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181: Kristy and Jethro Nolen

Kristy and Jethro Nolan are the co-founders of The Arcade Comedy Theater in Pittsburgh. They are incredibly accomplished improvisers and teachers who have performed at iO-Chicago and Boom Chicago in Amsterdam and taught at the Second City. Jimmy talks to then how they met in improv, why they moved from LA to Pittsburgh, and how they have adjusted to teaching improv in a smaller market.

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!

Improv is all about the people

I have gotten to work with some pretty incredible people over the years in improv, as a performer, a teacher and a director. And I will tell you this in all sincerity: The best part of improvising has been the people.

This is an art form based in community, and I think one of my strongest assets as a teacher and director is to help build that community. In fact, nothing makes me more proud than when a class I teach or a group I direct becomes good friends.

Years ago I worked with an improv group in Chicago that was made of people who had originally met eat other in my Art of Slow Comedy Class. It was one of those classes where they had chemistry and talent, and it came together organically. After studying with me for two levels, they formed their own independent group called My Naked Friends.

Since they enjoyed working with me so much, they brought me in to direct. They did some great work, as ensembles do when they commit to the process, the director, and themselves. We put up several runs of several different shows at different theaters in the city and we were successful.

But after a while, the group disbanded. There came a point when we all knew the group had run its course; it didn’t need to be spoken. The last run of shows was rough. I was burned out and the cast had gotten a little crispy around the edges. It’s like having a tire with a slow leak, except instead of leaking air, we were leaking creative energy. And then one day you get up to drive to the grocery store and your tire is flat, and you’d rather get a new car instead of fixing the tire. When a group is over, it’s over.

When groups break up, there are so many mixed feelings. There is sadness, fear and a sense of relief. Sadness because you will miss the people. Fear because you don’t know what is next. And a sense of relief that you got out safely.

It turns out, though, that even though the group disbanded, the friendships didn’t end.

As some of the members of My Naked Friends moved out to L.A. to pursue solo projects, I kept in contact with one of the members, Mike Perri, and he happily he told me that a core of them had stayed close and supportive of each other, which is tough to do in a town that has a shortage of support. They had created something bigger than a group, they had created friendships.

A couple of years ago, I went to L.A. for a vacation. Usually, L.A. scares me. I have had bad experiences in that town, and going back there is like going back to a fancy restaurant where you got food poisoning.

This time was different. To my surprise, the community we had all built with My Naked Friends had included me. They didn’t see me as just their teacher, but they saw me as a friend. Mike took me out to lunch and showed me around, Julia Saboda put me up in her spare bedroom and Gerry Christoff met me for breakfast.

I also got together with other people who were peers – people who I started out with in Chicago, who have gone on to fame and fortune. And even though we’ve all moved on to different things in different parts of the country, there is a bond with those people that will always make them feel like family.

I felt gratitude that people took time out to see me on that trip. I felt loved, I felt like a rock star, even though it had been years since I had performed with them or had them in my classroom. We tell ourselves we are creating shows, but really we are creating something more lasting and that is friendships. And for me, that is the most rewarding part of improv: the people.

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