Prepare to Fail

If there is one thing that is certain in improv, it’s that you are going to fail. Hopefully, you will continue to fail throughout your career, because in improv, if you don’t give up, that failure eventually turns into success. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, you cannot have one with other. Unfortunately, that’s how it works in the arts.

For us to fail on a regular basis we must take risks. Most of us avoid taking risks because we are sacred that we will look stupid or be rejected, which in our minds computes to failure. So we live our lives protecting ourselves from any form of rejection. We play it safe.

That is why we would rather send an email than pick up the phone. It’s why we hide behind Facebook and Twitter instead of talking to people in person. It’s why we don’t ask that person out on date. When we avoid taking risks, we are not living a life — we are in damage control.

But what if you could look at it a little differently? What if you could take a risk and actually embrace failing?

Because I’ve improvising for a long time, I’ve gotten pretty good at taking risks, both in the classroom as a teacher and on stage as a performer. Taking risks has become part of my DNA. But even though I’ve taken risks, I was never really comfortable with failing. Anytime I took a risk that didn’t turn out well, I’d beat myself up about it. Until two weeks ago.

On Super Bowl Sunday, John Hildreth and I trudged out in the cold Chicago weather to do our show to a very appreciative audience. We were joined by three great, old-school improvisers: Pat Musker, Scott Levy and Mark Czoske.

The first scene turned into a musical improv, which I am not very good at it and I sucked. My song did not make any sense, I had no idea what I was singing or saying. Thank God for the rest of the cast.

For me, improvising a song is an enormous risk, one I typically avoid. And this risk really ended in a bomb. But the miracle is that I wasn’t upset at myself that I failed. In fact, for one of the first times in my life, I was simply proud of myself for having taken a risk.

When the scene was over, I thought to myself, “Good! I took a risk and failed, and now I have an even better chance of succeeding tonight.” Who was this guy? Where was the perfectionist ready to beat me up for making myself look so stupid?

I don’t know, but he wasn’t in the theater, that’s for sure.

Neither was the guy who usually has to over compensate for a bad start and puts pressure on himself to make up for his “so called” mistake.

Or the guy who is so filled with shame after a mistake that he stays stuck in the back line until the show is over.

Taking the risk at the top of the show had forced me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to do characters and play with energies I hadn’t before with the support of these really great improvisers. I felt free. The show was a blast. Was that the only so-called mistake I made? No way, I made plenty more. In one scene, I entered in accidentally and didn’t know if they wanted me to stay or go, so I was a bit lost and felt I might have screwed them up.

Regardless, I felt great after the show. I learned a lot that night. A.) That there is no such thing as a perfect show. Sure, we can shoot for it, but it does not exists. And B.) That even when you have a great show, there a lot of things you wish you had done differently.

I think the problem we all have in taking risks is that if it does not pay off immediately, we think we did something wrong. We then stop taking them on stage and even worse in life.

But what if we gave ourselves credit for just taking the freaking risk and trust that we will be rewarded later, just like in this show?

It’s really sad to think about all of the risks that I avoided taking throughout my career — like turning down an audition for Saturday Night Live, saying no to a TV writing job, or leaving or closing successful shows too soon — all because I was afraid of rejection. (My therapist may argue I was afraid of success).

I don’t feel regret that I didn’t get those things, but I do feel regret for not having the courage to experience failure, because the Universe always rewards you for taking a risk. Sometimes you are rewarded directly, and sometimes indirectly, but there is always a reward.

But the truth is, I did not see that until this last show. So now hopefully, I can pass this lesson down to my students, to my daughter and now to you.

Looking to take your improv to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Feb. 28! (You don’t need to have taken Level 1 to take this class). Early Bird pricing ends Feb. 14!

Guess what? You're acting

This message is going out to all you talented, young improvisers out there: Good improv is good acting.

I know what you are thinking: “I am doing comedy, I don’t need to be a better actor.” Or maybe you’re you didn’t even realize that what you are doing on stage when you’re improvising IS acting. I am here to tell you that it is, and that the better you get at acting, the better you will be at improv.

If you say that you don’t want to learn how to act, it’s like saying you don’t want to learn how to do object work or learn how to do yes… and. How many more father and son scenes can we see where the improvisers aren’t really emotionally invested in the relationship? Naming someone “Dad” in scene does not mean you have created a relationship that the audience cares about. We’re doing theater, here, people. If we’re not acting, we’re just doing a parlor game, and a hacky one at that.

I just had John Hartman on Improv Nerd this past week, and we did a scene where I was a restaurant manager who was trying to get his employee to keep working during the lunch rush instead of going to see his wife have their baby. What made the scene great was John’s emotional reactions to me as the bullying manager. Because we were both invested in our characters, the audience was invested in us. We were acting.

I’ve taken Meisner classes, cold reading classes and scene study classes over the years, and the biggest thing I’ve realize is that it’s not about the words, it’s about the connection. We believe a character by who he IS and not always what he says. I know improv is slightly different and the words are important to keeping a scene going forward, but if you are willing to put the acting first and the words (i.e. trying to be witty or clever) second, you will see a big difference in your work.

Recently, in my Advanced Level class of The Art of Slow Comedy, I had student who was naturally funny and a seasoned improviser who seemed to be getting in his own way by worrying about being funny. I could relate, so I gave him this note early on in the six-week class: “Think of this as an acting class.”

Gradually his work came to life. He focused on listening and emotionally connecting to his partner. His scene work became fluid and he even admitted a couple of times in class that he resisted going for the laugh. That’s always a great sign that he took the note to heart and was willing to try a different approach to the work.

And it paid off. At the last class we did a long form performance for family and friends, and he and the group hit it out of the park. Because he was listening and reacting to his partner on stage, he was ten times as funny and 100 times more compelling to watch. He was acting. After the show, when I was giving notes, he said the thing that help him the most was the note “Think of this like an acting class.”

Personally, I forget this note all the time and need to be reminded. When I am terrified to improvise, I will sometimes call my friend, Bill Boehler, before a show, and say “I don’t feel funny,” or “I am afraid,” and he will say “All you have to do is act up there.” I am not the most gifted actor, but I know exactly what he means.

So to all you talented young improvisers out there, “All you have to is just act up there.”