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Being a Comedy Snob

I am a comedy snob. And worse, for years I thought that was an asset. God help me!

I have always been a comedy snob since I was a third grader at Joseph Sears School. I couldn’t understand why my friends would watch Three’s Company over comedies like M.A.S.H. or Bob Newhart. I secretly thought “What is wrong with them?”

As I got older and started studying improv, it got worse. When I was in college, I studied with the legendary improv guru Del Close who would preach in his booming voice to “play to the top of your intelligence.” Back then, we at the Improv Olympic had a chip on our shoulder, feeling somewhat over shadowed by Second City. Long form was not really accepted yet, so we thought of ourselves as purists, though that was an exaggeration. We were improv snobs. It was like we were from the Ivy League of improv, and we carried ourselves with a little swagger and a lot of superiority.

Even though I was green and did not have a clue what I was doing, it did not prevent me from standing in the back during improv shows and criticizing the players on stage. I cannot tell you how many hours I wasted in smoky bars or at all-night diners eating stale pie and drinking burnt coffee ripping other people’s improv.

Unfortunately, I’m still a comedy snob. Although I don’t do it as much in my performing or teaching, I have found it showing up in my everyday life.

If you haven’t figured it our already, I am in therapy. I go to group therapy twice a week. My therapist is a brilliant man with one of the corniest senses of humor. He loves a good pun, and when he comes up with a “good one” his face lights up like a Christmas tree. He’s so fucking proud of himself, and it’s so annoying I cannot contain myself. I roll my eyes in the back of my head. I have a running joke with him. Since most of us in the group are addicts in recovery, I say, “Looks likes you’ve had a comedy relapse.”

If that’s not enough, there is this older guy who I am friends with. He is very wise. I have a lot of respect for him, except when he tries to be funny. He’s one of those people who thinks he’s funnier than he actually is. It’s actually a disease. A couple of weeks ago we got together and as we joked around he could not resist and opened his mouth with one of his typically flat jokes that was dead on arrival. But this time, I watched his face. It lit up when he told it. He was filled with joy. And for a of couple seconds, this old, wrinkled, worn face transformed into that of a giddy 14-year-old boy. He was playing. He was having fun. I had never seen this before. I was too busy being a snob. I had missed the best part.

When I realized this, I felt sick. I felt sad. I had this insight that I was criticizing how people play. What an awful thing to do. And in the process, I was squashing their joy, their fun, their passion. Much like my parents did to me growing up. I do not want to be my parents. I don’t know many people who do.

Improv is all about having fun. So if maybe you’re a snob like me and say long form is better than short form, or Johnstone is better than Del Close, or UCB is better than the Annoyance, or musical improv is better than scenic improv, remember that what you’re judging is how people play. The next time you go to the park or playground and see children playing, my guess is you are not going to critique how they are play. You accept them for who they are. Which is something I could learn. Because being a comedy snob has gotten me nowhere in my professional career, or, most importantly, in my everyday life.

Last chance to study with Jimmy Carrane in 2014! Sign up for his Advanced Ensemble Class, taking place on Saturdays from 12-2 p.m. at Stage 773 starting Oct. 25. Early Bird Special ends Oct. 13!

Go Ahead & Criticize Me

We all criticize others, mostly behind people’s backs. We rarely get caught, and the best part is it makes us feel better for about 90 seconds. Smoking crack lasts longer. When I am ripping on a show or a movie or actor I just saw, though the words may be different, the premise is always the same: “How dare they live their dream?”

Famous actors understand that being criticized is just part of their job. They accept that they are going to have just as many fans as they do critics.

The bigger and more successful you become, the more criticism you will receive. This is a fact. You can’t have one without the other. In fact, if you aren’t getting any criticism, your career probably isn’t going anywhere.

So remember, when your friends get jealous that you have gotten cast in a show or made a Harold team, take it as a compliment; it means you are succeeding. Criticism is an affirmation that you are on your way.

The problem is when you get it, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s painful, it stings, and it makes you want to quit.

Promoting yourself, asking people to come to your show, creating a new show or a new web series is vulnerable, and by putting yourself out there, you’re bound to risk getting criticism, which is why I have often avoided it. I have made some progress in that department, though I still I have a ways to go.

When I have new episodes of Improv Nerd or a new blog or a new class coming up, one of the ways I get the word out is with social media, which has become a somewhat safe way to promote yourself. I often post on improv Facebook groups, and one that I post on frequently is Chicago Improvisers Unite. Last weekend, a former student posted on the wall: “I am leaving this group due to the fact that it is nothing but Jimmy Carrane spam.”

I am not going to lie. I immediately felt shame. I felt hurt, I wanted to hide, I wanted to defend myself, I wanted to lash out, and I did not want to post on that wall again — all shame. I was a mess.

In the past, when I am embarrassed, I keep to myself – it’s called shame prevention. Thank God this doesn’t work anymore, so I broke my silence and told my wife, Lauren, while we were driving in our rental car to her parents’ house for Christmas on the winding roads of Pennsylvania.

My wife is smart and wise and she said “It’s a sign that you are putting yourself out there and getting bigger.” I did not what to hear that. I was enjoying sitting in the pool of shame; it’s always warm and comfortable this time of year. Then I called my friend, Darryl, and he basically said the same thing: “You are getting bigger.” Then I called my friend, Ryan, who is an actor, who said the same thing: “You are getting bigger.”

You can’t argue with the rule of threes here.

The real problem was not what the person posted on the wall. The real problem was me and being uncomfortable with becoming more successful. He was paying me a compliment, a huge one, and in all my shame and anger, I forgot to thank him. So I will now: Thank you, Mike Sandoval, because you see me as far more successful than I see myself, and for that I am truly grateful. I am on my way.

What to do when your team makes dumb choices

A friend called me recently and said he had just had one of the “worst improvisational shows” of his short career. His group was doing a Harold, and before the show the director had specifically instructed them to let the first beat be only two-person scenes, no walk-ons.

Guess what? It was a cluster fuck. They had walk-ons in the first beat and sound effects from the back line that high jacked the scenes. It was as if the group hadn’t heard a thing the director said to them.

The way he described it, it sounded like a real improv shit storm, the type that if you’ve been around a while, you have experienced hundreds of times before and that you’re hoping you never have to experience again.

My friend went on to explain that because his teammates weren’t “doing it right,” he shut down, felt like he couldn’t participate, and then wanted to single handedly get the whole group back on track.

Oh boy, could I relate, both on stage and off. In his story he covered ALL my flaws: the judgment, the superiority, the need to save the rest of the team, and in the process, once again killing the joy and ruining any opportunity to have fun, which is exactly how I live my life.

Judgment is something we all struggle with as improvisers. We’ve all been on stage when someone starts doing or saying something we think is stupid, and we feel frustrated and annoyed with our teammates.

We might not know this, but we’re judging because we feel scared. We often think if we stick to the “rules” and do it the “right way,” we’ll feel safer, not really realizing that there are no rules. In improv, rules are just guidelines, and everyone on stage has a different idea of the right way to improvise. When you judge you separate yourself from your group.

So what do you do when you start judging on stage? Well, first recognize what you are doing and then, second, realize that everything is in divine order, meaning that this is how the show is supposed to go. You can resist what’s happening and judge it, like I often do, or you can find the handle of the rocket ship and let it take you for a ride.

Remember, you are the problem, not them, and it’s your job to find a way back in. Supporting all the initiations, being vigilant about agreement and matching their energy and tone are great ways of re-joining your group.

I used to work with a person in an improv group who would say “No” in a lot in scenes — I mean a flat-out “no” — and yes, I judged the shit out of this person. Yes, it was frustrating, and yes, I wanted to quit. Before one of our shows, a friend gave me the best piece of advice: “Jimmy, you are technically a great improviser. Overly agree to whatever this person says on stage.” I took his advice and it worked and it was fun again.

I have the habit, too, of judging people every time they start doing a silly scene, like ones with kids in it or a crazy premise, because I don’t think that is the “right way to improvise,” which is a made-up rule in my head. But when I join people who are doing silly scenes, I have a ball and it always makes me a better improviser. Playing silly gets me out of my comfort zone, and I say and do things that surprise me.

Carl and the Passions had some of smartest, headiest people, but one time I remember doing a hilarious scene where three of us just stood there talking about someone’s mother. It wasn’t the way I usually play, but it was pure agreement, and we were simply matching each other’s energies, making it one of the most memorable scenes.

Doing those kind of scenes helps me let go of control and gives me permission to have fun, which is something I have been resisting since I was born.

Remember, often you will not realize you are judging other people’s ideas until after the show, like my friend realized when we talking on the phone. The important part is to acknowledge that you were judging their ideas and realize that judging is just part of the learning curve.

I am not saying this easy. I continue to struggle with judging, and I am almost 50, a lot older than most of the people reading this blog, but something tells me if I can overcome this in my improv, it may actually help me in my life

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.

Going to the dark side

There’s been something coming up lately in my improv classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, that I call the dark side.

Students will be doing a scene with a so-called dark subject matter — pedophilia, racism, abortion — and the scene will end up being more dramatic than funny. Afterwards, the students will look shaken and have a stunned look on their face, and the first thing that will come out their mouths is, “What’s the point of doing that? It’s not funny.”

In most cases it’s not. Is it emotionally compelling? Yes. Funny? Some of the time. As Norm Holly from Second City recently said to me, it takes a sophisticated player to make dark subject matter funny.

So if you’re just starting out in improv, what’s the point to doing a gut-wrenching scene about finding out your girlfriend had an abortion she never told you about or playing a creepy neighbor who is having sex with a 14-year-old?

The point is going to the dark side helps you learn how to act.

Listen up, here, because this important. First and foremost YOU ARE AN ACTOR, which means you have to learn how to react with emotional honestly. Before you can play something funny, you have to learn how to play it real.

You might think that improv is just comedy, not acting, but that is not true. The best improvisers usually are the best actors, and if you want to go on to do work that eventually pays and gives you more exposure, like commercials, TV and film, you are going to have get comfortable with just acting.

I totally get why improvisers resist doing dark scenes. Often, improvisers are also afraid to play dark characters because they think when they get off stage people may think they are actually the character they just portrayed.

But learning how to go to the dark side is important because we need to learn how play a variety of characters and a variety of emotions. The goal of an improviser is to play all spectrums of life, the dark and the light, and to use all the colors of your palate. Most improvisers have the whole playing positive thing down pretty well, but they need to be pushed toward the thing they avoid the most — the dark side of life.

If you want to be good at long form, you have carry “variety” in your tool belt and be able to do the dark scenes as well as the positive scenes.

So if you find yourself doing a dark, dramatic gut-wrenching scene about date raping your girlfriend — and it will happen, it’s bound to happen, I hope it happens — by all means stay with it. Commit even more to the emotions, heighten the drama and then when it’s over, see what it’s like to come out on the other side.

Whatever you do, don’t rip yourself off from this experience by bailing on yourself and scene partner by trying to turn it into something funny. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Actually it’s good, and it doesn’t have to make sense while you are doing it.

Trust me, you will learn a lot from this — how far you are willing to go, how far you need to go, what it’s like to take up that much space on stage and not be funny, what you can do next time to make it funny, and on and on.

Sometimes it’s just helpful for an improviser to go there, swinging the pendulum to other side, just to see how it feels. And when you are finished, by all means ask your teacher: “What was the point of that? It isn’t funny.” And see what happens.

3 Ways to Empower Your Improv

3 Ways To Empower Your Improv

Jimmy Carrane and Matt Besser on Improv NerdDo you ever get discouraged in your improv and want to quit? Have you tried out for a team and not made it, or watched as other people from your level move up and you don’t? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve felt like giving up so many times throughout the years, I can’t even count.

But lately, I’ve been realizing instead of focusing on what I’m not getting, I need to focus on what I like to do. Once I do that, I’ll be passionate and excited about improv again, and less likely to throw in the towel.

Here are my top 3 tips for what you can do to empower your improv:

1. Do the improv you like and stop judging the rest

People often worry that they’re doing the wrong kind of improv. If they do short form, they think they should be doing long form. If they like long form, they think they should be mastering sketch.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There is no right way to improvise.

I learned this lesson again recently when I was out in LA about to teach at Miles Stroth’s workshop. I woke up that morning and all I could think was, “I’m not the UCB, I’m not IO, I’m not Miles. How am I going to adapt to all of those popular LA styles of improv in this class?”

The thing is, I wasn’t. If I even tried to, I’d be an even bigger fraud than I already think I am. After calling my friend, Dan, who talked me off the ledge and said “The students who signed up for your workshop signed up to get you, not what they already get in LA.”

Oh, how quickly I forget the lesson I teach in my improv classes: “You are enough.”

Today, more than ever, there are not just two flavors of improv. There are close to 31 flavors, something for everyone. Sometimes we squabble over the different styles, and get caught up in whose method is right or wrong or what Del really meant that we lose sight of the fact that they’re all good ways. The only thing that matters is doing the style that you have fun doing. That’s it. So if you like the UCB style, do it. If you like to play slower like TJ and Dave, do it. If you like musical improv or short form or long form, do it. As long as you love doing it, do it, and stop judging the rest, because who cares?

2. Don’t let anyone or any institution say you can’t do it

I have seen great improvisers quit because they didn’t make a team, or their team was broken up, or they didn’t get hired by certain theater. If they knew it or not, they had given all their power to one place. They were looking for permission from one place, and when that place said no, they just gave up.

I have been on teams at IO that were broken up, I was in show called Jazz Freddy and saw most of my friends get hired by Second City. I have taught at institutions that wanted to renegotiate my terms and I chose to leave. Every time one of these blows happened, I was hurt and angry and felt sorry for myself, but after I got over the pain and embarrassment, those moments not only turned into something else good, but they turned into something bigger. We said it in our book, Improvising Better, and I believe it even more now after coming back from LA: Improv is bigger than all the institutions combined.

3. Focus on yourself

I know it’s hard, especially if you are as co-dependent as I am. When I was interviewing Matt Besser last week for Improv Nerd, a student said some people were being allowed to move up the level system at UCB who weren’t very good. What I would like to say to her today is “Focus on yourself.” It’s not your job to change the institution. Who is in the class is none of your business. When you’re thinking “why are they in the class?,” you are wasting your energy and taking away from your learning. Let the UCB worry about who is in the class. That’s why you’re paying them all that money, so you can be freed up to learn and have fun. If you need to say something to the institution to let your resentment go, I support you, but remember that things might not change. Regardless of what you’re focusing on — from the type of students in your class, to the teacher, to how you think the theater handles business — the result will be the same: Your improv will suffer. If you’re looking for drama, you won’t have to look too hard to find it. Just try to use that drama on stage instead of off.