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Being Open to Learning

If you want to get better at your art, you have to constantly stay open to learning.

This has not always come easily for me. After a couple of years of improv classes, I thought I had it all figured out. I was done with classes. I was more interested in the results than in getting better.

But a true artist (and I know plenty) never stops learning.

Today, as old as I am and as big as my ego can be at times, I am grateful that I do a pretty good job at staying opening to learning.

I would even say that learning brings me joy. And if you have been reading this blog for some time, you know joy does not come easy for me, either.

When it comes to learning, this weekend was a big deal for me. On Saturday I re-opened my one person show, “World’s Greatest Dad(?),” and it went extremely well. The show and my performance keeps getting stronger because I willing to learn.

For this run, I am working with stand-up comedian Dave Maher. Dave is about 20 years younger than I am, but I wanted to work with him because he had put up a successful one-person show called “The Coma Show” about him waking up from a coma. I also like his style of comedy, so despite the age difference, I decided to give him a call.

We’ve been working together for several weeks, rehearsing and tightening the show. He is smart, funny and gives honest feedback. He’s given me writing notes, performance notes and helped me with the show’s structure. Working with him has been really fun, and I’m so grateful for all of the help. Now I just need to slow down a little and pause for the laughs a little more.

Then on Sunday, was the 8th anniversary show of Jimmy and Johnnie, and our special guest was TJ Jagodowski. I have always learned by watching TJ improvise, and I learn even faster when I am lucky enough to play with him.

TJ’s and John Hildreth’s approach to improv is similar — they can organically find a point of view for character in a scene in a matter of seconds and just heighten the shit out of it. This is something I struggle with since I am more reactive in my improv.

As an improviser, TJ always plays at the top of his character’s intelligence, he always responds honestly, and he always brings a sense of playfulness to his improvisation. This can be ego-deflating or inspiring, or a little of both.

When I play with him, it can be easy to fall into the trap of comparing myself to him, but when I do that and tell myself I’m shit, I block myself from learning. Instead, I try to approach playing with TJ as if I’m in a grad school class for improv, and remember that playing with someone who is better than me can only make me better, too.

I am grateful today that I am able to keep learning from these artists and don’t have to leave Chicago to do so.

Are you a seasoned improviser looking to get out of a rut? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Advanced Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on Jan. 4! Sign up today!

My Advice for Someone Starting Out in Improv Today

At the end of every Improv Nerd podcast, I ask the guest, “What is one piece of advice you would give someone starting out in improv today?” Often when I go out of town to teach a workshop, a very smart student who listens to the podcast will ask me the same question. My answer is usually pretty rambling, because I am pretty rambling, even though I have rehearsed what I’m going to say in the car 100 times.

So today, I decided to share with you what my one piece of advice is. And to keep with the theme of “rambling,” my answer is actually in three parts.

  1. Be Kind to Everyone
    Yes, you have heard it a million times, but nobody has told you why. So why do we have to be kind or nice to everyone in improv? For pure selfish reasons. Those people you judged and thought they had no talent and sucked may surprise you and either get great or eventually get a job as a producer, director, writer, or casting agent and will be in a position to help further your career. That is, if you were smart enough to be kind them and kept your mouth shut.
  1. Get Outside Help
    The opportunities I have blown are legendary because I was so messed up, and had no outside help. I was trying to make all my decisions myself. Who knows where I would be today had a gotten some good professional help along the way? When I was 30, I had an audition for SNL. They were going to fly me out there and put me up in hotel. And the Monday that I was supposed to leave, I walked into my agent’s office and said, “I don’t do sketch.” Needless to say, I never got on the plane. Left to your own devices these are the kind decisions you can make — not very good ones.

    If that was the only opportunity I fucked up, that would be enough, but I once made a list of all of the stupid decisions I made or opportunities I turned down, and it was at least 74 things that I said no to when I could have said yes. So if you are getting in your own way, for God’s sake get into therapy, a support group, a 12-program, whatever. Don’t rely on improv to solve all your emotional needs, because it won’t.

  1. Always Be Learning
    There’s a popular acronym in sales and that is ABC: Always Be Closing. In improv, the arts, and yes, in life, it’s ABL: Always Be Learning. I have wasted too much time wanting to be the funniest or wanting to be the best or wanting to be perfect at the expense of learning. Any time I approach a job, or a show, or a class I’m teaching or an interview I’m conducting with the attitude that I’m just learning, I am so much better off. And remember, just because you are great at improv does not mean you are going to be a great screen writer or a great on-camera actor. If that is what you want to be, then put yourself in position to humble yourself and learn those skills. A class is always a good place to start.

Want to study improv with Jimmy Carrane? You’re in luck! His next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class starts Feb. 17. Register by Feb. 1 to get Early Bird pricing. Sign up today!

How bombing made me a better improviser

We recently held a little contest to win a free spot in my upcoming workshop. We asked improvisers to tell us about a time that they had bombed, and what they learned from it.

Like every improviser, I’ve had more than my share of shows where I have bombed.

I have not only bombed on stage, but in all aspects of my life. In my improv, in auditions, in my teaching, in interviewing people for the podcast, in actual paying gigs. Bombing is never pleasant. But unfortunately, if we try to avoid it, it only makes things worse. No one wants to bomb, but to get good at anything you need to have “bombed” many times over. The arts suck that way. Some people will learn from it. Others will use it as an excuse to quit. It’s up to you. The thing I’ve learned about bombing is that it never goes away. You just start to experience it differently.  The longer you try at something, the higher the level of your bombing.

We got so many great submissions for this contest. The stories of bombing you shared with us were all too relatable! But Daniel Anderson’s (ultimately positive) experience with bombing took the cake, and also won the contest.

“The Flower Shop Bangers were having their third show together. We really felt we had good chemistry and so we were filming this submission. The show had mixed reviews among our cast. I felt the show was awkward, another person really enjoyed it, and I don’t remember the third guy’s opinion. Well, we posted the video on YouTube and shared it on Facebook.

“I then woke up one morning to find our video was getting comments… lots of comments. I was trying to figure out how this happened, and I noticed that one of them said, ‘You always comment on /r/cringe videos.’ At that moment, I knew that our video had been posted to the cringe section on reddit.

“I shared it with my team. We agreed that it was pretty cowardly for someone to anonymously post this on the Internet, and it is not helpful when trying to foster a supportive community. We made a pact to take this as constructive criticism. Since this experience of ‘free coaching,’ we have been committing ourselves to making more relationship-based choices. Two of us are still in Chicago today and still perform as the Flower Shop Bangers on a regular basis.”

Daniel turned a “bombed” performance into a real learning experience, and handled the criticism of strangers with grace. Thanks to Daniel for sharing your experience and congrats on winning the workshop contest. And thanks to everyone brave enough to submit their stories. I hope we all keep bombing our way up the ladder.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for the Art of Sow Comedy Level 1: (Fun)damentals now. The early-bird discount ends Aug. 31st and spots are limited, so hurry!

Taking a Stand-Up Class

Growing up as a fat, awkward and insecure teenager, I had a dream of performing stand-up comedy. Over the last 33 years, I’ve gotten sidetracked from that by this thing called improvising.

But recently I had been so burnt out on teaching improv that I knew I had to get back to doing something that the little boy inside of me would be ecstatic about, something that was just purely fun.

So a month ago, my wife, Lauren, suggested I take a stand-up class. I liked the idea, not only because I wanted to re-charge by batteries, but also because I have not taken a class of any kind in several years.

I didn’t know where to study, so I did what most people do: I posted it on Facebook and waited for advice.

As soon as I posted the question, I got responses like, “Why should you take a stand-up class? You should be teaching them,” and “Jimmy, you had successful one-man shows that were funny as shit. You should already know how to do this.”

The comments were great for my ego, but not so good for my art. Artists need humility, and nothing is more humbling than taking a class. When you take a class, you are saying, “I don’t know, so teach me something new.”

It is important to keep taking classes and workshops because we are never finished learning. Learning is exciting and it pulls your brain into a different direction and makes your mind work in ways you didn’t think were possible. It’s also scary and frustrating, but I know that if I am frustrated with something, it is just a sign that I’m learning something new.

So, despite the lack of help I got on Facebook, I found a stand-up class at the Lincoln Lodge and signed up, and I have to tell you that taking this class is one of the most liberating things I’ve done in years.

Last week, we had to present three minutes of stand-up to the class, and even though I was the oldest person in the class by 20 years and had the most stage experience, I was terrified. That’s why I love it: I am out of my comfort zone on so many different levels. It’s like I have to re-learn how to speak or walk, and even though it’s awkward, I feel free.

There’s also a part of me that feels sad and regretful, like I should have done this earlier, but at least I am doing it now, and there is something to be said for that.

Often, when I go to different cities across the country to teach improv workshops, the organizer will tell me that there are a group of improvisers who won’t take any workshops, regardless of who they bring in because they think they are above it.

I used to get angry at those people who didn’t want to learn something new, but now I just feel sad for what they are missing out on and what I’ve been missing out on, too.

The goal in this art form is to always being getting better. There are a lot of different ways to do that, but if we don’t come from a place where we can learn something new, we are dead. We are killing our creative soul. Our inspiration dries up and our art suffers. I am so glad I found a class just in time.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? His next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class starts Sept. 23! Secure your spot today!