Expectations: The fastest way to kill your improv career

I’ve heard that expectations are pre-meditated resentments, and the fastest way to kill your career is to have any expectations about how it is supposed to turn out. Apparently, that’s a lesson I still need to learn.

When you have a certain expectation about how a show or a team or anything else is going to go, you suck all the joy out of having the experience, and instead, you get stuck in a state that there is never enough and you forgot why you are doing it in the first place. You are part of the living dead.

This has plagued me my whole life, and this is where I am right now with Improv Nerd. We have had over 260,000 downloads for the podcast since it started, and we’re closing in on having produced 100 episodes in under three years. I get e-mails from people all over the world on a weekly basis about how much they appreciate what I am doing, and I am being flown all over the country to do Improv Nerd and teach The Art of Slow Comedy workshops.

But that is not enough. I am not where I thought I should be by now. When I started Improv Nerd, I thought I would be Marc Maron by this point. Clearly, I am not. I thought doing Improv Nerd would lead me back to the radio or would get me an interview show on TV. It has not. I have clearly forgotten why I am doing this.

If you are reading this and you are like, “Wow, Jimmy is filled with self-pity,” you are right. That’s what happens when you have expectations: They turn into resentment, then into self-pity, and if you are really lucky, bitterness. I wish you would see me in a better light, but right now, I am filled with self-pity and anger. No, rage. Rage at God and the Universe for screwing me over once again! I have worked my ass off with Improv Nerd and feel like I have gotten shit for my effort. Fuck you, God! Fuck you, Universe!

It all started over the weekend when I had a really small audience for Improv Nerd at Stage 773 in Chicago as part of the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival. We had a great guest, the super talented Beth Stelling, and Stage 773 could not have been more supportive.

But almost nobody came to our show, and what made it worse was when I was leaving the theater, there was huge a crowd that needed to be roped off waiting to come in for the next show.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to die. I am tired. I am second guessing myself. My confidence has taken a hit. All because I had this stupid expectation that after almost three years, Improv Nerd should be a hit and I should have gotten something (read: money and fame) out of doing it.

Everyone always tells you that you’re supposed to do things for the fun of it, for the joy of doing it. Don’t worry about where it’s going to lead, just enjoy the moment. I’ve even said a lot of those same things in this very blog. But let me tell you, that is a lot easier to type onto a page than it is to do in real life. In real life, I have expectations that if I put effort into something, I’m going to be rewarded immediately  (read: more money and more fame).

The good news is at least I’m talking about this with my friends, in therapy and with you right now, so hopefully my resentments can be lifted.

The one thing I love about the accomplished guests I’ve had on Improv Nerd is when they talk honestly and openly about the times they wanted to quit and something happened that changed their mind and they not only persevered, but they became even more successful. This always makes their story even sweeter and their success more attainable. Here’s hoping that, like my guests, I can find a happy ending, because having these expectations is not only killing my career, it’s killing me.

Only a few days left to get the Early Bird Special for Jimmy’s next Fundamentals of Improv class, starting June 28! Register before June 16 to sign up for $249. Or sign up for his one-day intensive on July 6!

How I Kill Joy

Joy is something I am trying to work on in all aspects of my life, especially in my improvising and my teaching. For years, I really didn’t know how to feel joy, and I resented people who seemed happy.

God forbid if I met someone who had joy, or worse, had it all the time. In my mind I would write them off as a fake or phony and believed deep down they were more miserable, or at least as miserable, as I was.

Things are starting to change though, through my crazy therapist, my loving wife, Lauren, and even my cat, Princess Coco. Now, I am aware of how little joy I have, and of how when I do get some, how quickly I try to kill it. Today I have a desire to experience more joy in my life. I want to know more about this feeling that seems to have escaped me in my life.

Last weekend I went to the Huge Theater in Minneapolis to teach a series of workshops and do a live episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was Jill Bernard, who along with Butch Roy and Nels Lennes, is truly doing missionary work by spreading the word of long form improv throughout the Twin Cities by operating a booming training center and theater that is running out of performance slots for improvisers.

Jill is also an amazing teacher and performer and one of the most joyful people I know. In fact, she specializes in teaching her students that “they are enough” through joy.

So, during Improv Nerd, I asked Jill, “How do you teach joy?” (The question was more for me than for her.)

She replied in her quirky, somewhat performance artist way, “I pretend I’m a jar of olives.”

The audience laughed, but I was confused. A jar of olives? People fly her all over the country and pay her all this money to teach improv and she is a jar of olives?

Instead of playing with the idea and joining in, like a good improviser, I needed to dissect it even more. “What do you mean?”

She explained that she is not any jar. She’s a skinny jar, with a narrow label, the kind of jar of olives that’s hard to find these days. My brain could not wrap itself around it. She politely pointed out that she could see why I had such hard time with joy. Clearly, I was missing an opportunity to experience joy here, and I was obviously getting more enjoyment out of killing other people’s joy than creating my own.

As she continued to describe the jar of olives in greater detail, I got lost and realized I had no answer to my question and that I needed to move on. Or maybe I had the answer I just did not understand it.

It did not hit me until 48 hours later what she meant. That a jar of olives was getting all this money to teach a workshop. That a jar of olives was flown to Argentina to teach a workshop. That if you really believe you are a jar of olives, how can you take yourself so seriously?

This made sense to me, because I know that many improvisers, me included, take improv way too seriously, so seriously that they are strangling the joy, choking it to death.

And improv is not life and death, though I am one of those people who makes it that way on stage and especially in the classroom, because that is how I live my life. Improv is just joy. Audiences come to watch our shows to see that joy on stage, and if they are smart enough, they eventually take classes in improv to experience that joy.

Even though I have been improvising and teaching for a long time, I keep forgetting this. The good news is today, I am willing to admit that this is something I need to work on, desperately, not only on stage and in my classroom but in all areas of my life. How do you bring joy to improv? I’d love your ideas.

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

Jazz FreddyJealousy exists, especially among improvisers and actors, though no one really wants to talk about it. It’s part of the human experience, much like anger or sadness. But we think it’s too ugly of an emotion to talk about, something we’re not “supposed” to feel, so instead, we deny we feel jealous at all.

Over the years, I have had real problems with jealousy.

When I started improvising in Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we all wanted to become famous. And some of us actually did

Chris Farley played on a team at the Improv Olympic at the same time I was on a team. He then got a slot on SNL and left for New York. Mike Myers would join our team once in a while, too, before he went off to SNL. Stephanie Weir and I did a brilliant show called Naked, before she got hired for Second City’s Mainstage before going on to Mad TV. I played with Rachel Dratch in Jazz Freddy, and knew Tina Fey back when she was chunky with bad hair, before they both, you guessed it, moved to New York and got on SNL.

And every time someone got something, I wish I could say I was happy for them, but I was not. I secretly hoped they would fail. I really turned being jealous into an art form. I could turn someone else’s success into “I must be doing something wrong.”

But the worst was when my best friend and roommate, Dave Koechner, got hired to become a cast member on Saturday Night Live (years before he moved to L.A. and got parts in Anchorman and The Office). That day, I threw out our television and considered jumping on the ‘L’ tracks to have the Brown Line run me over.

As my friends left Chicago for LA and NY for bigger opportunities, I turned jealousy into bitterness.

Then somewhere in my 30s and 40s, things started to change. My first step was reading a list of all the people I was jealous of to my friend, Eric, one Saturday afternoon in his kitchen in tiny garden apartment, and after reading it, some of the horrible jealousy began to lift.

Along the way I found some other tools that helped me that I want share with you.

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

1. Admit it
Admit that you are jealous and that there’s nothing wrong with jealousy. Find people you trust — friends, therapist, support groups — where you can admit these jealous feelings without being judged. You want them just to listen to you. Not, “Hey, I am jealous of Tina Fey,” and then they say something like, “Oh, there’s no reason to be.” Or worse, going into some sort of character assassination of the person for an hour. You just want someone to listen to you so you’re not alone with it. Jealousy is energy that needs to be released. If you don’t release it, it turns into an emotional cancer of resentment and bitterness, which does nothing to help you with your creative process.

2. Remember, they might help you in the future
One way to feel less jealous of people who go on to be successful is to remember that someday they may be in a position to help you out in the future. Oh man, this was so so helpful for me because I am one of those selfish people who needs to see what I can get out of something. Improv Nerd has been great with this. I have been jealous of many of our guests at one time or another, and when I realized they not only could help me out but also were willing to help me out, the jealousy started to fade rather quickly.

3. Create, Create, Create
The best medicine I have found for curbing jealous is creating. My jealousy is at an all-time high when I am not performing, writing or improvising. When I’m not creating, I just sit around asking “Where’s my piece of the pie? Is it ever coming?” But when I am in my creative process and writing or doing a show, I lose myself and everyone else’s careers don’t seem to matter so much.