When You’re the Oldest One in Your Improv Class

Improv is considered a young person’s game. Improv classes at iO and Second City are often overrun with 20-somethings just starting out in life trying to make it big in comedy someday. But what if you are over 35 and you’ve just gotten into improv? You know you are never going to audition for SNL or write for Key and Peele – it’s just not going to happen. So, often, you are filled with self-doubt and wonder why you’re wasting your time doing this at all.

If this is you, I want you to you know that you are no different than the 20-something person who is fresh out of college with stars in their eyes. Don’t kid yourself — they have the same self-doubts as you do, they difference is they can justify theirs. Youth will do that.

You, on the other hand, have a harder time doing so. You are an adult, and you tell yourself that adults are not supposed to be silly. They’re not supposed to play. Your childhood was over a long time ago. This makes it hard for you to sneak out of work early or leave the kids with a babysitter for a couple of hours so you can play. You feel guilty because you are “wasting time” with no chance of a big pay-off.

And the more fun you have, the more you start asking yourself: “Why am I doing this? Why am I spending all this time and money? Where is this going to lead me? Am I too old to get good at this?”

If these thoughts have been plaguing you, know this: These are just negative voices in your head that are trying to prevent you from having any joy. The truth is, you are having more fun than you would ever admit. YOU ARE HAVING FUN. That’s what matters. And that is worth something.

Sure, you may never become famous or be on a TV show, but who cares? You are doing what most adults only wished they could do, and that is not act like an adult for a couple of hours a week.

No, you are not going to be on SNL or write for late night talk show. Yes, that is the reality, but who gives a shit? Let those kids in the skinny jeans and untucked flannel shirts worry about being famous. That is not how you are going to measure your success. If you do, you will lose.

If you are comparing yourself to the younger people in your improv class, it will only be a matter of time before you’re going to want to quit. You’re going to start coming up with excuses like “I need to focus on my job,” or “My partner does it like it,” or my all-time favorite, “I can’t afford it.” (This is the lamest because it’s never about the money.)

No, these excuses won’t work with me. You can only quit if you are truly not having any fun doing it anymore. So don’t you dare try to twist my words or find a loop hole on this. I won’t let you get away with it.

If you are an older improviser, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to redefine what success in improv means to you, right now, while I am talking to you in this blog. Is it completing a program, starting your own group, getting a commercial or a part in a play? Decide what it is for YOU.

Have you always wanted to try improv or are you looking for a new approach? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 Class, starting Sept. 18, 2019! Save $30 when you sign up by Sept. 4.

26 replies
  1. Walter Ezell
    Walter Ezell says:

    Good advice. I took my first improv class 3 years ago at age 63 and now perform once a week. The average age of performers in our company is 33, so with me they get two for the price of one.

    Reply
  2. Dan Sipp
    Dan Sipp says:

    BTW, this advice is just as valid for older, experienced performers. I remember going through a crisis of conscience in my late 30’s thinking I had to quit because being an improviser was unbecoming of someone my age. Now I look around and see rockstars like Mick Napier and Joe Bills still playing and playing well. Hell, even Dave Pasquesi is getting grey hair. Somewhere along the line I said, “Fuck it. As long as I still love it, people want to work with me and people still come out to see me perform I’ll keep doing this.” I’m in this for life. And when I die they’ll bury me as an improviser. I’m not apologizing for that anymore.

    Reply
  3. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    Thank you for this reflection, Jimmy. The difficulty I have with being the older or oldest person in a class is not about having fun or about career goals. It’s more about the cultural differences. Young folks in improv often make references to pop culture that they all understand and can pass between them easily during an improv scene. When I am in a scene when this happens, I feel lost; like everyone just started speaking a foreign language. If I try to throw in a reference to say, Judy Garland, no one knows what I’m talking about – and if I’m the only older person, that’s even worse!!

    Reply
    • joseph bennett
      joseph bennett says:

      Hi Anthony, I have this issue pop up over and over again, but not just with generational differences. Dozens of times there are suggestions that come up that make no sense (ie I have no reference for) and I find a way to improv through them. I trust that you can do the same. Good luck!

      Reply
  4. Chris Dube
    Chris Dube says:

    I only felt out of place for my first two classes at the Magnet Theater in NYC. I came to realize that I have lived more of my life and had many more experiences to choose from! Once I had that epiphany, I did not feel like an outsider, more as an elder of the tribe.

    Reply
  5. Paul Normandin
    Paul Normandin says:

    After becoming the best in the world in the NBA, Michael Jordan quit to play baseball. Sports writers and fans alike wrote him off on his return to basketball 18 months later. They said he was washed up; that no one can come back from such a long break.

    In his third game back with the Bulls, he scored 55 against the New York Knickerbockers in Madison Square Garden. 55! Since that game I shave my head every day in honor of Mike and the idea that we can always start again.

    Like Jordan, Jimmy Carrane never became a cast member on SNL nor a writer for Key and Peele. But for years now he has inspired Imps, young and old to slow down, have fun and not quit. Today he reminded me that being old is not the end.

    I took up Improv at 48 and last year I performed at festivals in Austin, New York, Alaska, and Oklahoma. I am the old, bald, fat guy on the far right in that picture up there. No SNL or Key and Peele for me either, but I keep believing “I can do more than I did before” even at 53.

    I can set my own goals, define what success is for me, and only quitting when I stop having fun? Thanks for reminding me that “I am enough” Jimmy!

    Reply
    • Harry L
      Harry L says:

      I am 81 with active cancer and do improv in Bonita Springs. Want to get people my age into this for fun and improve their thought process

      Reply
      • Spencer
        Spencer says:

        This is the spirit. We should stop to think anything is not doable because we are “old”. We are not old, we are just a while on earth. And we are living.

        Reply
  6. Dave Stern
    Dave Stern says:

    I am the “more mature” improviser … and since becoming involved in improv more than four years ago I have completed training at the Improv Asylum training center, have taken a butttload of advanced improv training, performed with several groups, including one that has three upcoming shows … and I wouldn’t have gotten as far as have without the support and encouragement of my younger (in some cases MUCH younger) colleagues … and if I was not having fun. Go for it!

    Reply
  7. joseph bennett
    joseph bennett says:

    Thank you for this post, Jimmy. I will be celebrating my 50th this August by performing on stage. For me, success is the chance – any chance – to play, perform, rehearse, teach and live improv. It’s that simple. I also did my first stand up routine this year after my husband told me “there’s no age discrimination in comedy” I dont know if that’s true, but I believed him. And am glad I did!

    Reply
  8. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Jimmy! thanks for this! I came back to improv after about a 20 year hiatus…one of the things that struck me about being in class with those much younger was that they immediately wrote me off and it took a lot of work to prove I had a place there. The weird thing was- this happend at Second City and Annoyance- but didn’t happen at Comedy Sportz or in your classes….not sure why that is but I found Jimmy Carrane classes to be much more accepting of all ages and skill levels and that just made it more fun. Sad to say, my focus has been elsewhere lately but I’ll be back for sure!

    Reply
  9. Jay
    Jay says:

    Very interesting article; thanks for posting! Despite being over 40, I never feel like an outsider in class. At this stage, I see myself as the “older guy who’s been doing this for awhile who can act as an example or mentor in class”….and I’ve been told as much by many of the younger students and a fair amount of teachers. I have an absolute blast in class playing with both brand new improvisors as well as those (like me) who continue taking classes for the love of being in class. When I’m improvising, age washes away and I always feel like a peer and equal…..even during the “bar time”….but not necessarily the next morning. 😉
    The part about the goals really resonates with me. I have no expectation or desire to be on SNL or write for Key and Peele or anything like that. Sure, a commercial here or there would be cool (someday in the future), but I’m doing improv because I love it and I want to do more of it. It’s fun! I’ve met so many great great people on this jounry. I’ve had incredible shows in the basements or back rooms of bars as well as have enjoyed hustling to get my indie teams on various theaters main stages. My goal is to perform more regularly on a main stage. At 40, however, is this reasonable?
    I think part of being selected for a main stage team is putting in work outside of class, rehearsals/practices and seeing shows. The networking and meeting people, hanging out and staying out is important. I can take a 3 hour class once a week. I can spend a night seeing shows. I can hustle to book and perform with my indie teams. My wife fully supports my time with improv. What I can’t/don’t-want-to do is live at a theater or theater hop from place to place 3-4 nights a week. It’s not about the money or feeling out of touch or investing a good amount of time in improv, it’s that I can’t devote all of my time to improv. That’s where I struggle and that’s where perhaps my goal should be adjusted. From my perspective and experience, the ones who can spend that amount of time go farther.
    The questions I ask myself on a semi-regular basis are: do I press on and believe “There is a main stage team for me somewhere” or do I say “Hey man, it may not happen. Better to appreciate what you have an enjoy it while it lasts.” Or do I say both? Or, maybe I’m just making excuses and I’m not as good as I think?
    Don’t get me wrong. I feel very lucky to be able to have these experiences that I truly love. I have a once a month main stage show with a great theater and I play very decent smaller stages about once a week, so I don’t have a whole lot to complain about. But man, a lick of that brass ring would be nice.

    Reply
  10. Craig
    Craig says:

    Thank you for this. Since moving to Chicago, as you know, I have often been the more senior member of my classes. I have a career and just wanted (needed?) a place to play and exercise my creativity. You have provided that as well as a good dose of confidence in this competitive improv town.

    Reply
  11. Eileen Jacobs
    Eileen Jacobs says:

    Jimmy…..As an older improviser I am willing to take more risks because what’s really the risk? Looking stupid for one minute of your life…..who cares……and I have worked at this craft to the point where I am getting paid and getting great reviews about what I am doing so I figure those looking for the 20 something in the skinny jeans are missing out on some great talent out there and I believe the tide will turn as I continue to frolic on the playground……..

    Reply
  12. gerry
    gerry says:

    to be honest it never bothered me, apart from the fact that I can’t run as fast as some of the manic young ‘uns. that may be because I’m only 16.
    (my passport says otherwise, but who are you going to believe, me or the government?)

    Reply
  13. Kim
    Kim says:

    As Founder/Director of Got U Laughing Improv Comedy Workshops in both South FL and Tampa Bay, age was never an issue with me — unless somebody asked how old I was. ;-). I personally would like to see both men and women over the age of 50 invade the improv groups and reap even a fraction of the benefits that improv provides. At a minimum, the 2 or 3 hours spent in an improv class should be some of the most mentally gratifying time spent all week; if not, then don’t leave improv, just find another group. If the workshop becomes too intimidating to the point that it’s totally unenjoyable, perhaps change the group but don’t leave improv. As for me, I have discovered that leading a 2 hour improv workshop week after week is better than Botox. I feel and look a whole lot younger than I did before starting the improv workshops — and youthful vitality is very important to a woman after a certain age. If the only benefit that I get from being in an improv group is a youthful glow and a happy frame of mind, then every minute is worth it. People under 30 have it all: they have firm skin, can wear super short cutoffs and don’t have to deal with teenage daughters. As the under 30 crowd already has the top 3 most important things in life, those in the over 30 crowd — and way over 30 crowd — should not be the only ones reaping all of the awesome benefits of learning improv. All ages can benefit by being in an improv group — even more so in an age-diversified group where all ages find ways to work together.

    Reply
  14. Tony B
    Tony B says:

    Wait, aren’t Ian Roberts and Leslie Jones both over 35 and respectively a writer for Key and Peele and a performer on SNL?

    Reply
  15. Gregor
    Gregor says:

    Look at all these comments. To say you’ve struck a chord is an understatement, Jimmy.

    In 1993, Louis CK didn’t get picked-up by SNL, mercifully. Otherwise, instead of being the most beloved working comic on the mic, he’d be just another former sketch writing hack nursing a grudge. Redd Foxx didn’t land “Sanford & Son” until 1972. He was born in 1922. Do the math, you big dummy!

    Young comedic voices are fun. But the laughs are thin. This morning, on the ride in to work, I was lucky enough to catch an interview with a guy who’s pimping a biography he just wrote about Richard Pryor.

    Pryor didn’t find his voice early. He didn’t find it easily. And yet, any time I happen to catch his act, time stops. I find myself laughing and reflecting on my own life at the same time.

    What’s the fucking rush? Seriously!!! I’m 3-years shy of 50 and still taking improv classes. Look out, world, there’s a voice bubbling up…

    Reply
  16. Carron
    Carron says:

    OMG, as the kids like to say. I started improv classes just a few months ago at 58. I remain the oldest in my classes and I’m almost certain I’m the oldest who comes regularly to the Dallas Comedy House improv jams. (I have to carry a step stool with me to get on stage as we have no access steps.) Honestly, the only concession to age I allow myself is my reluctance to squirm around on the floor – getting down is easy, getting back up takes a few seconds. But I do wonder what kind of reception I’ll get when I’m ready to audition for troops. My current campaign is getting all these nice polite young ladies and gentlemen to stop calling me “ma’am.”

    Reply
  17. Susan Youngdahl
    Susan Youngdahl says:

    Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis has at least 3 55+ improv classes. Several of us (including me) have been doing improv for at least ten years. Some perform and others are happy with just once a week class. There is nothing strange or unusual about seniors doing improv or anything else for that matter. We are not just old we are ripe!

    Reply
  18. mere
    mere says:

    i don’t know how many times i have heard ‘if only i had started sooner’, and i think (and sometimes say) ‘hey, at least you STARTED!’. i even have to remind myself that at least i started. 10 years later, i’m having a blast playing. just playing. no fame, no glory. just fulfilling my soul.

    Reply
  19. Tim greenan
    Tim greenan says:

    Continue to take classes, all levels, I have for three years and at 71 I feel better than I was. Strive to learn the art!! I perform with a group called The Artful Codgers, we are all 7 of is over 55. We have two in the 70’s and the rest in the 60’s with 1 or 2 late 50’s. Our shows are hilarious, we learn more every class, rehearsal, and show. So come on, confidently put yourself out there and enjoy the craft. It sharpens your mind. Hell, I’m almost 71 and strive to learn and play, them show them young ones how it’s done!!! Life has given us more material:-)

    Reply
  20. Brian
    Brian says:

    Wow Jimmy! You’re projecting your own insecurities. Regardless of age, just be better, smarter, more conscious, grateful for life’s infinite abundance, and out grind EVERYONE. Period. It is that simple and I will continue to prove it. Thanks for tossing your twig in my inferno.

    Reply

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