What I Like About You: 6 Improvisers I Admire

Working with great improvisers is exciting and fun, and usually I ended up learning a lot from them.

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to get to play with some of the best improvisers out there, and because I am still doing Jimmy and Johnnie on Zoom, I still get to do so.

Here are six improvisers (believe me, there are tons more), that I have learned from and the traits of theirs that I would love to have.

  1. Kevin Dorff
    Back in the ’90s, before the “the game of the scene” was even a term, Kevin was living it. Maybe it was because he was such a great chess player, but you couldn’t do a scene with him without him finding “the game” in a nanosecond. He made it look so easy, and made it easy for me to the find it as well.
    What Kevin Taught Me: The game is enough to sustain a scene
    Trait I Would Like to Have from Kevin: Finding the game
  2. Susan Messing
    I have known Susan for over 30 years. We first met when we were in our 20s back at the ImprovOlympic. Besides having instant chemistry with her, I feel when I play with her, I always I follow her lead. She is fearless and plays some of the most unusual, out-there characters.
    What Susan Taught Me: “If I am not having fun, I am the asshole.”
    Trait I Would Like to Have from Susan: Her fearlessness
  3. Joe Bill
    I have known Joe almost as long as Susan, and what makes Joe such fun to work with is his proficiency in all styles of improv. Joe has tremendous range as an improviser and he’s easy to work with because he always meets you where you’re at.
    What Joe Taught Me: It’s not about me
    Trait I Would I Like to Have From Joe: His agility
  4. John Hildreth
    When it comes to finding a character’s point of view organically, John is a genius. I mean this, he is a genius. John can find a unique point of view for his character in the first couple lines of a scene. It’s amazing because he can do it so effortlessly, and his characters always generate huge laughs. And he does it by getting it all off of his scene partner.
    What John Taught Me: To pay even more attention to my partner at the top of the scene.
    Trait I Would Like to Have From John: Finding my character’s point of view
  5. Jay Sukow
    When it comes to improvising, Jay is all about fun. He is Dr. Fun, Mr. Positivity, and The Duke of Yes, And. When I play with Jay, the fun is contagious and even a sourpuss like myself can’t resist joining in.
    What Jay Taught Me: Be positive and say Yes, And more often.
    Trait I Would Like to Have From Jay: Joy
  6. Michelle Gilliam
    Recently, I played with Michelle on Zoom and I was blown away by her patience in building a character and scene line by line. She takes her time, and because of that, her relationships and scenes have real substance. She brings a strong acting background to her improvising, too, which means she is not afraid to access her emotions or vulnerability.
    What Michelle Taught Me: To slow down even more and trust your partner even more.
    Trait I Would Like to Have From Michelle: Patience

Who are some of your favorite improvisers, and what do you admire about them? Tell us in the comments below.


Looking for more performance time? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 4 class, starting March 18, which includes three performances with notes. Sign up by midnight tonight to save!


6 Tips to Being a Better Improv Teacher

A lot more people are teaching improv these days than ever before. I could not be more excited about how many people are going into this amazing profession, and I also know that there aren’t many places where you can get advice on how to be a good improv teacher.

So Jay Sukow, a former improv teacher at Second City who now is teaching his own classes in Los Angeles, and I decided we wanted to share with you a few of our favorite tips that we have found over the years that have made us better improv teachers.

In the months to come we hope to answer your questions about teaching improv, so if you have any questions for us please feel free to e-mail me at Enjoy.

  1. Improvise Along With The Class
    If you are teaching improvisation, you might want to think about using some of it in your classroom. If your students are pulling you in a different direction than what you had planned to teach, follow them, just like you do with your partner in an improv scene. Your lesson plan is not as important as what is going on in the moment. Sound familiar? — JC
  2. Go With the Flow
    Over prepare, then throw your lesson plan out the window and hear what the students want to do. Go with the flow. Be open for playing a game or a scene differently than what you’re used to. Treat the mistakes as gifts. — JS
  3. Warm-Up Games Matter
    Today, people give short shift to warm-up games. They think they are stupid or unimportant. I disagree. The warm-up game portion of the class is the best time to evaluate the energy of the class. Are the students tired? Are they overly talkative? Are they tentative? Reading their energy is a great first step in connecting with your students so you can guide them where they need to go in the rest of that day’s class. — JC
  4. Be Professional
    ​Show up early. Arrange the room as you’d like it. Want chairs in a circle? Put them in a circle. Want a row of chairs? Cool, do that. And leave the room cleaner than you found it. Be excited to be teaching the greatest life skill ever: improvisation. Your attitude sets the tone, so if you’re not excited, why should anyone else be? Being a professional also means not taking anything personally, whether a student thinks you have nothing to offer and this class is a waste of their time or they think you’re the greatest teacher they’ve ever had. — JS
  5. The Answers Are In The Group
    One of the most frequently asked questions I get after class is “What do you think I need to work on?” I encourage students who ask me that to bring that question into the next class. Again, this is a concept I learned in improv: By collaborating we will come up with something better than if it’s just me doing it alone. By bringing the entire class into the discussion, the answer we come up with together is always 84% better than if it’s just me trying play the expert. — JC
  1. Create a Safe Space
    ALWAYS maintain a safe environment that is conducive to learning and taking risks. Respect that people have different issues with personal space and with others invading that space. ​Don’t be afraid to call out inappropriate behavior — especially sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic, and stereotypical behaviors — that’s your job. Improv is all inclusive. You have to protect the group and the individuals within it. Also, people have food allergies and drinks spill, so I ask people not to bring in food or drink, unless it’s water. — JS

Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to be a good improv teacher? Let us know!

Are you interested in studying with Jimmy Carrane? There are a few spots left in his Art of Slow Comedy Class Level 1, starting Feb. 17!

Why I Became an Improv Teacher

As improv has gotten bigger over the years, more and more people have become improv teachers. What once was just a hobby for a handful of people has become an actual profession for hundreds of people around the country.

So this week, I started thinking… what made me become an improv teacher in the first place? And why do I keep doing it after all of these years?

To help me, I asked Jay Sukow, a former improv teacher at Second City who has recently started teaching his own improv classes in Los Angeles, to give me his thoughts on why he loves teaching improv, as well.

If you’re considering becoming an improv teacher, we hope our answers inspire you to take the leap!


Jay Sukow, improv teacher, Los Angeles

The reason I decided to become an improv teacher was two-fold. One reason was Dead Poet’s Society. It tells the story of John Keating, an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry. From the first day of class, he tries to get his students to look at life differently. He inspires them. He tells them to rip out pages of their poetry books. He encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary.” He introduces them to the Latin phrase carpe diem (seize the day). The ending of the film made me cry as the students salute Keating by standing on their desk and calling out “O Captain! My Captain.” I get chills just writing this. He inspired his students. Much like my teachers inspired me.

And it’s not just my teachers who inspired me, it’s also my students who continue to inspire me. When someone’s eyes light up with “I get it!” When someone says to me, “You changed my life.” When the career corporate person quits their job and becomes brave enough to pursue their artistic passion. When the grandmother says, “I play better with my grandchildren because I now say ‘Yes, and…!’” When the performer who’s fallen out of love with improv experiences that thing that reignites their passion and comes back reenergized. When people make lifelong friends, find a soul mate, are just happier in life. When a student becomes a teacher and evangelist and our relationship has evolved into becoming good friends. When students change their lives by starting improv companies, especially ones that give back to charities and communities. When a student who is too scared to open up and be vulnerable, who hides behind cracking jokes, being sarcastic and defensive, changes their actions and opens up to the possibility of what can happen. When the executive vice president of a Fortune 100 global fast food company tells you he uses the improv exercise “Red Ball” to start his weekly meetings. When I’ve affected someone’s life.

Another reason I got into teaching was that I wanted everyone to experience the joy, the magic, the love of improv. To see what we could do instead of feeling the pressure of what I was going to do. To show off your intelligence without fear of being made fun of. In improv, I found my tribe. I felt a part of something bigger than myself. Improv kept my ego in check since I had to leave it at the door. Improv allowed me to play and have fun. Improv has had such a big impact of my life and I wanted to share that with everyone I met. I learned that to hold onto something, to really benefit from it, you have to give it away. Improv is one of the few places where we focus on similarities, not differences. I’ve taught classes made up of such disparate people: 19 year old college students, Vietnam veterans, retired grandparents, career advertising professionals, suburban mothers and husbands, recently divorced. All in one class. And that’s the norm, not the exception. It’s always the case that people who would never had met any other way, who don’t run in similar social circles, get to know each other in a supportive, low-stress environment. Because “Yes, and…!” really means “No judgement” of others, but more importantly, of each other. Make each other look like rock stars. Inspire each other to be great.

Along the way, I’ve learned so much. Benefitted so much. Made lifelong friends. Gotten married and had two wonderful children and a dog. All because of the power of “Yes, and!”

I teach now also because I see a lot of negativity in scenes, a lot of conflict, yelling and anger. A lot of individuality. A lot of desperation to be funny instantly, with every spoken line. A lot of making others the butt of the joke, picking on scene partners, saying “No” to most offerings, even as simple as, “Would you like something to drink?” I want to see that change. To see people play not for laughs. I want people to see every opportunity as a wonderful possibility, to see every mistake as a gift, to help everyone feel the magic I feel. I want people to embrace the unknown, to follow the fear, to create, not destroy.

My classes come with lifetime tech support. (Thank you Dean Evans for that line.) Never forget I got your back. And your front. And all of the wonderful you. Those are the main reasons why I decided to become an improv teacher and coach.


Jimmy Carrane, improv teacher, Chicago

I originally started teaching improv and coaching around 1992, and to be totally honest, I did if for the money. Back then, the only people getting paid in improv were the piano players and the teachers/coaches, so naturally, I wanted in on that.

I first looked at teaching like a temp job. I was just doing it to pay the bills until I got my big break (which, as you know, hasn’t happened yet — I am still waiting). At the time, you could make up to $35 for three hours of work coaching a Harold team in someone’s tiny apartment in Wrigleyville, and that was some good extra side money for me while I worked a day job selling office supplies.

I continued to teach on the side for a long time, always hoping that someday I could ditch my day job and focus on improv and acting full time. Then one day, around 2002, I was working at a commercial real estate office and teaching a couple of classes at Second City, and I came up with the idea of teaching my own classes. So, I put up some flyers for my first class, took out an ad for it, and the class filled up quickly. I could not believe it. Of course, I took that as a sign that teaching improv was something I was meant to do, at least for now, and I took the leap to make it my full-time job.

My relationship with teaching improvisation has completely changed over the years, as has my approach to it. Today, I teach improv because I love the process more than anything. I love taking a group of strangers and having them give themselves over to something that is bigger than all of us. By doing this, they start finding their comedic voice and taping into their honest life experience, and improv becomes effortless for them. They begin to trust — the class, the teacher and themselves.

They start feeling like they belong and with that comes a new freedom and new confidence. And regardless of how funny they maybe at this point, they are becoming stage worthy. We start to believe every word that comes out of their mouths and they become better actors without even knowing it. They are entertaining me, and I am a tough audience.

Yes, it seems kind of magical when I put it that way, and it’s hard to believe it really works. Students often can’t believe it either. They’ll come up to me after a class or a workshop and say, “Is it supposed to be that fun and easy?” They seem puzzled by the whole experience. “Yes, yes!” I say. “It is supposed to be this fun and easy.” This is what I am after. This is why I am still teaching for God’s sake!

I also love collaborating with other people, and my students are no exception. When I teach, I don’t come in thinking I know all the answers. Instead, I like to improvise along with the class. For the most part, I don’t plan what I am going to teach. I wait for the class to present what they need to learn that day. It’s exciting to work this way because it forces me to be in the moment with them, much like when you are improvising in front of an audience. I am in the zone, I am listening and responding. Don’t tell anyone, but my students are actually inspiring me.

But the thing I love the most about teaching is creating intimacy with a group of strangers, and out of that comes a sense of community and connection among my students. I will say this: Nothing makes me more proud than when students or improvisers I have taught and directed remain friends after the class or show is over. You wouldn’t believe how happy I feel when I talk to a former student who says something like, “Oh, you know Jerry, Julia and I are still good friends from your class ten years ago.” That is almost as good as when someone says, “You are my favorite improv teacher,” or “I learned the most in your class” or “You are best improviser teacher I have ever had.”

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? There are still a few spots available in his Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 improv class, starting Jan. 6. Sign up today!

Tips to Nail Your Next Improv Audition

Auditioning is a way of life for improvisers. You’ll never stop auditioning, so you’ll just have to get good at it! Learning to embrace the audition process, and to finally relax and have fun, will do wonders for your performance. We asked some professional improvisers — Jay Sukow, a former teacher at Second City; Amey Goerlich, an independent improv teacher in New York; Will Hines, former head of the UCB Training Center in New York; Brian Posen, Program Head at the Second City Training Center; and Adal Rifai, member of the Harold Commission, which selects teams for iO Chicago — for their best tips to use at your next improv audition.

Here’s what they had to say:

Headshots and Resumes

“Get a good, professional headshot. Not a photo from a friend who shoots weddings, or a Facebook photo, or a stick figure drawing (I’ve personally seen this more than 10 times). And get an acting resume together. It’s different than a professional resume. A sparse resume is fine if you’re just starting off. But never, ever lie on your resume. Your resume lists an Irish accent? Be ready to speak it. Says you can do a New York accent? Change it immediately. There is no ‘New York’ accent. There are boroughs, the Hudson Valley, upstate New York, but no one New York accent. My wife and I ran a company who cast actors and improvisers. She’s from the Bronx. If during our audition you claimed you could do a New York accent, she’d ask to hear it. It was always a caricature of Jersey/Boston/Sopranos. And we never cast that person. Ever.” — Jay Sukow

“Be prepared. Have a few headshots and resumes always ready to go. Even though many people do not take hard copies anymore it’s still good to have them on hand and replace as you go. Don’t scramble around the day-of making copies at Kinkos.” — Amey Goerlich

Audition-Appropriate Appearance

“Treat this audition like a job; which it is. No shorts, t-shirts, sunglasses, baseball hats, loud shoes, dangling jewelry. Look sharp.” — Jay Sukow

“Look your best. Don’t dress like a slob, but don’t overdress for an audition. Know your type and have some outfits on hand that are your go-to winning looks.” — Amey Goerlich

“Dress appropriately. Look nice. And try to wear a little something that would have the auditioners remember you. A bow in your hair. A vest. Something that makes you pop a bit without being ‘on.’” — Brian Posen

“Dress as if you’re doing a show. If you wear a t-shirt, sandals, shorts, a hat (on stage), a scarf or anything else that’s distracting or could be used as a prop then I’m not going to take you seriously. Even just blue jeans and a button-up are fine. Doesn’t have to be a tux. And for God’s sake, turn off your phones.” — Adal Rifai

Be On Time

“Show up early, be ready to wait. Be nice to the person checking you in. Let them know if you have to step out so when they call your name, they aren’t searching for you.” — Jay Sukow

“Be on time. Even though you may have three auditions in one day, schedule appropriately and give yourself enough time to get to each location. Try to be 10 minutes early. Sometimes you can slip in before your time, which is great, because most auditions are at least 30 minutes behind.” — Amey Goerlich

“Arrive early. You need time to breathe and get yourself in the right frame of mind.” — Brian Posen

“Be early. If you show up 15 minutes before your timeslot then you’re on time. If you show up on the dot, you’re late.” — Adal Rifai

Take Time to Focus, Prep, and Warm Up

“Relax. Take a deep breath before your audition. Leave your ego at the door. Warm up. A lot improvisers don’t warm up before the audition and they go in nervous and cold and don’t connect to their scene partner. They think they can just show up and be great. Or, they’ll show up late, or flustered and/or sweaty, or not ready in various ways. That will affect your audition. Put yourself in a mind-set to be ready to play.” — Jay Sukow

“Prep yourself before going in. Warm up. Get yourself playful and focused. Have your mind set to initiate, listen, support and have all your scenes filled with feeling.” –Brian Posen

Walking into the Audition

“It is an audition. You are judged once you walk into the room. Auditors each look for something different. I watch how much you support your partner. I watch where your focus is when you’re waiting to improvise. Other people look for different things. There’s no one way to audition, and each person looks for something different. If you want to be an improviser or actor, your job is to audition. This audition is one of many. It is a chance to perform. We want to watch you have fun.” — Jay Sukow

“If you have to introduce yourself as part of the audition, make sure to fill the space with your voice, state your name with confidence, and always have a feel about yourself that is nice and playful.” — Brian Posen

Tips to Follow During the Audition

“Listen. Listen to what the instructions are, listen to your scene partner. In the scene, listen and react. Also, be great. I watch a lot of people think it’s funny to be ‘ironically bad’ at something. It’s not. Play to the height of your intelligence. Also, make emotional connections with your scene partner immediately. Know who they are. Be in a relationship with emphasis on the first part of that word: relate. Give them gifts. We are all supporting actors.” — Jay Sukow

“Don’t start with a fight. The pressure to react decisively and to give yourself a point of view will trick you into being offended by the first choice. Spend your first move being cool with and unsurprised by the start of the scene — say yes, match tone, be cool, be in it. Even if the person initiates (or if YOU initiate) with an accusation, the accusation should not be received with surprise: agree with it. You’ll feel a nice little click of connection. After that click, you’ll be okay reacting however you feel, even if your characters THEN start arguing.” — Will Hines

“Take direction. If a director or casting agent asks you to try it a different way, then show them you can take direction and do it. Be your brand, but show range. If you have two scenes, try to support in one and initiate in another. Play a straight-man and then play a character, or just show that you can have a point of view that is strong.” — Amey Goerlich

“Feel, feel, feel! Please… feel something. And something about your partner. The scene is always about sharing moments between you and the other breathing people on the stage. Make sure you show your range. Make sure not to fall into the trap of playing the same type of character throughout the entire audition. Mix it up. Always be interested and active. Especially if you are watching someone else’s work. Believe me… we watch you watch. Are you a team player or just about yourself? Be nice. Be positive. Be playful. Be confident. Be grateful. Be nice. And be nice.” — Brian Posen

“View everyone you’re playing with as potential teammates and not competition. Show us your unique comedic point of view and sensibilities. Don’t mimic pop culture or your favorite improvisers outright. It’s incredibly important to make your scene partner look good in scenes. If you can make anyone you play with look brilliant, then I want to cast you. If you wait until your partner stops talking and then launch into something ‘funny’ you were thinking about, you’re not going to get a callback. Be ok with spitting out coal and turning it into a diamond. There’s always a handful of people in auditions who struggle and shut down, trying to think of the absolute most brilliant or perfect thing to say for an initiation or response, trying to spit out a diamond. Just react and go from there. I’d rather see a scene start a bit slower and watch the humor build than see a scene start with a killer one liner and then tank because there’s nowhere else to go.” — Adal Rifai

After the Audition

“Once that audition is done, leave it there and move on. Don’t play out the audition in your head and think of things you could’ve done differently. You’ll never be able to change it. Be a nice person. It’s a small community and we talk to each other. And, if you don’t get it, audition again. Follow the fear.” — Jay Sukow

“Depending on the audition, send a ‘thank you’ letter within a few days of the audition. Believe me, a ‘thank you’ goes far and leaves an impression.” — Brian Posen

“Never give up. Also know when to say ‘when.’ Is this goal important to your overall career? Maybe one theater isn’t grooving with your brand or sensibility. That’s fine — go somewhere else and try another theater. If all fails, create your own community of like-minded people to perform and network with. If you are affected too much by rejection then this isn’t a career you want to get into. The wins may be small, but they outweigh the losses by a long-shot.” — Amey Goerlich


What are your best tips for rocking improv auditions? Share in the comments below.

Don’t forget to register for the last available spots in Jimmy Carrane’s upcoming Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives (July 11-12 and 25-26) before they’re gone!

When Your Friends Move On

Jay Sukow is a great improviser and teacher here in Chicago. He’s part of the old guard; he’s been improvising, teaching and directing for years. His students worship him, and rightfully so. He is so positive and affirming in his approach that it makes me jealous.

This July, Jay and his wife and two kids are packing up and moving to Los Angeles. That makes him yet another person in the long line of improvisers who has moved from Chicago to LA.

Whenever someone from the Chicago improv scene moves to LA, I feel some sadness and a sense of abandonment. It’s like being held back a grade in school and watching your friends move on. My brain processes their move as a rejection, and I think that I’m not good enough and I’m never going to make it, like a 38-year-old relief pitcher in the minor leagues who knows he’s never getting to the majors.

Moving to LA has always been a goal of mine for all the wrong reasons. I always thought LA equals fame, and fame equals happiness. For years, fame was my higher power. I was obsessed by it. I was convinced that if I ever got some, it would stop me from feeling so shitty about myself. I know it’s shallow and I read way too many tabloids, but that’s what I thought.

Now, I realize I had it all backwards. Fame will never fill that I-am-not-good-enough hole. That is work for me and my licensed therapist.

And after seeing so many of my friends leave Chicago for the greener pastures in LA, I have also slowly realized that moving to LA is no guarantee of fame and fortune. For every person from Chicago who’s “made it” in LA, there are 30 other people who are still struggling. And LA doesn’t a give a shit how high you’ve risen on the comedy food chain somewhere else. Once you enter the city limits, you are starting over.

I have friends who have been regulars on network TV shows or have gotten huge parts in major studio movies and a couple of years later, they are worried about how they are going to pay their rent.

People want to believe that fame is luck, and that just being in the right city will be your ticket to a big break. But the truth is, the people who I’ve known who are famous worked their asses off to get there. People who are famous and successful do it through something called hard-fucking-work.

Today, as a result of the work I’ve been doing in my teaching and with my Improv Nerd podcast, my “need” for fame is less. So much so that it is confusing. I don’t know if I am giving up on my dream or my life is getting better. I am not going to lie to you; yes, I would still love to be famous, live in a beach house in Malibu on the ocean and hang out with my other celebrity friends, but I do realize that having those things won’t solve my problems.

I remember asking Jeff Garlin about fame when he was a guest on Improv Nerd and he said that that fame just magnifies what you already are: If you are a jerk and you get famous, you become a bigger jerk, and if you are a nice person and you become famous, you become a nicer person. So it was clear to me that if anything, my low self-esteem would just get worse, not better, with fame.

So now, with Jay leaving, I’m not as jealous and bitter as I usually would be. In fact, I’m happy for him and I wish him well. This is good news, and I think it means I am getting healthier. And between us, I secretly hope that since if I let go of trying to be famous, maybe it will increase my chances.

Take a trip to Chicago this summer to study with Jimmy Carrane! Spots are still available for his two Summer Intensives: July 11-12 and July 25-26. Sign up today!

Accepting Other People’s Success

Accepting other people’s success is not easy. Sooner or later it will happen to all of us: One of our friends will get ahead while we are left behind. It’s always hardest with the people we are closest to.

You may start out in improv classes with people, and some of them will end up making a Harold team but you won’t. Or they will get cast in a show or be hired by a big theater before you do. They may get an agent before you, and end up doing commercials, TV and film, while you’re still taking classes.

I’ve been feeling that way lately, now that Steve Carell has been nominated for an Oscar. Back in the ’90s here in Chicago, Steve was on the Second City Mainstage. I was in the same building writing and teaching corporate workshops for Second City Communications. Even back then, Steve was someone we all aspired to be.

Recently my wife, Lauren, very seriously said to me, “Aren’t you excited for Steve Carell’s nomination? I mean, if he did it, don’t you think you could do it, too?”

(For the sake of this blog, I wish I could say yes.)

My jaw dropped and my face had that “are-you-kidding-me?” look on it as “NO” dropped out of mouth, which sounded more like a “Fuck You.” If I was doing an improv scene with my wife, it’s clear I just denied her reality.

Lauren was a bit surprised that I had such a strong reaction.

I trust Lauren because she always been brutally honest with me about my acting, improv and the size of my penis. And she was sincere, which made it even crazier for me. I guess the crazy part was that I would not allow myself to even go there, to even think for a second that if Steve Carell did it, I could do it, too. I think they call this limited thinking.

When we hear news of people’s success there are really two ways of dealing with it. One is self-pity, thinking “What am I doing wrong? Everyone else is having success except me. I will never get it.” The other is to be inspired and think, “If they can do it, I can do it, too.”

Now, I am not close to Steve Carell, and to say I am one of his peers is a stretch, but I have been fortunate to work with other great people who have gone on to do great things, and over the years, I’ve realized that if one of my friends gets a great opportunity – a chance to be on a boat with Second City, a spot on the Mainstage, a pilot on TV – that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It means I am friends with the winners.

When Jay Sukow was a guest on Improv Nerd his advice for improvisers was to “play with people who are better than you.” In so many words, he was saying “Hang with the winners.”

It’s not easy to work with people who are better than you, especially if your goal is to be the funniest or the best or the audience’s favorite. When you work with people who are better than you are, you can often feel like shit and tell yourself you aren’t funny at all. But take it from me: Instead of having the goal of being the funniest person on your team, try to have the goal of just getting better. And when you play with people who are better than you are, that’s exactly what happens.

I remember getting to play with TJ Jagodowski on Carl and The Passions. TJ is Mozart. When I played with him, I first had to let go of the idea of being the best or the funniest, and once I did, I felt relief realizing I was never going to be better than he is. Your ego always wants you to be the best or the funniest, but the artist part of you is always going to want to play with the best.

When you hang with the winners, you’re bound to see many of them go on to land great opportunities. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you suck, it just means they’re paving the way for you.

Experience Jimmy Carrane’s unique method of the Art of Slow Comedy during a One-Day Intensive on April 25. Perfect if you’re going to be in town for the Chicago Improv Festival. Sign up today!

Beware of the buzz kill

Beware of the buzz kill. That person who is in your group or in your class who takes a perfectly good show or class and shits all over it. They do it with their words. They do it with their negativity. Have pity on them; they don’t know any better. I should know, I am that person. I am the buzz kill.

That is how I am wired. It is a character defect. I cannot let myself have too much fun in my life – and that’s especially true when I improvise. It is as if my thermostat can only go to 62 degrees, and when I try to go higher and am having a great time, a mechanism kicks in and tries to regulate it. I open my mouth and try to find something wrong. The more fun I have, the harder I have to work to find something to regulate the temperature. But I will always find it. I am a professional.

It happened last night, after an incredibly fun show with two people I love improvising with: John Hildreth and Jay Sukow. I am so grateful that I get to work with them. They are both so filled with talent and positivity that I am hoping some of it rubs off on me.

After a show of 45 minutes of pure bliss, John and Jay look like two teenage boys at an amusement park who just got off the roller coaster and want to get back in line to go on it again. I am the dark looming cloud. We go back stage. The excitement is still in the air and on their faces, and I say, “I think we could be more focused in our warm ups before the show, instead of talking about Second City we could spend the last 5 to 10 minutes before we go on stage focusing on what we want to do in the show.” God help me.

The thing about buzz kills is they are usually smart, respected and rationale people. Like myself. They are so noble in their efforts and so full of shit at the time. So their points can make sense, but no one really wants to hear them at that moment, since everyone is still having a great time. The buzz kill’s goal is to have you join them in their misery.

We had a quick, thoughtful discussion on how we would warm up next time. And during that conversation here is the best part: I caught myself. “You know what? I am a buzz kill,” I said. “When I have too much fun I look for something to bring it down.”

I was proud of myself for saying that because you know what? I don’t want to be like that anymore. I really don’t. I actually hate that about myself, I do.

I have been doing this my whole life and believe me, it’s not just with improv.

People say we can use the concepts we learn in improv and apply them to our everyday life, but I believe the opposite is also true. There are things about myself that only become obvious to me before, during or after improvising and one thing is clear, I am a buzz kill and I really don’t want to be that person in the group any more. Who does?