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Bombing at the Top of an Improv Show

We all want to do the perfect improv show.

Every move is brilliant.

Every edit is just right.

Every scene is hilarious.

But what happens when in the first couple of minutes of an improv show we bomb big time?

Well, if you are like me, you feel shame.

You shut down.

You become best friends with the back wall.

But what if we look at bombing at the top of the show a little differently? What if we looked at it as an enormous gift that could free us, that could help us do an even better show?

It is no different when you are doing scenes and something goes wrong.

You may say the wrong name in scene.

You may say something that contradicts the reality of the scene that has already been established.

You may think the relationship is a mother and a son and it really it turns out it is a boyfriend and girlfriend.

You may get confused that someone is playing a different gender.

This kind stuff happens all the time and the great improvisers look at these moments as opportunities. They take their time to justify the “mistake” and emotionally react to it, and 90 percent of the time they will end up getting a better scene.

Same can be said for bombing at the top of the show.

So your first scene sucked or your first musical improv song made no sense, or you made a move and confused your whole team.

I’ve made these kind of mistakes hundreds of time, and when I don’t let them get me down, a lot of the time these turn out to be some of my best shows.

I have done scenes where I flat out sucked in the first half and in the second half ended up strong because once I had made a mistake, I took the pressure off of myself to do it perfectly.

Sometimes when I make such big mistakes, something is released in me and I’m able to actually play more and have fun.

I am liberated in weird way.

So, the next time your first couple of scenes suck or you screw up in an opening of the Harold, remember it’s all part of the plan to help you do a great show.

Not a perfect show, a great show.

Want personalized feedback from an experienced teacher? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 class, starting Sept. 5! Sign up today!

173: Shana Merlin

Shana Merlin is the owner and founder of Merlin Works in Austin, TX. Shana is a well-respected improviser and teacher with quite a following. In this lively episode recorded at the Institution Theater in Austin, Jimmy talks to Shana about starting to teach improv when she was only 22, her take on making mistakes in improv, and how having a baby can affect the business of running an improv theater.

162: Jen Ellison

Jen Ellison is a director, writer, teacher and performer who is best known for directing The Second City e.t.c.’s 38th revue, “Apes of Wrath.” Jen teaches at The Second City, DePaul University, and Columbia College. In this episode, Jimmy talks to Jen about discovering a passion for directing at a young age, the transition from DePaul’s Theatre School to ComedySportz, and the importance of admitting your mistakes.

The risk of taking risks

You hear this all the time in your improv classes – you need to take more risks on stage. But what improv teachers forget to tell you is that when you take risks, you’re going to feel feelings: anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, shame and, in rare cases, joy. This is a by-product of taking risks, and the quicker you accept this, the quicker you will increase your chances of taking more of them in your life and on stage.

If you take a risk and feel shame afterwards, like “Oh man, I went too far,” don’t assume that means you did something wrong. You will feel uncomfortable because you did something different, not because it was necessarily “bad.”

In fact, the one thing I can tell you for sure is if you are taking risks, you are always succeeding, even if it may not feel like it, because it’s the practice of taking them that really counts, not the results.

Last Sunday I was interviewing Lyndsay Hailey for Improv Nerd. She was so honest and revealing, talking about sensitive subjects like being sexually abused when she was a kid, her adrenal fatigue syndrome and her dating struggles. Lyndsay was taking huge risks, and if she knew it or not, she was inspiring me to join her. That’s how it works.

Towards the end of the interview, I asked her about her current boyfriend, and she started to answer the question and then interrupted herself and said “He’s in the audience.” So I asked him to come up on stage. The audience gasped, and the message in my head was, “You are going too far.” But I lucked out that he also was an improviser, and I’m sure he appreciated the extra stage time.

“What’s going on with the relationship?” I asked. The audience gave me an even louder gasp than first one, and I think: “Shit, why didn’t I play it safe?”

Everyone in the audience was uncomfortable, including me. I got the sense from her boyfriend’s answer that he was ambivalent about his relationship with Lyndsay. So I asked him if they had sex too soon in the relationship. At this point, my producer, Ben Capraro, was so uncomfortable he had to leave the room.

I was lost at sea. Lyndsay’s boyfriend diffused the situation with a joke, and then she said she was grateful her boyfriend had been around while she was uncovering her past with sexual abuse. Finally I felt like could see land in the distance, thank god, and I focused back on Lyndsay for the rest of the interview.

When I got off stage I felt excited. The show was everything I had envisioned Improv Nerd to be: vulnerable, real, edgy. It certainly was a different show than I normally do, and I didn’t get the usual “Great show!” comments I have come to expect from the audience, and because of that, I was confused.

On the ride home, my wife, Lauren, said “I bet you’re high from the show?”

“Actually, I’m not,” I said, like a little league right fielder who dropped the routine fly ball to lose the championship game.

I was filled with fear, shame, sadness and anxiety. I began second guessing my instinct to bring Lyndsay’s boyfriend up on stage. Never trust your feelings in this case. You could be feeling them for a million reasons, and one of them might be that it actually paid off. You cannot measure your risks by whether or not they “succeed,” only by the frequency that you take them.

Sometimes risks do not pay off immediately, and sometimes the results of taking a risk come weeks later, in another show or another audition, or in your life.

The important thing is to keep taking them, and you’ll know that if you are having feelings afterward, you’ve hit gold.