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The Number One Rule in Improv

The number one rule in improv — over “Yes, And…,” listening, finding the game in the scene, environment, adding specifics, and developing character and emotions — is “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.”

It has happened to all of us. We make a Harold team, or get hired by a big comedy theater, or finish a program at a competitive training center and one morning we wake up and we are taking ourselves way too seriously. Suddenly we have this entitlement and think that what we are doing is the most important thing in the world. We think we are above everyone else, above other players, our teachers, our directors, and worse, the audience.

It may last a couple of weeks, or months or even years. I know people who it has lasted their entire career. But once you start taking yourself too seriously, you may be funny on stage, but you have no sense of humor in life. Trust me, nobody wants to be around these people. We tolerate them.

This is how I felt watching the Oscars on Sunday night. Here were all of these great actors, writers, directors, and producers who make a wonderful living being creative, and I felt alienated from them. I found the show pretentious and self-important. And, God, talk about people taking themselves too seriously.

All of the actors in the audience seemed like they had forgotten why they had gotten into the field in the first place – to have fun, to express themselves, and to not have to work a crappy office job with no health insurance. They need to remember why the rest of us are tuning in the first place — to celebrate movies.

I love the movies. Movies are fun.  We’re supposed to go grab a bucket of popcorn and spend two hours escaping our everyday lives, laughing, crying, and enjoying ourselves. And the Oscars should be a giant pep rally for all the loyal moviegoers watching at home to get us excited about seeing more movies. If done right, the Oscars should be the greatest four-hour infomercial in the history of mankind.

How about thanking us for spending our hard earned money and investing our time to go to the movies? I don’t want to feel alienated. I want to like you, Hollywood, because I love what you do. But I feel you give me no choice.

For me to have such a strong reaction to this, I must be guilty of this kind of behavior. Yes, I am. I cannot tell you how many times I have had disdain for the audience when they did not respond to me on stage the way I thought they should. I have always thought I was superior or smarter or better than they were because I was on stage and they were not, even though they paid with their time and money to come see me. That is called ungratefulness, look it up.

Over the years I have been guilty of taking myself way too seriously, in my acting, improvising and teaching, especially early on in my career when I had achieved some success. This made me a pain in the ass to be around and to work with. I have traveled in circles with a pack of improvisers where we would judge other improvisers, and if they weren’t doing it the way we were, we would put them down and write them off. I could be a prick. A big prick who worked really hard to hide that side of myself, but underneath I was a Hollywood phony. I still can be. I have improved considerably over the years, however, or I could not be this honest in this blog. But despite my huge progress, you are never fully cured from this disease. It will flare up from time to time, usually when I’m afraid.

The Oscars were a really good reminder to me that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously in improv, because, after all, I am doing it to have fun. In improv, the most necessary ingredient in what we do is the people — the other performers, the teachers, directors, producers, and ourselves. And the more that I can let go of my ego and just have fun, the more I know everyone around me will have fun, too.

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Accepting Other People’s Success

Accepting other people’s success is not easy. Sooner or later it will happen to all of us: One of our friends will get ahead while we are left behind. It’s always hardest with the people we are closest to.

You may start out in improv classes with people, and some of them will end up making a Harold team but you won’t. Or they will get cast in a show or be hired by a big theater before you do. They may get an agent before you, and end up doing commercials, TV and film, while you’re still taking classes.

I’ve been feeling that way lately, now that Steve Carell has been nominated for an Oscar. Back in the ’90s here in Chicago, Steve was on the Second City Mainstage. I was in the same building writing and teaching corporate workshops for Second City Communications. Even back then, Steve was someone we all aspired to be.

Recently my wife, Lauren, very seriously said to me, “Aren’t you excited for Steve Carell’s nomination? I mean, if he did it, don’t you think you could do it, too?”

(For the sake of this blog, I wish I could say yes.)

My jaw dropped and my face had that “are-you-kidding-me?” look on it as “NO” dropped out of mouth, which sounded more like a “Fuck You.” If I was doing an improv scene with my wife, it’s clear I just denied her reality.

Lauren was a bit surprised that I had such a strong reaction.

I trust Lauren because she always been brutally honest with me about my acting, improv and the size of my penis. And she was sincere, which made it even crazier for me. I guess the crazy part was that I would not allow myself to even go there, to even think for a second that if Steve Carell did it, I could do it, too. I think they call this limited thinking.

When we hear news of people’s success there are really two ways of dealing with it. One is self-pity, thinking “What am I doing wrong? Everyone else is having success except me. I will never get it.” The other is to be inspired and think, “If they can do it, I can do it, too.”

Now, I am not close to Steve Carell, and to say I am one of his peers is a stretch, but I have been fortunate to work with other great people who have gone on to do great things, and over the years, I’ve realized that if one of my friends gets a great opportunity – a chance to be on a boat with Second City, a spot on the Mainstage, a pilot on TV – that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It means I am friends with the winners.

When Jay Sukow was a guest on Improv Nerd his advice for improvisers was to “play with people who are better than you.” In so many words, he was saying “Hang with the winners.”

It’s not easy to work with people who are better than you, especially if your goal is to be the funniest or the best or the audience’s favorite. When you work with people who are better than you are, you can often feel like shit and tell yourself you aren’t funny at all. But take it from me: Instead of having the goal of being the funniest person on your team, try to have the goal of just getting better. And when you play with people who are better than you are, that’s exactly what happens.

I remember getting to play with TJ Jagodowski on Carl and The Passions. TJ is Mozart. When I played with him, I first had to let go of the idea of being the best or the funniest, and once I did, I felt relief realizing I was never going to be better than he is. Your ego always wants you to be the best or the funniest, but the artist part of you is always going to want to play with the best.

When you hang with the winners, you’re bound to see many of them go on to land great opportunities. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you suck, it just means they’re paving the way for you.

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