hours to go, and I wasn’t sure how long my good feelings would last.

They didn’t. A half hour before the show, my head filled up with those thoughts again: “I know this show is going to suck. Susan will never have me back. It’s over.” I sat in my car outside the Annoyance Theater on Broadway Avenue, in the seedy north side neighborhood of Uptown in Chicago, and called my friend Ryan. Like my wife, Ryan is wise, and supportive and listened, giving me encouragement, but mostly talking me off the ledge. After a couple of minutes, I realized the ledge was only about three feet off the ground. Most importantly, at no point in our conversation did he say “Don’t be afraid” or “You shouldn’t be afraid.” I don’t call people anymore who say that kind of shit, unless I am trolling for shame.

When it comes to fear about performing, I think we have it all wrong. You can’t deny your fear or just snap your fingers and get rid of it. We’ve got to acknowledge it, so we can use it. Del Close used to say “Follow The Fear.” He got it — we have to admit that we’re afraid first before we can follow it.

When I first started dating Lauren, I was scared to have sex with her. I had all sorts of reasons to be afraid: my lack of experience, my fear of intimacy, fear of getting her pregnant. I know it’s nuts. At the time, my crazy therapist gave me a bit of advice “While you’re having sex, tell her that you are terrified and you want her to keep going.”

This is no different than improvising. Admit you are terrified and keep going.

After getting off the phone with Ryan, I entered the theater, and when we did the show that night it was great, and I realized a big part of the reason it worked was because I had let go of the fear by talking about it with other people.

Martin DeMaat, one of my favorite improv teachers, used to come backstage before a show and hold both hands out and say “Here, give me your fear.”You would then pretend you were handing him over your imaginary fear. It was incredibly hokey and something my friends and I would make fun of him for when we were doing our Martin imitations, but the truth is I do it too by telling people I am afraid.

Over the years I have seen students struggle with fear before a show, especially in my upper level improv classes when they have to perform a long form show for family and friends on the last day of class. Instead of admitting they are afraid, sometimes students end up quitting a class or two before the performance. It’s sad. I wish they knew that it’s normal to be scared and by just showing up, they are succeeding.

And maybe the next time I do Messing with A Friend, and believe me there’ll be a next time, I will be brave enough to share my fear with Susan.

Acting as if I'm a success

Acting As If I’m A Success

Jimmy CarraneI am leaving this Sunday to go to LA with my wife. I’m going to be doing three live Improv Nerd shows with three amazing guests: Andy Richter, Matt Besser and Beer Shark Mice. I am also teaching a workshop next Saturday, which shockingly sold out in about 24 hours.

Most people would be excited, right? Great guests, a few days in the sun, a chance to take my show to the next level. But I am not like most people. I am terrified.

LA is a city that intimidates me. It’s a place where “I feel less than,” not good enough, even more so than I normally do in Chicago. I moved there for five weeks in my early 30s and auditioned for some shows, and I came back flat broke and un-famous with my tail between my legs.

People I started out with, on the other hand, moved to LA and made it big. Pat Finn is on a show on Nickelodeon, Neil Flynn is on “The Middle,” Dave Koechner is filming Anchor Man 2.

So now I’m going back there, feeling exposed and stupid. I mean, how can a person who teaches improv compare himself to people who have successful careers in TV and film?

The problem is I can’t. If I do, it only makes me feel worse, but I can’t stop. It’s like a compulsion to cut yourself or eat so much cheese and caramel corn until you want to throw up.

I don’t know if you know this about me, but I have terrible habit of “comparing my insides with everybody’s outsides.” That’s why I love to play low status characters in improv scenes because that’s what I’ve done my whole life.

My wife, Lauren, is constantly saying I’m a great teacher and a great interviewer, telling me people respect me and that I help people, but those affirmations are wasted on me.

So, my therapist gave me this crazy-ass experiment to try. Instead of saying I am not good enough, I am a piece of shit… my usual schtick, when I go to LA I am going to “act as if” I am successful. And to make matters worse he told me to write a blog with affirmations in it.

I really don’t know if it will work, or how long it will last, or if when I finish writing this, I will black this out like my drunken Christmas Eve of 1982. But I am willing to try something different.

I am also going to ask you to help me prepare for this trip. If you have affirmations or compliments, please pass them on by writing in the comments section. I will be checking my blog addictively while I am on the trip.

OK, I am stalling. I dread writing these. I feel uncomfortable. As you know from my last blog, I am more comfortable with the dark side of myself… Fuck it, here I go.

1. I have a beautiful, loving and supporting wife who is going on the trip with me. (Yes, I am lucky).

2. I am a great improv teacher. (I believe this one).

3. I am fucking great interviewer. (I believe this one, too).

4. I am great writer and I get great response from these blog pieces. (I feel like I am stretching it, but I’m not lying yet.)

5. I have a great sense of humor. I am great improviser. (This one is hard to say. I kind of believe it, and I am putting it down.)

6. I have three wonderful guest lined up. (Fine, let’s move on.)

7. In the past year and a half, we have interviewed some real A list people for the Improv Nerd podcast, and it has grown in popularity and have built up tons of fans from across the world. (True, and I feel I am try to sell you something.)

8. My friends the Finns are throwing a party for me and my wife in LA. (I am feeling tired and want to quit.)

9. I make my living as Improv teacher. (I feel sadness.)

10. I have great friends. (More sadness)


Please, if you would like to add to list please feel to do so. I need your help.