191: Miles Stroth

Miles Stroth is the founder of the Pack Theater in Los Angeles. He is also an incredible improviser, teacher and director who was part of the legendary improv group The Family at iO Chicago in the ’90s. Jimmy talked to him at his theater in Los Angeles about being a hit by car, what he’s learned from other improvisers that makes him so good, and how the UCB Cagematch changed how he improvises.

Do you know how accomplished I am?

After interviewing Jon Favreau recently for an episode of Improv Nerd in a swanky hotel suite off Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I crawled back into my therapist’s office in pain and said, “He could not have been happier to see me, he gave a great interview, he even gave me a souvenir from the movie, The Jungle Book, and yet I left feeling ‘less than.’”

My therapist, who is not one to let me wallow in my self-pity, said, “Can’t you see you are as accomplished in what you do?”

“No, I can’t,” I said.

He pushed me: “In your teaching improv? In your interviewing?”

“No, I can’t,” I said again, as if he did not hear me the first time.

This is what I really believed. I have been torturing myself this way for years. I always feel this way because I compare everyone else’s accomplishments to mine, which is a game I never seem to win.

But after that conversation, something seems to have shifted.

Last week I was in LA pitching Improv Nerd as a TV show. I also lined up some interviews for some upcoming episodes of the podcast. I was fortunate to get to record the episodes out of the state-of-the-art studios at Starburns Industries, where records some of their podcasts. Dustin Marshall was there to produce, and I had set up four interviews with people I had worked with in Chicago.

Usually, when I measure myself up against people I started out with in improv in Chicago who have gone on to do work in LA, my internal scale shows them as being more successful than I am. They have far more TV and film credits and more money than I do, two of the many things I use to judge myself against others.

But for whatever reason, this time, those measuring sticks weren’t working. For the first time, I didn’t feel less than. It’s been part of my schtick for years to feel like a loser, but for whatever reason, this time, I actually felt accomplished. (Don’t tell my therapist).

I actually was feeling a sense of pride as my first guest arrived at the studio. I felt like, “Look at what I have been able to do with this tiny podcast out of Chicago!” I was in a Los Angles recording studio, inviting my successful friends that I started out with in Chicago in to be interviewed by one of the best interviewers in the business: me. As accomplished as they are in TV and film, I finally realized that I am accomplished in interviewing.

What’s even more amazing is that feeling lasted the entire week. Each time a new guest came into the studio and they put on their headphones and we turned on the microphone, they got to experience my incredible talent as an interviewer. That last part is not easy to write, but I am not changing a word, no matter how uncomfortable I feel later.

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!