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The results don't matter

I want to let you in on a little secret about improv: The results don’t matter.

I need to keep reminding myself of this one, because lately this has gotten in my way of my improvising and of teaching improvisation.

If I do an Improv Nerd and the interview does not blow people away or the improv is not hysterically funny, I feel I have failed. If teach I class and the students leave frustrated and confused, I feel I have failed. I am assigning a certain result and certain feeling to my shows and my teaching, and if I don’t live up to that expectation, I think I have failed as an improviser, a teacher, and worse, as a person.

The beautiful thing about improvisation is that it’s about process, pure process. When we do it and we stay out of the way we can end up with a wonderful product. When we bring our baggage to it and have all sorts of expectations about how it’s “supposed” to turn out, it becomes more about our self-esteem than the work. And when that happens, it sucks and it’s not worth doing.

I cannot tell you how many people I have had as guests on Improv Nerd who have said that they desperately wanted to get into Second City, and they audition multiple times and with no luck. As you soon as they gave up, they got in. I had always wanted to get into Second City myself, but I made it too important, it was too personal, it was about validation, and because I made it about my self-esteem, I ruined any chance I had for getting in.

At times with the Improv Nerd podcast and the Improv Nerd blog, I feel I’m not getting the results I think I deserve, and the funny thing is, when I started it, I had no expectations, I was just glad I was doing it. Now, that doesn’t seem to be enough. With the blog, I obsessively check how many people click on it. With the podcast, I obsessively look to see how many people have downloaded a certain episode. With the Improv Nerd Facebook page, I constantly check to see how many people have liked our page. I have gotten incredible emails from people all over the country saying how much the podcast and the blog have meant to them, and I appreciate them, every single one of them, but those emails can be like crack. I get a 20 minute high, and then I am back on the street looking for more. Why do I do this? Because I use all this to measure my self-worth.

I know it’s crazy. It’s screwed up, and I know if I want to go to the next level in my career, whatever that means, I need to let go of this. Whether I have 10 or 40, or 1,000 people read one of my blog posts, technically I am still the same kind, caring and generous person, but my brain does not work like that. Those wires have been crossed since I was two years old. I have to keep reminding myself why I am doing this, and the reason is simple: because I like it, and that should be enough. The rest of the other stuff doesn’t matter.

Improv is messy

To get good at something you have to be willing to get messy, which in terms of improv means you need to be able to do bad shows or bad classes over and over again in order to get good. That’s the secret formula — in improv, in art and in life. If you are reading this and you’re a perfectionist or a control freak like myself, I can’t think of a better remedy or a more frightening solution than to give yourself permission to suck at something first knowing that’s how you will get good. If you want to accelerate your learning, do it in front of people.

Unfortunately, most people give up and don’t want to go through a little pain to get the glory. That’s okay, the choice is yours: to be bitter, frustrated and angry when people express themselves or be the kind of person who everyone gravitates towards because you are expressing yourself on a regular basis. At my age, I perform more for my mental health than to be discovered. And that’s why I have so much respect for improvisers — they go up there in front of people knowing the odds of failing is higher than the odds of succeeding, yet they keep doing it. Is it because they are crazy? Yes, by normal standards they are nuts, but by artistic standards they are normal. They get it. They know what doesn’t kill you on stage makes you a better improviser.

Recently, I did an episode of Improv Nerd, a comedy podcast and live show, at the Chicago Improv Festival. I had done extensive research for the interview portion of the show, and with the help of my girlfriend, Lauren, had written down my questions.

When I got to the theater and unpacked my Whole Foods shopping bag with the raffle prizes, I realized I didn’t have the questions with me. “Shit, I am doomed,” I thought. “The show is going to suck.”

Then after about 30 seconds, something kicked in, much like when I teach a class and an exercise is going south. A message came into my head that somehow, this would make me a better interviewer. The truth is, I have I had been saying for weeks that I wanted the interview section to feel more conversational, and I guess tonight was the night. So with only five minutes before the show, I wrote the questions down, and did the show. I was forced to let go. It was supposed to be perfect, but instead it was a learning experience. The show was solid and fun. The specific learning never comes immediately. The fact that I did the show with such grace and that I instinctually trusted my skills as interviewer was lesson enough, and it helped with my confidence that I could do this show under any circumstance.

In terms of the other lessons, I have experienced enough failing to know that other lessons will follow. All I know is this would have never happened on it own. I needed a force of nature to have something like this happen, and I am grateful that it did. There is this saying that things happen for a reason, and I understand more in more as teacher and performer that this is where I need work in my life.