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How Storytelling Has Made Me a Stronger Improviser

I know I probably shouldn’t say this as an improv teacher, but I have found that doing storytelling has actually been helping me with my improv.

It might seem counter intuitive that doing solo work would actually help you with improv, which, by its very nature is all about collaborating and working with others. But it has.

I used to hear some of my students say, “What really has helped me with my improv is doing stand-up.” And I didn’t really understand why that would be until I started doing storytelling.

I’ve realized that sometimes when I’m improvising, I can hide out in the group and let my fellow other players carry the ball, while I just follow. And when I do this, I don’t have to make strong initiations or take any risks. I can get by by playing it safe because I have the security of working with others.

In solo performance, you don’t have that luxury. It’s you, a microphone and the audience. You’re exposed. It’s scary and exciting all at the same time.

If things aren’t going well, you cannot rely on your teammates to save you with a quick edit or a generous tag out. Instead, you have to rely on your instincts, and learn how to adjust your performance in the moment on stage to connect with the audience.

Sometimes your instincts will work and sometimes they won’t. But regardless of the results, you are always learning something.

If you survive getting up on stage alone (and you will), you will emerge with a new found confidence that can apply to your improvising.

I know that’s happened for me. Since I have gotten back into doing storytelling the past few years, I have found that when I’m improvising, I am more apt to make stronger choices and I’m not as self-conscious or in my head as much as I was before.

Having to go up alone in front of an audience as a storyteller has also given me a new appreciation for what a gift it is to play with other people, where everyone has your back and you are genuinely supported.

But most importantly, it has helped me strengthen my voice as an improvise, and it has made me realize I am much stronger than I ever knew.

Want to improve your storytelling skills? Sign up for Jimmy’s Finding the Funny in Your Story Workshop on March 14! Only $129 if you register by Feb. 29!

6 Ways to Make Your Storytelling Piece Funnier

Most storytellers I work with want their stories to be funnier. And actually, make your story funnier is easier than you think. If you are willing to put in the work, have some patience and take some tiny risks along the way, you can punch up your piece by following some tips I have used that have helped me get more laughs on stage.

  1. Story First. Comedy Second
    For me, the beginning, middle and end of a story should be more left brain, more logical. Comedy is more right brain – it’s more about using your imagination. That’s why I start with the structure of the story first and then once that is in place, I can explore different moments in that story for the comedy. Starting this way frees me up, and helps takes the pressure off of trying to being funny. It gives me foundation for discovering comedic moments.
  1. Reveal A Truth About Yourself
    Back in the ’80s, I studied with Del Close, who believed in truth in comedy. He felt that you could get up on stage and tell something real from your life, without embellishment, and get a laugh. The lesson I learned from Del is that stories always need to contain the truth. If you start adding in elements to your story that aren’t true just because you think they’re funny, you’ll lose some of your integrity with the audience. For me, the Holy Grail of storytelling is telling something that is honest about yourself that also is funny. I remember the first time I learned this was doing an improv show, where we told monologues about ourselves, and I came out and said, “I don’t like Christmas, because I don’t like to give.” In my current show, “World’s Greatest Dad(?)” I say that I am Catholic, but everyone thinks I’m Jewish, which always gets a laugh.
  2. Audience of One
    Comedy doesn’t happen in vacuum. You need other people to find out what parts of your story are really funny. For me, I’ve found that it’s a lot easier and feels a bit safer to try material out with people I know. They will tell you if something works or doesn’t, and the friends I call can always give me great feedback that makes my piece funnier. Comedy also takes confidence, and I’ve found that trying stuff out on my friends makes me believe in the material more, which translates into a better performance.

    If you don’t have someone to bounce your material off of, hire a coach, or take a storytelling class or workshop, where you can meet other storytellers whom you can start bouncing your ideas off of.

  1. It Not the Words, It’s the Delivery
    Sometimes the words you have written are funny and you can’t understand why they don’t get a laugh. In some cases, it’s not the words, it’s how you are saying them. One of the most common reasons storytellers don’t get laughs is they aren’t heightening the emotional attitude of that particular section of the story. It’s not just what you have written down on paper that is funny in performance, but in some case it’s your whole being. Sometimes a hand gesture or body movement can increase the humor, and sometimes you need to adjust the speed of the section, either slowing it down or speeding it up to make it even funnier.
  1. Add an Inner Dialogue or an Aside
    One of the easiest thing to do to make your piece funnier, especially if something weird happens to you or someone says something strange, is to add an aside or some inner dialogue. In “World’s Greatest Dad(?),” when my dad is dying and I ask him how I can help prepare for his death, he says, “I want you to speak at my funeral and I want you to make people laugh.” Then I go into an interior monologue: “I wanted to say, ‘Dad I have agent for that.’ But instead, I said, ‘I would be honored.’” By adding a little aside, I’m able to squeeze in a little laugh in a very dark section of the story, which breaks things up a bit. In fact, when done right, serious moments that are filled with tension can be a great place for a laugh.
  1. Know Where the Laughs Are
    When you start getting laughs in your storytelling pieces, it’s important to know where they are coming from so you can improve your editing. For example, in my one-person show, when I find out my wife isn’t pregnant, I say, “I took it hard, and I hit the tub.” Originally, that line was longer. I would say, “When I found out Lauren wasn’t pregnant, I would hit the tub and go on a three-day bender until I dried out.” I realized that the laugh always came from the word “tub” and I was diluting it by adding stuff after it. So I cut them and ended on the word “tub,” which was stronger.

    Are you a storyteller who is interested in making your piece funnier? Don’t miss my next “Finding the Funny in Your Story” storytelling workshop on March 14! Sign up by Feb. 29 to save $20!

Doing Storytelling? Do These 3 Things

This last year I have returned to doing storytelling shows around Chicago, as well as doing private coaching for some really talented storytellers. And guess what? I am having so much fun doing both. (Please don’t tell anyone).

Not only is the storytelling community in Chicago super supportive and nurturing, similar to how the improv community was when I first started improvising, but I’ve also found that many of the skills I’ve developed in improv over the years can be applied directly to storytelling as well.

If you are interested in storytelling, or even if you have to do public speaking or presenting at work, here are three things I have found that can help you make a better connection with your audience.

  1. Use Humor
    As improvisers, we understand how important humor is in connecting with the audience, but unfortunately, many storytellers and public speakers don’t. Even if you are telling a serious story, it’s important to provide some laughs along the way. Why? Because just like in improv, our job in storytelling is to reflect life, and even in the most serious situations, there is some comedy. Laughter creates a shared experience between the storyteller and the audience. Even if you are not laughing yourself and just hearing other people laughing, it doesn’t matter, you are having a shared experience. Humor is the most effective when you are using it to make fun of yourself, which in my book is the true definition of having a sense of humor.  Also, I have found that if a story has some laughs throughout, the conclusion to the story came be even more impactful.
  1. Be Honest
    To me, the Holy Grail of storytelling is to get to something that is both honest and funny. When I was working with Del Close in the late ’80s at iO-Chicago, we would sometimes tell monologues as the opening of a Harold. I loved telling monologues because I could always just get up there and tell the truth and get a laugh. For me, it always worked better when my story was somewhat revealing. I remembering one time I came out on stage as a slovenly 20-something and saying, “I don’t like Christmas, because I don’t like to give,” and getting a huge laugh. I was taking a risk by revealing something about myself that I was afraid to reveal. When you admit one of your faults or shortcomings, the audience can relate to you, and even if you get a groan instead of a laugh, you’re still making a connection.
  1. Use Emotions
    Think about why you go to movies and plays: to feel. When you see a character get upset or excited or cry, you typically don’t remember what they said, but you do remember how you felt in the moment watching the scene. As an audience, we want to connect with the storyteller on an emotional level. So when you are telling a story, talk about the time you were so happy because someone you had a crush on asked you out, then show us how you felt. It doesn’t have to be for a long time, but the audience wants to share with you in that experience. Although it’s usually great to show and not tell, it’s also important to include your emotional reaction to what you’re talking about. For example, I might say: “When the nurse handed me my daughter for the first time, I was shocked. I had never seen a newborn baby fresh out of the oven before and they were scary.”Sometimes writing it on the page like that can get me in the state and I can later drop “I was shocked” and sometimes it stays in. Either way, I have added some emotions into the story so I can make a deeper connection with the audience.

 

If you’ve never tried storytelling before, I highly encourage you to check it out, even if you just do it once. I think you’ll get a lot out of it, and if you’re like me, you’ll notice that it will help your improv as well. And if you’re interested in working with me as a storytelling coach, please let me know!

Have you worked with Jimmy before? Don’t miss his Level 4 Master Class, featuring two performances. Sign up by Dec. 30 to save!

Just Do It

We are told improv is great for finding your voice. Everyone who markets improv uses that phrase, but until recently, I really didn’t know what people meant by it.

And surprisingly, I am learning this through another art form — storytelling.

After a bit of break, I am back to doing storytelling and I am really loving it. It’s taken years to apply what I’ve learned in improv and to my storytelling, and I can tell it’s working because I am having fun.

I’ve realized that the telling of story is more important than memorizing the piece word for word. Instead, I need to make the connection with the audience and listen to them like I would to my scene partner.

What’s taken me so long to learn is that if you want to find your voice, you have to put yourself out there in all of your imperfection. You cannot plan out your voice like you cannot plan out your next improv scene. It happens by doing it — that’s the secret ingredient in all of this.

You will not find it from talking about it.

You will not find it by over-analyzing your last show or class.

You will find it by doing the work and putting it out there.

If you are a writer you write to find your voice. If you are an actor, you act. If you are a photographer you need to take pictures. If you are an improviser, you need to improvise on a regular basis.

Take classes, look forward to going to rehearsal with your group, and most importantly, do mother fucking shows.

When you are starting out and trying to find your voice, it’s not about quality, it’s about quantity. The quality part will come later.

Just put yourself out there on a regular basis, and then, when you least expect it, your voice will emerge. The sky will part and your confidence will move mountains.

You maybe unaware of this yourself. That’s totally normal. Your teammates, teachers and directors will definitely let you know that your voice has emerged. Some people will be threatened by it. Others will be blown away by it. Beware, for better or worse, you will get attention — the thing we craved in the first place. And that may be uncomfortable. You may have strong feelings of wanting to die. (True story). Get used to it and know these are all signs your voice is getting stronger and more clear, and that is a good thing, not only for you, but for everyone you work with and everyone who comes and sees you perform.

Your voice is your gift to the world. So, let’s not waste any more time and get to it.*

* This line was for me. If it helps you great, but this is what I need to hear.

Need help finding your voice on stage? Check out Jimmy’s next Intro to the Art of Slow Comedy Workshop, happening Oct. 13. Sign up by Sept. 29 to save!

Finding Your Authentic Voice on Stage

I am a slow learner. And I’m conflicted about learning new things: My soul loves to learn while my ego hates it.

Last week, I wrote and performed a new solo piece for a storytelling night called Louder Than a Mom. It was about when I was growing up and we’d go out to dinner as a family and my mom would ruin it by embarrassing us.

The last time I did Louder Than a Mom, I felt I could have been better prepared. So this time, I really wanted to do a good job.

I was willing to put in the work, which meant doing things differently.

So, I found an open mic in my neighborhood in the back room of an Irish bar to try out the piece before going up at Louder Than a Mom.

The day of the open mic, I had the thought all day of blowing the open mic off, but I made the mistake of calling my friend Darryl, who talked me into going.

Walking in, I felt as terrified as when I did when I was 18, walking into my first improv class. By the time I got up there to do my piece, there were only about eight people left sitting in the audience in folded wooden chairs. I didn’t care. I told my story, and because I didn’t have it timed out, I had to rush the ending.

It was far from perfect, but I got a sense of what worked and what needed to be cut from the story for Louder Than a Mom. More importantly, I was proud that I did not bail on myself, a habit I’ve had since I was a kid.

A week later, I was on the stage at Louder Than a Mom, and the audience was packed and my performance went really well. The piece still needs work, but it was a huge improvement over the open mic.

I remember interviewing Mike Birbiglia for an episode of Improv Nerd and he commented on why creating a one-person show takes so much time. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant. But now I do.

Writing is its own process. It’s pen to paper. It is controlled. But then when you take what you’ve written and put it up in front of an audience it takes on a life of its own, and hopefully, if you’re lucky, you will lose control of it.

When you perform something you’ve written, it shows you things you didn’t know weren’t on the paper. It will surprise you. It is exciting and scary, and mostly it is messy.

I had forgotten that you can’t find your authentic voice without putting it up in front of people — that is where the courage comes in.

When you’re writing, very few people see your rough drafts. But when you’re doing solo work, hundreds of people see your rough drafts as you work out what the story is really supposed to be.

Recently I read a great quote from Micheal Keaton that he said during a commencement speech at Kent State University that summed up what I went through perfectly: “You have to take risks. Put yourself on the line. Don’t be afraid to look foolish, makes mistakes, take chances. It is one of the best things you can do. And what that will lead to is self-discovery, and it will lead you back to your natural, authentic self. And I really encourage you as you get older to go back to who you were when you were a kid, because that was the most authentic you there has been.”

What will make you stand out is your authentic self. That is the thing that will attract people and opportunities to you like magnets. And to get there, you must look foolish and make mistakes, which as improvisers we get, but when I do anything outside of the realm of improv, I have to be reminded of. And that’s why I’m such a s-l-o-w l-e-a-r-n-e-r.

This summer, give yourself the gift of play! Sign up for one of Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives to learn how to play in a new way. Only $229 if you sign up by June 30!

Thank you, Universe

I am delusional. I usually think that if I want to make more money in the performing arts, I just have to work harder. But the truth is when I do what the Universe wants me to do creatively, the money usually comes in, and usually not how I expect it.

For the last several months, I’d been wanting to write and perform a piece about my dad’s funeral, but I’d been sitting on it out of fear. Out of embarrassment. Out of whole bunch of unresolved trauma.

Anyway, with a lot of help from my friend, Gary Rudoren; my wife, Lauren; and my group therapy, I finally put it up at Louder Than a Mom, one of my favorite storytelling nights in Chicago. And it killed. I am tough critic of my own work, and even I thought it killed. I was so proud of it. I had a performance high for a week. I didn’t get paid, but that’s not why I did it. I did it to try out new material. I did it because it builds my confidence. I did it because it was an investment in myself.

And that creative investment really paid off, because the following week I had six on- camera auditions for parts in TV shows and commercials. Six! Then out of nowhere, my agent e-mailed me asking if I was available to shoot a commercial on Tuesday. “Of course, yes, I am available,” I wrote back. This was a commercial that I hadn’t even auditioned for! And guess what? I got it off an old headshot.

Was all of this just a coincidence, or was it directly related to me putting up my piece about my dad’s funeral?

Lauren kept saying it was “dumb luck” that I got the commercial. I don’t see it that way.

I have seen this happen time and time again — when I put effort into something that fills me up creatively and let go of “trying” to make money, the money comes. The problem is I keep forgetting it. I keep losing faith because I am too busy trying to control or predict the outcome.

I had put myself out there with my piece and then I showed up to all those auditions —some of them I even showed up to early — and the Universe took me seriously because I took myself seriously. Even if it was only for two weeks, it was working.

Of course this is easy to say in hindsight. It’s totally different when you are in the thick of it, schlepping back and forth from auditions and getting frustrated trying to figure out why you are not getting cast.

As you know, I have many talents, and telling stories is just one of them. It’s the one I struggle the hardest with because it’s the one where I am the most vulnerable, but it is also the one right now that is bringing me the most rewards, even if I cannot always see them immediately.

Want the Universe to open things up for you? Focus on your art in Jimmy’s next Two-Person Scene Tune-Up, happening Dec. 30. Only $79 if you register by Dec. 14!

196: Kelsie Huff

Kelsie Huff is one of Chicago’s hottest comedians. She has studied at iO Chicago and Second City and she teaches the popular Feminine Comique, which is a stand-up class geared towards woman. Jimmy talked to her at this year’s Chicago Women’s Funny Festival about how she uses improv in her stand-up, how to make the transition from storytelling to stand-up, and how she has been able to transform pain into comedy.

Events

Finding the Funny in Your Story Storytelling Workshop

Do you tell stories and you know they could be funnier? Would you like to be a stronger performer? If you want to be a truly engaging storyteller, you need to learn how to have more fun in your performance and get out of your head.

In this three-hour workshop, you will learn some of the basic concepts of improvisation and how you can apply them to your storytelling to become a stronger writer and performer. In the first half of this workshop, we will play a series of improv games and exercises that promote both vulnerability and playfulness. In the second half of the workshop, each storyteller will have the opportunity to get in front of the group and tell a 3-minute story, learning how to make their piece more comedic and in some cases more honest. You will be taught how to get and give feedback on your performance, as well as solid ideas to help your piece be even more funny.

Please have a 3-minute story that you are familiar with that you would like to work on in the workshop.

THIS WORKSHOP IS LIMITED TO 8 PEOPLE.

Oct. 10, 2020, 1-4 p.m. at Stage 773, (1225 W. Belmont Ave.)

Only $129 if you register by Sept. 26! ($149 after)

Once you register there are no refunds or transfers for this workshop.