Wrigley Field

What the Cubs Taught Me About Improv

If you haven’t heard by now, last week, after 108 years, the Chicago Cubs finally won a World Series title. Pretty incredible, especially for me who has been a Cubs fan my whole life.

But if you have been reading this blog with any sort of regularity, you know that a celebration of any kind doesn’t come easy for me, and this one was no exception.

As I stood in the kitchen with my wife, Lauren, nervously listening to the radio as Cubs legendary broadcaster Pat Hughes made the last call of the World Series, I jumped up and down with joy. But in less than two minutes, I was already replaying the moves the Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon had made during the game. Moves that I did not understand. Moves that I thought were mistakes. What the fuck was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be excited? They won, something they had not done since 1908.

That did not matter. My head took over. Why did he pull his starting pitcher so early? Why did he pull his middle reliever so early? Why did he put his closer in so early after the guy had pitched a ton of innings the night before?

It was as if I was ignoring the results. They won the World Fucking Series. The real question is why couldn’t I enjoy it?

The simple answer is this is what I do.

I do this in my life and certainly in my performing, especially if a show has gone well. Instead of feeling excited, or even joy, after a good scene or a good show, I would rather pick it apart, replacing excitement with my drug of choice: shame.

I did this again last Sunday night at Second City where John Hildreth and I were celebrating our five-year anniversary of our show, Jimmy and Johnnie. A pretty big accomplishment. So big that after the show we had a little party to celebrate.

But, you know me, I’m not good at celebrating and feeling joy. Instead, I need to find some shame so I can medicate those feelings. So, during the show I did a character that was not very PC by today’s improv standards. The young audience gasped a couple of times, and I got the hit of shame that I needed. Surprisingly, during the show, I was able to let it go as we moved on to the next scene, knowing I would have plenty of time to pulverize myself about it afterwards, which is just what I did. Despite the fact that it was a good show overall, I used this character choice to beat myself up by replaying it in my head for the next 48 hours.

I often have guests on Improv Nerd who say they don’t analyze or even remember what they did after they improvise a scene. I am not sure if that’s really true or if all of these guests are lying to me. If they actually don’t analyze their scenes after a show, I am impressed. I not only remember every moment, especially the bad ones, but I like to beat myself up about all the moves I think I should have made or not made.

And that is excatly what I did when the Cubs won the World Series. I went right into picking-it-apart mode so I wouldn’t have to feel the excitement or the joy of them winning. Instead I decided to bask in the shame, like a bath of cold, dirty water.

We think as improvisers it’s our duty to dissect every move we make after a show or class, because we think it will make us better. But sometimes it just makes us miserable. I am not saying don’t ever analyze your scenes; that would be unrealistic. Instead, just try to do less of it. Since I obviously I don’t know how to do less of it, I would love your help. In the comments portion below, can you tell me how you celebrate your successes without dissecting them to death? Thanks.

3 replies
  1. Fritz Anderson
    Fritz Anderson says:

    This may be unfair… am I correct in understanding that you were thrilled by the Cubs’ taking the series, while also enjoying the technical interest in baseball that’s always made you happy? And now you feel bad about it?

    I’m sure I’m wrong, because nothing is ever that pat.

    More broadly, many people — I can’t say this is you — not only don’t feel happy all the time, they make themselves unhappy about not being happy _enough._

    Nobody is happy all the time. They’re not _supposed_ to be; it’s an evolutionary disadvantage.

    Part of the fundamental — chemical — basis for learning is that success (placing the tennis ball so your next volley will be unreachable) produces a serotonin high. It feels great; you want it again; you look for what you did this time that was more effective than the last.

    Lack of success (you couldn’t hit the ball at all), especially when you thought you’d executed on everything you’d learned, produces a serotonin crash. It stings; you don’t want it again; you look for the difference between what happened and what you thought you knew.

    Actually I didn’t mean “lack of success,” I meant “failure.” I didn’t want to tangle my point in the stigma. The stigma is wrong. You have to fail. Reclaim the word. (You know this. It’s part of what you teach. Mostly to me. We can argue the semantics.)

    People try to stay crash-free. It used to be a matter of obvious dysfunctions like substance abuse. Now it’s the core principle of modern education and childrearing. Congratulations: You live in your mother’s basement (if only figuratively) and have the personality of a nine-year-old.

    One of my most exhilarating moments as a teacher was when a woman — a damn genius — was in tears over not having resolved a bug. “I came here to learn, and I _failed!_”

    I explained what had gone wrong (it helped it was her partner’s error), and that I’d made a couple of tweaks in her code along the way. “Which classes? Method? How? What did you move? What file? I want to look at it.” Thirty seconds after tears. That’s why she’s worth it.

    I used to tell it as a story about her resilience and my skill. Yay her. Yay me.

    Wrong answer. She hadn’t been overcome. She was _supposed_ to be frustrated; the frustration, the tears, and the solution weren’t complements, they were _the same thing._ She didn’t regain control of herself, she never lost it.

    She did it because she put the frustration in its place; she even put her response to it in its place, which is extraordinary. If you’re looking for resilience, that’s where it was.

    (Breaking the expectation that engineers must respond to frustration with manly stoicism is an interesting subject if you’ll give me another 3000 words.)

    That feels like a long way from the story you tell, and I haven’t even gotten to the part about improv.

    There’s a line between being as thoughtful about yourself as you would be about another player — you like the technical parts of improv as much as baseball, right? — and beating yourself up. If you remember why you’re looking, if you give yourself as much love as I’ve seen you give your students, it’s okay to look.

    You still have room to enjoy the experience as you would any other show: Offer yourself the love you’d give a performer. I sense you’re as uncomfortable with that as you are with failure (keep saying the word until you reclaim it). It’s a matter of keeping failure in its place, and taking frustration for what it’s meant to do for you.

    I do this all the time. It’s the secret of my serenity. It’s why knowing me is an unbroken experience of suave urbanity. Right?



    I get to say these things. I’m old. But spry. And sharp as a tack.

  2. Joel Luscombe
    Joel Luscombe says:

    I think reflection on its own isn’t an issue. After all, it’s not much more than looking at a choice or move and asking ourselves if it helped to satisfy a certain outcome that we’re aiming for, while implicitly using other choices/moves as a measuring stick.

    From an objective stand-point there’s nothing wrong with that and it seems highly efficient. In fact, it could even be a positive thing, if you find that the decisions you made were comparatively better at achieving your goal than the other options, which you could have made but didn’t.

    The problem seems to appear when fear and similar emotions are applied to the reflection process. For me, it’s often the projected fear that my teammates won’t like me, or they’ll see me as a fraud; or the internal shame that I should be better than this. Typically it’s fine, but if I make a particularly “bad” move, then this rears its head.

    I could be reaching here, but would it be fair to say that you’re associating future career success to how successful your shows are? Now I’m not going to say that doesn’t hold truth, but it also means that every move analyzed has the potential to poke the fear *this* choice just negatively affected your ability to achieve your greater goal .

    I’m new enough to this artform that success for me is mostly based on personal metrics, as opposed to external opportunities, so I can’t really offer any coping mechanisms, as the stakes are naturally lower for me. I wouldn’t suggest trying to stop analyzing. It’s clearly a part of how you make sense of things. Perhaps, instead, it just requires a paradigm shift in goal association or stripping things back to a more objective viewpoint (such as how you would give a student feedback)

  3. Alan Baranowski
    Alan Baranowski says:

    Jimmy, I am as big a Cub fan as you are if not bigger and I had no problem with basking in the glow of winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years. However there are improv lessons to be learn from this year’s World Series. Watching Joe Maddon’s managerial moves in games 6 and 7 I felt as if I was watching an improviser who knew better but was no longer in the moment and in his head with over thinking and over analyzing what they were doing and trying very hard to avoid getting into trouble in the scene. By making the moves he did he got himself into just the type of trouble he was trying to avoid. Maddon end up making all the moves he said he wasn’t going to make. But as all good improvisers know a good team will come through and support their follow players and make that player look good.


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