What I’ve Learned from John Hildreth

Sunday, Nov. 3 will mark the eighth anniversary of the Jimmy and Johnnie show. For the last eight years, on the first Sunday of the month John Hildreth and I and at least one special guest have improvised together. And the experience has really been a blast.

I can’t even take credit for the show’s beginning. John had been a guest on Improv Nerd and my producer at the time, Ben Capraro, suggested John and I should put a show on together. So John took the ball and ran with it. Originally Jimmy, Johnnie and Jet with Jet Eveleth. Jet moved to LA shortly after that, but we decided to continue doing the show and just find a guest to sit in with us each week.

When we started, I wasn’t very good. I was rusty and tentative and was having a hard time improvising again. I was putting too much pressure on myself, thinking, “I’d better be brilliant. I have been doing this for 25 years.”

It also took me a while to figure out how John played. Though we both are from the same generation of improvisers in Chicago, we had never performed together before. He was a Cardiff Giant guy, which was great bunch of improvisers out of the University of Chicago who always were very smart players and very character-based. I was more of an iO and Jazz Freddy guy, meaning I play very grounded scenes and am more trained to find the game in the scene. Even back when we were in our 20s, those two worlds didn’t collide.

So, as John and I performed together, it slowly became fun again to improvise, though it did not come overnight.

Today, with Jimmy and Johnnie, I get to play with some of the best improvisers in the city, and John is one of the best that I’ve ever played with.

The thing that’s so incredible about John is he always starts a scene with a strong point of view. And he does so organically. He gets it from a tiny little thing that someone says in the scene in the first couple of seconds. Then he keeps heightening the shit out of it until it’s super exaggerated and funny. It’s fun to watch and even better to improvise with. I have asked John hundreds of times how he does this, and I have never gotten an answer. It’s not that he doesn’t want to tell me, I think he just takes it for granted.

He is also up for trying new forms, even if they fall flat in the show. I am more cautious, but John wants to keep learning and keep pushing himself.

The other thing I admire about John is that he is very inclusive. We always have an opening act, typically former students of his or mine, and John is warm and friendly to them and it has become a tradition for us to take a selfie with our opening act and our special guest. This kind of inclusivety and camaraderie really inspires me and reminds me that we are all part of one big improv family.

Performing with John over the last eight years has really helped me become a better improviser. First of all, John’s energy and most of his choices are more positive than the dark-cloud, negative ones I like to play. And I’m happy to say that his positivity has been rubbing off on me.

I am also taking more risks and making bolder choices. I am more confident and relaxed on stage and yes, I would even say enjoying it.

I think a huge part of that comes from trust, not only trusting John as a performer and a person, but also trusting his talent. Every time I play with John, I know that he will be consistently funny. He’s one of those rare people who gets a laugh from the very first the first thing that comes out of his mouth. When we first started improvising together, I think I was more competitive with him and I wanted to be as funny or funnier than he was. But when I realized that wasn’t possible, I just started to relax and have more fun.

So on the eve of my next improv anniversary with John, I’d like to say thank you, John, for making me a better improviser. I’ve been honored to work with you over the past eight years, and here’s to many more.

2 replies
  1. John H.
    John H. says:

    Wow, Jimmy! Thanks so much! Your words mean so much to me! I’ve learned a ton from you too—you’re brilliant, and I look forward to every show. Happy 8th Anniversary, Jimmy!

    Reply
  2. Dee Ryan
    Dee Ryan says:

    Fabulous. I soooo enjoy playing with both of you, and I’m honored to be asked. Jimmy, you are such a great comic foil and you’re always there to ground a scene. John always surprises onstage. He has a devilish streak, and he dares to be vulnerable, which I tell my students to be but don’t always take as my own note. You two are always a joy to play with. Congratulations on building something wonderful right away!

    Reply

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