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What should I do next?

Does this sound familiar? You have just finished a class or an improv show, and before you can even enjoy what you’ve done, a panicked thought sets in: “What I am going to next?”

I see this a lot, especially with students who finish taking my Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv class. After studying with me for three terms and putting up a great long from show for their friends and family they will pull me aside and ask me, “What should I do next? Should I go to Second City? Should I go to iO? Should I go to The Annoyance? There are some people from this class who want to form a team; should I do that?”

This last part is the best part of their answer, and I tell them that.

“Yes, but my agent said it would be good to get Second City on my resume, and at IO I can get stage time and I want to go to The Annoyance because I heard I should study with Mick.”

All true, but what about staying with the people from class and doing a show? They have asked you to be part of it.

“Yes, but I want to be on Saturday Night Live.”

That’s great. I get that I was too subtle. You want my answer?

“Yes, that is why I am asking you.”

Here is my philosophy: Do what is right in front of you. Don’t over complicate it. If you had a great time with the class and they want you to form a group and have invited you to do a show, say yes. Because that is the next right thing to do. If you are an improviser and you live in Chicago for at least 18 months there is a 90 percent chance you are going to end up taking classes at iO, Second City, and The Annoyance, probably at the same time.

So many times, we think that to get ahead, we have to be striving, taking a huge leap to something that is “big time.” But often, all we need to do to get ahead is say yes to what is right in front of us.

I am still learning this lesson. I cannot tell you how many opportunities I have turned down over the years that were right in front of me that I still regret not taking. I was, and still am, the worst kind of liar and that is I lie myself. And when an opportunity would present itself I would make some bullshit up in my head like “How is that going to get me hired?” or “I am a performer, not a writer,” or “I don’t really want that.” So I walked away from opportunities that were literally right in front of me.

Back in the early ’90s, I was performing with the Comedy Underground, and the whole cast was hired to write for a late night talk show on NBC that was being filmed out of Chicago. Since it was such a big cast, we would have had to rotate days we worked. I turned it down. The reason? I was an artist and I wasn’t going to sell out to write for a show.

Another time I had an audition for SNL. They were flying me out to New York, and I had my plane ticket in my hand, but I decided not to go because I was scared and I told myself “I don’t want to do sketch.”

Ever since I was a teenager, I had wanted to get hired by Second City and be on the Mainstage. The closet thing I got to working there was teaching in the training center and working at the business theater. I was well liked at the business theater and Scott Allman took me under his wing and told me he would try to talk to Kelly Leonard to get me on the touring company. Pride, fear and lies got in my way and I said I wasn’t interested.

On the reverse side, some of the best things I was ever part of just fell in my lap and I was lucky enough to get out of my own way to say yes. Naked with Stephanie Weir, Jazz Freddy, being in the original cast of Armando at iO and godshow were all things that I was asked to be part of and they were all high points for me creatively. Those opportunities fell out of the sky.

I know that “yes, and…” is an easy improv concept to embrace in theory, but in practice, when it comes to our careers, we tend to want to pick the “right” thing that is going to get us ahead. But the universe doesn’t work like that. There is no way to perfectly plan your career. There is no straight line from point A to point B. What we have to do is let go of outcomes and trust that saying yes will get us exactly where we need to go.

Keep saying Yes, And

KEEP SAYING YES, AND…

Cook County Social Club headline Four Star Comedy FestWhen I started taking improv classes in Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s the goal was simple: study with Del Close at the Improv Olympic, get hired by Second City and then get on Saturday Night Live.

The path was narrow. Anyone who even thought about teaching, directing or producing had given up on their dream. Twenty years later, I make most of my living as an improv teacher and corporate trainer. It’s my gift, according to my wife, but I don’t want to hear that. I think I should be a famous comedy TV star.

This weekend, I am co-producing The Four Star Comedy Fest with Ben Capraro at Navy Pier. I first met Ben when I hired him as an intern for the Improv Nerd comedy podcast, and then he became the show’s producer. He is filled with a lot of energy and passion for improv, and he told me about this idea about bringing improv to downtown. It was his idea, and he wanted to know if I wanted to join.

I may not be the best initiator in scenes, but I know how to support and say “Yes, and.” So with this project, I kept saying yes, just to see where it would go, which is not my nature in life. Normally, I have a tiny, narrow view of what I am supposed to do and not do in my career, which is the opposite of improvising; it’s called controlling.

As my wife keeps reminding me, do what’s in front of you. Well, co-producing was in front of me, so I decided to do it, even though it wasn’t part of my vision.

And it turns out, I’m really glad I did. It has been hours and hours of work for months, but being on the other side of the production wall has made me appreciate all of the hard work producers I’ve worked with before have done, and has made me want to treat the performers the way I would like to be treated. And it’s taught me trust the process, because mistakes happen and you just have to go with the flow.

Plus, I’ve gotten the chance to do some really amazing things. I got to step onto the field at Wrigley when Cook County Social Club threw out the first pitch against the Cardinals, I got to go with Tim Kazurinsky to the WGN morning show when he was promoting the festival, and I got to be on Rick Kogan’s show, Afternoon Shift.

Will this lead me to a big TV part or more students in my improv classes? Who knows. What I do know is that I don’t know all the answers, and I don’t even know what’s good for me. So I might as well just keep saying yes.

Tickets for the Four Star Comedy Fest

More info on the Four Star Comedy Fest