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.


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What I’ve Learned from John Hildreth

Sunday, Nov. 3 will mark the eighth anniversary of the Jimmy and Johnnie show. For the last eight years, on the first Sunday of the month John Hildreth and I and at least one special guest have improvised together. And the experience has really been a blast.

I can’t even take credit for the show’s beginning. John had been a guest on Improv Nerd and my producer at the time, Ben Capraro, suggested John and I should put a show on together. So John took the ball and ran with it. Originally Jimmy, Johnnie and Jet with Jet Eveleth. Jet moved to LA shortly after that, but we decided to continue doing the show and just find a guest to sit in with us each week.

When we started, I wasn’t very good. I was rusty and tentative and was having a hard time improvising again. I was putting too much pressure on myself, thinking, “I’d better be brilliant. I have been doing this for 25 years.”

It also took me a while to figure out how John played. Though we both are from the same generation of improvisers in Chicago, we had never performed together before. He was a Cardiff Giant guy, which was great bunch of improvisers out of the University of Chicago who always were very smart players and very character-based. I was more of an iO and Jazz Freddy guy, meaning I play very grounded scenes and am more trained to find the game in the scene. Even back when we were in our 20s, those two worlds didn’t collide.

So, as John and I performed together, it slowly became fun again to improvise, though it did not come overnight.

Today, with Jimmy and Johnnie, I get to play with some of the best improvisers in the city, and John is one of the best that I’ve ever played with.

The thing that’s so incredible about John is he always starts a scene with a strong point of view. And he does so organically. He gets it from a tiny little thing that someone says in the scene in the first couple of seconds. Then he keeps heightening the shit out of it until it’s super exaggerated and funny. It’s fun to watch and even better to improvise with. I have asked John hundreds of times how he does this, and I have never gotten an answer. It’s not that he doesn’t want to tell me, I think he just takes it for granted.

He is also up for trying new forms, even if they fall flat in the show. I am more cautious, but John wants to keep learning and keep pushing himself.

The other thing I admire about John is that he is very inclusive. We always have an opening act, typically former students of his or mine, and John is warm and friendly to them and it has become a tradition for us to take a selfie with our opening act and our special guest. This kind of inclusivety and camaraderie really inspires me and reminds me that we are all part of one big improv family.

Performing with John over the last eight years has really helped me become a better improviser. First of all, John’s energy and most of his choices are more positive than the dark-cloud, negative ones I like to play. And I’m happy to say that his positivity has been rubbing off on me.

I am also taking more risks and making bolder choices. I am more confident and relaxed on stage and yes, I would even say enjoying it.

I think a huge part of that comes from trust, not only trusting John as a performer and a person, but also trusting his talent. Every time I play with John, I know that he will be consistently funny. He’s one of those rare people who gets a laugh from the very first the first thing that comes out of his mouth. When we first started improvising together, I think I was more competitive with him and I wanted to be as funny or funnier than he was. But when I realized that wasn’t possible, I just started to relax and have more fun.

So on the eve of my next improv anniversary with John, I’d like to say thank you, John, for making me a better improviser. I’ve been honored to work with you over the past eight years, and here’s to many more.

Going Outside of Improv To Get Better At Improv

Lately, I have been trying my hand at stand-up and storytelling, doing some open mics around the city. So far, the results have been mixed, but where I am starting to see it pay off is in my improv.

Doing things outside of improv only makes you a better improviser. A lot of times I think that when I’m in a rut or have had a series of bad improv shows, the answer is to force a solution and just work harder. But the truth is, more improv doesn’t necessarily make me better. Sometimes it makes it worse. That is when I need to go out and do something that brings me joy so I won’t put so much pressure on myself when I’m doing improv.

I need to remember that it’s important to be filled up creatively, not only for my improv, but also for my teaching, and if you ask my wife, my life. Yes, I am easier to be around when I am creatively fulfilled. Having another creative outlet gives me more to give to my classes, to my scene partners on stage and to the audience, as well.

For me, I feel creatively fulfilled when I’m expressing myself, and sometimes improv can do that for me and sometimes it can’t. Any art form has its limits, and I get in trouble when I think I can get all of my needs met in one place. That is when I get stuck and frustrated.

That is what was starting to happen. Most of the time when I was doing a live version of Improv Nerd, I was making it life or death. I was putting way too much pressure on myself – all because I wasn’t allowing myself to have enough fun in the rest of my life. My whole life was serious, so my improv became serious, too.

Then this summer, I decided to take a stand-up class at the Lincoln Lodge. I spent time writing my set and perfecting my delivery. This led me to doing a few storytelling events at The Abbey Pub, Louder Than a Mom, and Surprise Party. And suddenly, out of nowhere, improv started to feel fun again, and isn’t that the point of all of this stuff anyway?

This past Sunday I had one of the best times I’ve had at an Improv Nerd show in a long time. Then after the show, I had to drive to Second City to celebrate the third year anniversary of a little improv show called “Jimmy and Johnny” that I do with the super talented John Hildreth. Each month we ask a special guest to join us to improvise. Our guest this time was one of my favorite people to improvise of all time: Susan Messing. We have known each other for more than 25 years and I love her. Of course, those two were great as always, and even though I thought I was a bit off, I had a blast working with them.

I actually came home that night feeling invigorated and, dare I admit it, happy. (No, not a typo or misprint. You read it right, happy.) That was the direct effect of me finding a way to fill my need for creativity outside of improv. Now, I just have to keep remembering it.

Don’t forget to get a copy of Jimmy’s new book, The Inner Game of Improv! Now available as a PDF or for Kindle at Amazon.

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?