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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?

How I Kill Joy

Joy is something I am trying to work on in all aspects of my life, especially in my improvising and my teaching. For years, I really didn’t know how to feel joy, and I resented people who seemed happy.

God forbid if I met someone who had joy, or worse, had it all the time. In my mind I would write them off as a fake or phony and believed deep down they were more miserable, or at least as miserable, as I was.

Things are starting to change though, through my crazy therapist, my loving wife, Lauren, and even my cat, Princess Coco. Now, I am aware of how little joy I have, and of how when I do get some, how quickly I try to kill it. Today I have a desire to experience more joy in my life. I want to know more about this feeling that seems to have escaped me in my life.

Last weekend I went to the Huge Theater in Minneapolis to teach a series of workshops and do a live episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was Jill Bernard, who along with Butch Roy and Nels Lennes, is truly doing missionary work by spreading the word of long form improv throughout the Twin Cities by operating a booming training center and theater that is running out of performance slots for improvisers.

Jill is also an amazing teacher and performer and one of the most joyful people I know. In fact, she specializes in teaching her students that “they are enough” through joy.

So, during Improv Nerd, I asked Jill, “How do you teach joy?” (The question was more for me than for her.)

She replied in her quirky, somewhat performance artist way, “I pretend I’m a jar of olives.”

The audience laughed, but I was confused. A jar of olives? People fly her all over the country and pay her all this money to teach improv and she is a jar of olives?

Instead of playing with the idea and joining in, like a good improviser, I needed to dissect it even more. “What do you mean?”

She explained that she is not any jar. She’s a skinny jar, with a narrow label, the kind of jar of olives that’s hard to find these days. My brain could not wrap itself around it. She politely pointed out that she could see why I had such hard time with joy. Clearly, I was missing an opportunity to experience joy here, and I was obviously getting more enjoyment out of killing other people’s joy than creating my own.

As she continued to describe the jar of olives in greater detail, I got lost and realized I had no answer to my question and that I needed to move on. Or maybe I had the answer I just did not understand it.

It did not hit me until 48 hours later what she meant. That a jar of olives was getting all this money to teach a workshop. That a jar of olives was flown to Argentina to teach a workshop. That if you really believe you are a jar of olives, how can you take yourself so seriously?

This made sense to me, because I know that many improvisers, me included, take improv way too seriously, so seriously that they are strangling the joy, choking it to death.

And improv is not life and death, though I am one of those people who makes it that way on stage and especially in the classroom, because that is how I live my life. Improv is just joy. Audiences come to watch our shows to see that joy on stage, and if they are smart enough, they eventually take classes in improv to experience that joy.

Even though I have been improvising and teaching for a long time, I keep forgetting this. The good news is today, I am willing to admit that this is something I need to work on, desperately, not only on stage and in my classroom but in all areas of my life. How do you bring joy to improv? I’d love your ideas.