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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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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.