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Carmine Lucarelli is one of the smartest, funniest, most enjoyable performers you’ll ever see. He consistently kills as a member of The Get Ready For It Experience, Lashings of Apologies, and Painter’s Radio. He’s also a respected teacher, and is rumoured to own some fancy jeans.

Jimmy Carrane has performed with some of the biggest names in comedy, and accomplished things in his career that most of us could only dream of. But take heart; you can learn a lot just from listening to him talk to the luminaries on Improv Nerd. In Part Two of our interview, Jimmy talks about the podcast, self esteem, and where he sees improv going.

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

P&C: One of the chapters in Improvising Better is called “Stop Wanting.” Why do you think some people have an attitude of “Why didn’t I get picked [for a show or a team]?” while others just go out and produce their own shows?

JC: I think it’s an inside job, and I struggle with this. “Am I good enough?” “Am I worthy?” “Do I deserve success?” You know, you’re putting yourself out there, and that’s a very vulnerable thing to do.

Not only are you putting yourself out there, but if you wanna succeed at this you’ve gotta fail a lot. And I think that’s a big issue.

There’s some people that I’ve seen in Chicago that weren’t the most talented, but inside they believed they deserved it and they’ve gone on to very successful careers. There’s people that I’ve seen who are immensely talented and end up quitting and they’re not improvising anymore.

So I think it comes back a little to people coming from dysfunctional families. I think we’re working out a lot of our family issues and other issues inside improvisation in the community. And we said this in the book: it is so, so, so important for improvisers to find support and nurturing outside the improv community.

The big mistake that I had when I came in – I was really screwed up, now I’m less screwed up – was, onstage we have these rules: Yes and, Listen, Make your partner look good, all of that stuff. That works on stage. That doesn’t necessarily translate off stage, so get help. Find people that will support you and nurture you and give you affirmations that you need, because this business is filled – and I’m one of them – is filled with dysfunctional people. And we’re all trying to get healthier, but it can be a very tough environment if you don’t get support.

P&C: You can get too focused on “I’m gonna make my life revolve around improv…”

JC: Well that also affects your life. If you’re immersed in the community and you never have a life and you never take a date night or you never go to a movie or you’re not living a real life, you have nothing to bring to that stage. And I’ve seen it.

I’ve worked with people, directing longform improv shows, and you can just see it in their eyes: they are gone. They don’t have anything more to give because they’ve over-extended themselves in improvisation. The well is dry.

If you don’t have a life, you can’t bring it to stage. It doesn’t work that way. Especially in improvisation.

P&C: Absolutely. Now let’s talk about Improv Nerd. What made you decide to start the podcast?

JC: Well I was at Station 773 where I teach my classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, and I talked to them about doing this, and they were very open, very supportive. It really was an extension of my teaching. I really love teaching improvisation, I just enjoy it so much, and I really wanted people to hear from these incredible artists here in Chicago. But not only their accomplishments; I wanted people to reveal part of themselves.

So when you’re at home listening on your computer, or you’ve got it on your iPod, you hear TJ talking about his insecurities, or Tim Meadows talking about how he didn’t feel he’s enough after 10 seasons of Saturday Night Live. So people at home can relate that these people get to this place, but they had to struggle. Everybody had to struggle to get here.

If you listen to TJ’s, he’s had a very hard life. Susan Messing was very honest and she talked about her struggles in theatres; how she was treated. Dave Koechner, if you get a chance to hear that, that wasn’t a live show, but I just loved this from that show. Dave is gonna be in Anchorman 2, and he was in the original Anchorman, and he talks about the four leads on that cast: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrel, and Dave Koechner. They all went home to their wives and said, “Oh my God, [one of the other actors] is doing better than I am. This is gonna be his movie. I’m not doing as well, I can’t keep up with them.” And then they all met on the set in a trailer and they all confessed that this is how they were feeling.

P&C: (laughs)

JC: To me, that is so important for the improv student. Because Dave Koechner is no different than the guy who’s just starting. It’s a different level, but there’s still fear, there’s still insecurity. And that’s the thing that’s common, and that’s the thing that I think is really important that these people share; that no one had an easy path to this.

P&C: I find that there are a lot of kind people in this community.

JC: Yes, there’s a lot of benevolent souls in this community. And I love it, you know? I went to Detroit and this woman comes up to me and says, “I love your podcasts. They’re so honest, they’re so inspirational.” It’s so fulfilling. It’s like I’m reaching a bigger audience, I’m teaching a bigger class. It’s so rewarding, I can’t tell you.

We just did – it hopefully will air in a month or two – we did an interview with Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele. There’s also one where it’s the two of them. I was in my head and very worried - “I want a different interviewer!”

He gave a course in improvisation. It was totally different from the other interview that I did with Jordan and himself, and it was so… People were like, “It’s educational, it’s inspirational, it’s entertaining.” That to me is just so rewarding.

P&C: One of the great things about Improv Nerd is that you interview people, and then you do an improv set. What made you think of incorporating that? Did you think of it as a Master Class for the listener?

JC: No, I kind of think of it as a big longform. Like, we do the interview, and certainly we’re going to be inspired by that when we do the improvisation. And I gotta tell you, the improv part… You know, I’ve been interviewing people on public radio here for ten years in Chicago. So the interview I always look forward to. But the improv scares me, because I wanna be great at it. So I’m starting to find, “OK, now I can be as honest in the interview part as I can in the deconstruction part afterwards.” And I think that’s very helpful too.

Improvising with Keegan, I was playing a black character. “How did you feel about you being bi-racial, me playing a black character? I was always taught that in Chicago, you don’t play kids and you don’t play black characters.” And so to get his opinion on it. Or “I made this choice. And I really made this choice ‘cause you were getting a lotta laughs and I thought, y’know, I’d like to get a laugh too.”

P&C: (laughs)

JC: That kinda stuff, I’d like to bring even more of that to that part of Improv Nerd. But that’s the part that scares me the most because that’s really revealing, and that’s where my ego’s involved.

P&C: But you have the awareness of it. I find that people who’ve done personal development work, when you talk about ego, the fact that you’re even talking about it, you have this awareness that that exists. So I feel like you’re actually probably already doing a good job. (laughs)

JC: And I think for me, especially the classroom… I’ve been able to use the classroom to become a better teacher. You know a lot of people say, “Oh, I learn so much from my students.” And it’s true, it’s like, “Well, how do you do it?”

I had an incident where there was a woman, she was an older woman, and there was this younger guy, and they did this scene where he swooped across her breast. He didn’t touch her breast, but she was very jarred by that. So she emailed me and she said, “This has never happened to me, and blah-blah-blah… I’ve been in a lot of acting classes.” And then I had to respond to her.

And what I had found out – and I talked earlier about this – I had been sexually abused. I totally shut down. And so that was helping me get over my sexual abuse, and I said, “I really checked out, and had I been more conscious, I would’ve side-coached you. Y’know: ‘Back off, don’t touch me,’ something like that.” And that to me, that’s where the teacher can learn from the student. That’s made me a better teacher.

I approach teaching today as, I don’t have any lesson plans anymore. I go in and I’m like, “I’m improvising with my students.” Meaning, I’m improvising my lesson plan. Whatever comes up, I’m gonna follow them. And that’s made a big difference in my teaching.

In my class there was a woman, she was getting caught up with sexual stuff; she was really blocked. So then we just did an exercise that dealt with that. And then there was another guy who felt he talked too much. So then right in the moment we created an exercise where it dealt with him being… He’d sit in the scenes and be quiet throughout the scenes, not say anything, because he talked too much, or felt he talked too much.

Those kinda things, to me, are the most powerful things, and it’s right in the moment. I’m improvising with them, and that to me is so exciting. That’s how teachers get better, when they’re willing to deviate from their lesson plan and go, “Hey, just like I’m on stage, what’s in front of me? What did they just initiate? I’m gonna use that and I’m gonna follow that.”

At the end of class, that was the thing they felt was the most beneficial; when you took something in the moment and you worked on something with somebody individually. Because the other thing is, you may be working with one person, but my experience is it affects the whole group. Some other members of the group benefit from that as well, even if you’re working with just one person.

P&C: Absolutely. I’ve seen transformations in classes or workshops that the whole room felt was a breakthrough, even if it was dealing with a specific behaviour of one person, as you say.

JC: Because it’s group dynamic. That one person is holding onto something for the whole group.

P&C: That’s a really great point.

OK, in all your years of teaching, performing, and writing about improv, what are you most proud of?

JC: Oh my God, I am proud of so many things. Wow. I’m proud of Improv Nerd. I’m really proud of Improv Nerd. I’m proud of Jazz Freddy. I’m proud of The Comedy Underground, which was a short-form group that had just phenomenal people: Andy Richter was in it, Dave Koechner was in it, Kevin Dorff was in it, Brian Stack was in it…

P&C: Wow.

JC: My God, who else? Mitch Rouse was in it,  Jay Leggett, Brian Blondell, Brendan Sullivan…

In terms of The Annoyance, a show that I’m hugely still to this day proud of is a show that was written through improvisation called I’m 27, I Still Live At Home And Sell Office Supplies. That show ran for a year and a half and it was a huge, huge hit. It was something that I always wanted to do, and it’s something that I’m really, really proud of.

Another show that comes to mind is Naked. It was probably one of the first two-person improv [shows], I guess. It was me and Stephanie Weir from Mad TV and she is amazing. She is just a phenomenal writer, a phenomenal actress and a phenomenal improviser. We did one scene for one hour, same relationship.

The other show that…I was in the original cast of Armando here at the iO, and that was a very special time that brought people from UCB, people from Second City, there was a house team at iO called The Family that Adam McKay was on… Charna Halpern had just opened her space on Clark & Addison, and that was a very exciting time because all of these people like Jazz Freddy and The Family and UCB and Second City, we all came together to do Armando.

Armando Diaz was actually Armando. It was scary; it was very, very scary, and very rewarding too, at the same time.

P&C: Do you find that a lot of times it is the things that scare you the most that, when you do them, you’re so happy you did?

JC: There isn’t one project that I haven’t gone into feeling that, “I’m not good enough,” or… That always comes up.

P&C: Not with Improv Nerd though?

JC: Yes. I didn’t feel I was good enough.

It’s taken me a while to get confidence. I didn’t feel like… there was parts of the show that I would get, and there were other parts that I wouldn’t get. There’s times that I don’t feel that I’m good enough. Even stuff that you create.

P&C: I think when you’re putting yourself out there, it’s easy to be hard on yourself about the results. What’s amazing to me is, you’ve been doing it for so long and are so respected, and you still have those moments.

JC: The other thing too is, when you put up a show, I don’t care if it’s a scripted show [like] I’m 27, or The Armando; it takes a while in front of an audience. Anywhere from eight to twelve – it all depends [on] your learning curve – but it takes a fair amount of shows to figure out what it is.

And I feel like in Improv Nerd, we’re still figuring out what it is. Which is exciting and scary. The exciting part is, it’s new every night and you’re not just phoning it in. The scary part is, you don’t know what to expect and you can’t control it.

P&C: Listening to all these amazing things you’ve done, in some ways it feels they could only have happened in Chicago. Do you think it’s necessary to move to Chicago, New York or LA? Say you live in Ottawa or Austin; do you have to go to one of those Big Three cities to be successful?

JC: I think it all depends what they want. The other thing is, you bring up Austin…it’s so interesting because Austin has got this flourishing community there now. Tom Booker and Asaf Ronen, they started a theatre. Asaf was in New York, Tom was in Los Angeles, and Tom was at The Annoyance with me. So you’re getting these people that have major market experience now going into smaller markets.

If you wanna be on Saturday Night Live or you wanna be on Mainstage at Second City or you wanna be a writer for Colbert, yeah, you probably have to go to New York or LA or Chicago. But if you wanna do it and have a great longform group and be really respected and probably make some money at it, I don’t think you have to move to one of those cities.

I think it’s beneficial to come to Chicago to study, or when teachers come to Toronto. In many of the interviews of Improv Nerd you’d ask people, “Do you have to move LA? Do you have to move to New York?” And a lot of people say because of the internet and YouTube that you can get stuff…you know, content…[that] you don’t have to move there necessarily anymore.

P&C: I think a lot of Canadians yearn to go there, but maybe it’s that “grass is always greener” kind of thing.

JC: I think it all comes down to your goals. What’s your vision for yourself? Do you wanna do Mainstage at Second City? Do you wanna do one of the boats at Second City? Do you wanna live in a bigger city, and be more exposed to stuff? That’s only gonna help your art, if that’s what you want. But I think today there’s a lot of good people in these smaller markets.

I go to Rochester and there’s a guy named Law Tarello and John [Forrest Thompson]… Those guys, one spent time here at iO, was a student of mine, and Law was at UCB. And they’re starting a theatre in Rochester. And that’s really changed, and that’s really helpful; that these people in major markets are going into smaller markets because they have experience, and they’re bringing that from the bigger cities.

P&C: Which is very cool.

JC: Oh it’s really cool. And the other thing is to just get exposure. I mean if you’re in a small city, you’ve gotta come and watch improvisation. That’s why I love it when I teach in St Louis or Detroit or Rochester and people will email me saying, “What are the shows to see?”

And that’s great, because that is such an important thing. And that’s why Chicago is such a mecca, because we have so many shows. And people forget that watching improvisation is a teaching tool in itself.

P&C: For sure. It’s funny, when Cameron and I started improvising, we didn’t go to many shows. And then when we started watching them, it was like, “What were we thinking, learning in a vacuum?”

JC: Yep. It just keeps inspiring, and keeps the community growing and growing and growing.

Image © Jimmy Carrane

Jimmy Carrane is the creator and host of the very cool Improv Nerd podcast, and co-author of Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser. 

He was an original member of The Annoyance Theater, Armando at The IO-Chicago, and the legendary longform group-slash-show, Jazz Freddy. We asked him about his career, Chicago, and why he loves improv nerds. 

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

P&C: As someone who’s been improvising for decades, how has improv changed for you since you started, or has it?

JC: Well I started when I was 18, so I’m 48 now.

P&C: Wow.

JC: Yeah. I think it’s changed in terms of…when I started, especially longform was based in Chicago. Now it’s all over the country, all over the world and North America.

You look at New York, you look at LA, and there’s people that’ve started in Chicago. Like you look at the UCB, those people started in Chicago. PIT and The Magnet… those people all started in Chicago. iO now has an outlet on the West Coast, Second City’s out there.

And then there’s teachers that then leave UCB and go teach down in Florida or Oklahoma. It is so spread out, I think that’s the biggest change. Chicago isn’t the only place anymore to do longform improvisation.

P&C: But it’s still the mecca, though. Would you say that’s still the case?

JC: I’ll tell you why Chicago I think is still the mecca. One is, it’s got the history. Certainly going back over 50 years with the Second City. The other thing is, I think, versus New York or Los Angeles, it’s still very accessible to get on stage.

You can do improvisation in front of an audience, and that’s where you really learn, in front of an audience. It’s much more accessible and less competitive than New York or Los Angeles.

P&C: I guess it just depends on what your end goal is.

JC: Well I have to say for me, it certainly has become more… When I started at improv Olympic, this was back in ’84, somewhere in there, ’85, ’86… you knew everyone. There was maybe seven or eight teams at the most, so you knew everybody. There truly was this community.

Now it’s enormous and when people say “I’ve gotta audition for a Harold,” I just think to myself, that wasn’t the case when I was there.

P&C: Improv has become this huge thing, which is good because it means more people are getting paid to teach and even perform. But do you miss the intimacy of the smaller community, or do you think this is a great thing that’s happened?

JC: I think it’s a great thing. I just came back from Detroit for the Detroit Improv Festival, and they just treated me like a king.

I think for someone like me who’s been around for a while and is starting to be known, it’s really cool to take what I’ve learned here the last 30 years, and then go to different cities. ‘Cause there is a connection between improvisers. We all speak the same language when it comes down to it.

P&C: Do you travel a lot?

JC: I’ve started to travel more as the opportunities have come in. I won – which was a total surprise to me – the 2012 INNY Award for Best Workshop with The Art of Slow Comedy. So I’ve gotten some interest there, but my basis is still Chicago.

P&C: Were you born in Chicago?

JC: I was born in Chicago, yeah.

P&C: I read that you said you were “pretty much in denial” that you wanted to do improv for years. Why is that?

JC: I always wanted to be… Really young, I think my first vision was to be a stand-up comedian. And part of me, I’d still like to do it. And then I got into improv, and once I got there – it was at the Players Workshop at the Second City, which I don’t believe is there anymore – but there was just like, a handful of places that were teaching improv back in the ‘80s and that was one of them.

I had been the class clown at school, I had been the funny one in my family, and everything that I had worked to, to that point, was rewarded. And I finally found, like, “I found my people. They understand me.”

P&C: When you say “your people;” your podcast is called Improv Nerd. I didn’t think of improv being associated with nerds as a personality type until I saw an interview with TJ, and he said “Improvisers are nerds,” and I thought, he’s right! Do you find that it’s like this group of people who were outsiders who’ve come together in improv?

JC: Yes. I think, you know, it’s a different breed. And in Chicago, we’re really not actors…we are actors, but in Chicago there’s division between actors and improvisers which I think is very interesting.

And I think that improvisers, y’know, they’re really not stand-ups, they’re really not actors, they’re this hybrid. So I think that there’s this sense that we’re kind of on the outside. And I think if you asked improvisers their background, one is you’d find out most of them come from dysfunctional families. And two is, they probably didn’t feel like they belonged.

And I think for most of us, when we found improvisation or we found a certain theatre that did improvisation, we felt we were home, and we were accepted. In that case, I think yes, we are all nerds, and we are nerds finding ourselves. Improv is a nerd colony, and hopefully that we will reproduce.

P&C: (laughs) It’s great because improv gives you the courage to do things and say things and feel things that you may not in real life. I think in your book you say “It’s not therapy,” but there is that angle to it that it’s like a release when you’re up there.

JC: Well there is a healing quality of improvisation that I started to tap into the last five or six years as I have been in group therapy. It’s so much fun to be in a class where people will…you’ll have an opportunity to help people get over an issue that they’re working on onstage, that they think is only about what they’re doing onstage, when in reality – since improvisation is such a transparent art form – it really has to do with what’s going on in their life.

P&C: For sure. Going back to you on that point, you’ve said that you’re in therapy and that you’ve had a hard time letting go of low self-esteem, because you’re afraid if you do, you’ll lose your comic voice. Do you still have that concern?

JC: No. I’d like to find more joy in improvising, and that’s parallel to my life. I’d like to find more joy in my life. So I’m not worried that I’m not gonna do… I think today for me, where I’m at in terms of therapy is that it’s actually helping me become a better improviser because I’m discovering things about myself.

I’m all for – and this is where I go towards and what I find the most fascinating in improvisation and in comedy in general – is going for the honesty. The things that are revealing; the things that when you get off stage, I’m gonna feel a tremendous amount of shame, or the audience may feel a little uncomfortable and laugh. That’s what I like in comedy, and that’s what I like in improvisation, and there’s also a lot of healing in there.

If you can get onstage, and I’ve done this many times and talked about my sexual abuse, for instance… that becomes very healing for me, and hopefully it becomes healing for the audience. And in the process, hopefully there’s humour to that, which makes it easier for people to deal with. But that’s part of the healing process too; laughter is really important to that process.

P&C: There’s some great lightning-fast shows with lots of sweeps, but then you go and see something like TJ and Dave where it’s so much slower and more about the relationships, and you can see – I don’t know either of them, but you can sense their personalities in the characters they’re portraying – and I think that’s why audiences absolutely love them.

JC: And on top of it they’re both very passionate about improvisation. When I was coming up at the improv Olympic, everybody looked up to Dave Pasquesi. I mean everybody wanted to be Dave Pasquesi.

P&C: (laughs)

JC: It’s interesting; I don’t think it was aired because there was a technical difficulty, but we had Noah Gregoropolous. I don’t know if you know Noah, but he’s very well respected at the improv Olympic. He’s kind of curmudgeonly and has very high standards, very professorial, and Noah said in the interview, the only person he looks for approval from is Dave Pasquesi.

And then TJ to me, he’s like Mozart. I mean, nobody… I’ve played with him, and when there’s a suggestion you can see it in his eyes, he’s already got something. He is amazing; he’s easily one of the best I’ve ever played with, and I truly believe that he is a genius at what he does.

P&C: In the Improv Nerd interview with TJ, you said you and TJ were on a team together?

JC: We were a team called Carl and the Passions at iO here.

P&C: So this is early days of iO?

JC: No, this was later. My relationship with the iO has been on again, off again for years. So this was probably four or five years ago.

P&C: I’m jumping around in my notes right now…you were in Jazz Freddy, and you’ve interviewed some of [the members] on your podcast: Rachel Dratch, Dave Koechner…

JC: Dave Koechner, sure. Kevin Dorff was on that. Brian Stack, who writes for Conan O’Brien.

P&C: Can you describe the improv scene at that time? Jazz Freddy went on to become this very influential group, but who was there at the time that you looked up to?

JC: Well to answer you first question, the scene back then… there wasn’t as many opportunities to perform improvisation. So it was kinda fun because in a way it was like the Wild West. You made your own opportunities, which I think was such a benefit because people took more risks.

So that was kinda the lay of the land. We’d all finished studying at the improv Olympic, so Pete Gardner was the one who really had the idea because he had been with a group called Ed, and he’d learned a lot from a guy named Jimm Dennen and they had done a show at the Remains Theatre. They were probably one of the earliest groups that I can remember that brought longform into a legitimate theatre.

The Remains Theatre was a very big equity house here in Chicago. So we really patterned ourselves after that. We always wanted to do a little more slow and a little more serious scene work, and we wanted to take it into a theatre, and so Ed opened the door for us to do that. And so we put it up I believe on a Monday night, and it’s one of those shows where, quickly it started to sell out, quickly we started to get great reviews, and became this phenomenon.

Then we did another run and that was a huge success. I think we moved it to the weekend, still at Live Bait Theatre. And it’s interesting, even today, improvisers who were behind us, y’know, one or two generations, will say, “Jazz Freddy was a huge influence on us. I got into improv because of Jazz Freddy, it was amazing to see what you guys were doing.” And I think that was really the benefit of those times.

It was a very exciting time here in Chicago in terms of, you had Jazz Freddy, you had Ed, the Annoyance… I was doing the Annoyance Theatre and Jazz Freddy at the same time, and the Annoyance had just begun on their space on Broadway here in Chicago, and The Real Live Brady Bunch and Co-ed Prison Sluts, and all their shows. I mean it was really an exciting time. And Looking Glass Theatre which had David Schwimmer and Joey Slotnick, they were starting up… It was a real kind of Renaissance period in Chicago in terms of theatre and improvisation.

P&C: And how long was Jazz Freddy an entity?

JC: There was a couple runs of it, but I don’t think it was really… maybe, totally? The first run was maybe six weeks and maybe we extended it another six weeks, so maybe that was twelve weeks, and maybe the next run was twelve weeks too. I don’t think it was that long of a run.

P&C: That’s amazing. That is truly a testament to what you were doing.

JC: The other thing, I think this kinda ties in to how improv has changed. When we did Jazz Freddy, we looked at it as, we’re putting up a theatre show. We brought all the discipline and respect that putting up a theatre show [entails].

Which meant – which is unheard of today – saying “Look, you cannot do anything else that’s gonna conflict with this. This is your priority.” Which would never happen today. Today people would be like, “I can’t do it, I’ve got another show at X-Y-Z Theatre. I’ve got another class at Second City. I’ve got my final performance at Annoyance.” But that commitment is what I believe – and certainly the talent that we had – but that commitment made that show.

And the other thing is, I think there’s a plus and a minus for the expansion of improvisation today. In terms of the expansion, those opportunities like Jazz Freddy, those shows that influence generations, I don’t think they’re gonna happen as much, and I’ll tell you why.

[It’s] because there’s so many performance opportunities, and this is mentioned in Improvising Better, the book I co-wrote with Liz Allen. People are so addicted to… I think we called them Stage Junkies. They will run to class, they will run to a show, they will spread themselves way too thin. And in that, they won’t give their art enough space and enough time to create something like Jazz Freddy.

Because everyone’s worried; they wanna make sure they’ve got all their bases covered in case the Next Big Thing comes. Well I can guarantee if you’re playing that way, you’re not gonna find the Next Big Thing. They’re betting against themselves and they don’t know it.

P&C: I think that is universal. You hear “Get as much stage time as you can,” so you think, “Well, if I get can three shows a week, that’s great!” But then you also might be taking classes and to your point, you reach overload and then you’re not really committed to anything.

JC: Right. And here’s the thing: there becomes a ceiling.

When you start out and you’re getting stage time it’s great, because you’re getting experience. But then you’re gonna hit this ceiling where, now it’s about getting quality stage time.

So that’s really an important thing for people to remember.

In Part Two we discuss Improvising Better, the Improv Nerd podcast, how Jimmy’s teaching style has evolved, and pushing past fear to do new projects.

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

We’ve written a few posts about physicality, and how it can change your character, literally from the inside out.

When I change my physicality onstage, the scene becomes effortless. Suddenly it’s not me standing in my usual one-leg-locked stance; it’s another entity with their own point of view, and I don’t have to think about how to respond because my physicality almost pushes the words out of me.

This TEDX Talk with Joe Dispenza is fascinating, because it explains how the different parts of our brain inform our behaviour. It also explains how taking physical action helps to create new neural networks – and thus determine who we become.

Dispenza was featured in the film What the Bleep Do We Know!? Click here to see the TEDX video.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

This slim volume was one of the first improv books I read, and it’s still one of the best.

It’s also unique in that it’s filled with exercises, as well as insights. It’s perfect for coaches, which is no surprise, since Liz Allen won the Del Close Coach of the Year three years running. Carrane meanwhile, was an original member of The Annoyance Theatre and the legendary Jazz Freddy, and is the creator of Improv Nerd.

Even though the subtitle is A Guide for the Working Improviser, you don’t have to be a pro to benefit from this book. The exercises are simple and fun, and the advice is spot on for both newbies and seasoned vets alike.

You can buy it on Amazon here.

WitOut is a blog run by a group of comedians that covers improv, sketch and stand-up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But you don’t have to live in Philly to love this site, as evidenced by this post from the very funny Matt Holmes, reproduced here with permission.

11:40
The overly eager and overly early arrive to find a locked building with no signage. They wait.

11:50
The regularly early arrive. Everyone meets everyone else and discusses the situation. They wait.

11:53
Somebody arrives to open the door.

11:56
The workshop instructor arrives, says hi to everybody and goes to the bathroom.

12:03
The instructor tells everybody that they’ll start in five minutes and give people a little more time.

12:11
“Well, I guess we’ll get started.”

12:11 – 12:13
Roll call with three people not present.

12:13 – 12:17
Sitting in a circle as the first three people briefly introduce themselves, their complete improv background, an attempt at a joke, and a self-deprecating comment.

12:17 – 12:19
The fourth person in the circle goes into every last detail of her life leading up to this point.

12:19 – 12:20
The rest of the people introduce themselves briefly.

12:20 – 12:25
Instructor explains the plan for the workshop, now for the first time really thinking about it.

12:25 – 12:40
A basic warm-up that’s overly simplistic for all but two participants who can’t grasp the mechanics or have like, absolutely no rhythm or just can’t think of anything or have a really bad memory, so sorry everybody.

12:33
A late student arrives, complaining about traffic and parking, while carrying a coffee.

12:41 – 12:53
Instructor explains in complete detail how the first exercise will work and how we’re pressed for time because most real workshops are at least three hours and this one, for some strange reason, is only two and a half, which really is not enough time.

12-53 – 1:10
Three-Line Scenes, alternating between jokey punchlines and confused arguments.

1:10 – 1:17
An open discussion about the previous exercise, trying to remember what happened, while highlighting problems and explaining rules of what never to do and what always to do.

1:18 – 1:30
An exercise focused on loose organic transitions and freeing yourself up to follow wherever it goes and being open.

1:30 – 1:40
An open discussion about the previous exercise, trying to remember what happened while highlighting problems and explaining rules of what never to do and what always to do.

1:40 – 1:45
Instructor asks everyone how they’re feeling about the work, everyone shrugs their shoulders and says they feel okay but wish they were doing better, and one student speaks at length about confusions and specific examples of “just not getting it.”

1:45
“Let’s take a ten-minute break to hit the bathroom, feed the meter, take a smoke break, etc.”

1:46
One student has to leave early and thanks the instructor.

1:59
“Okay, I guess we should get back to it. Let’s circle up and get warmed up again.”

2:00 – 2:04
A children’s game with vague connections to theatricality.

2:04 – 2:07
Two students improvise a patient, engaging scene with an interesting point to it.

2:07 – 2:09
Instructor points out that we didn’t know the characters’ names, if they were sisters or just friends, and that it wasn’t clear if they were in a restaurant or in somebody’s kitchen.

2:09 – 2:17
Four more improvised scenes struggling to be coherent and interesting.

2:17 – 2:22
Instructor shifts gears into a series of scenes where students tag each other out.

2:22 – 2:25
Students discuss the scenes, most citing that they were just about to do something good before they got tagged out.

2:25 – 2:34
Another round of scenes with tag-outs; students now make quicker punchlines.

2:34
“Well, we’re a little over the time when we were supposed to end. Does anybody mind if we go a little longer?”

2:34 – 2:41
Another round of scenes with tag-outs; instructor pauses each scene to discuss how truthful the scenes feel and then has them continue.

2:43
Instructor thanks everybody for coming and ends the workshop.

2:43 – 2:50
Casual discussion among students and instructor.

2:45
An overly eager student arrives for a workshop scheduled to start at 3.

Looking for a fresh new festival to show off your team’s mad skillz? Fancy hobnobbing with the stars at Toronto’s famed Comedy Bar? Or maybe you just wanna perform with friends and get drunk after.

Whatever your thang, the folks at Big City Improv Festival don’t judge. But they do want you to know that the submission deadline is this Friday, August 17th.

With marquee acts from across North America, the line-up promises to be awesome. So don’t be left out. Get your cute little festival-submitting butt on over to their web site, at bigcityimprovfestival.com.


Greg Hess is an actor and writer living in Chicago.

He’s performed with The Second City National Touring Company, teaches improv to actors and corporate clients, and created a Master Class series for iO Chicago. He plays the guitar, ukulele, banjo and accordion – just not at the same time.

Photo © Joshua Albanese/The Improvised Shakespeare Company

P&C: You encourage acting (and reacting) in a real way in scenes. Why do you think that’s important?

GH: I think when I teach the reason I like it is because it gets people out of their heads, thinking that they have to be the most clever person on stage.

The cool thing that I always liked about improv was that everybody brings something to the table because of just who you are and what your point of view is. And that isn’t gonna come out as well unless you’re able to basically, not freak out, and connect with your scene partner and do a good scene.

Some of the groups that I’m a part of do some of the more absurd, sort of, silly things on stage, but I think the cool part of that is that there’s always a commitment to how absurd it is. I would say Cook County does some of the more unbelievable scenes that I get to perform, but everybody’s emotional commitment to them is 100% real.

P&C: [We were] saying that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying; if you’re doing it with utter commitment and truly living that character you will buy it, but you will also laugh.

GH: You can ride a bus and see things that are crazier than what are on an improv stage, and the people on the bus are always really committed to whatever they’re talking about.

P&C: What is your view on openings, and why do you think they’re so hard for so many improvisers?

GH: Well, I just finished teaching a week of openings at iO for the Summer Intensive for Level 4, which is the Harold. I actually…you know what’s funny is, I don’t know why people think they’re so hard.

My feeling about openings is that they can be alienating, hard to watch, boring, and/or insane. And the reason for that is because everyone in the last few years, I think, has been taught that openings mean chanting and walking around in a circle and free-associating words and sort of building insane machines together…

P&C: Yes!

GH: …and then trying to figure out what that means.

And actually – and taking this from Holly, who’s my wife and is an amazing Harold teacher – she said “You know, an opening is just a time for us all to connect and to build a few ideas together, and it’s really nothing more than that.”

So the fact that openings have become such a burden is kind of too bad. Because really, an opening can be whatever you want it to be. And if you don’t like chanting and marching around then don’t do that.

P&C: (laughs)

GH: The cool part is that you’re just generating some ideas together and you’re connecting with your ensemble. And then hopefully you’re doing that in a way that makes the audience lean forward a little bit and thinks that “Oh, something’s happening here” rather than “Oh God, why did you take me to this on a Monday night? We’re never going out again.”

P&C: No wonder you’re not enjoying it if you’re doing stuff you’re not enjoying. That makes a lot of sense.

GH: The first Harold team I was ever on was a team called Sturgis. [It was] another team that had a bunch of great players on it: TJ Miller, and some guys from Cook County Social Club.

We actually went by the rule that we were gonna over-commit to the Harold in the opening at the very top, and try to do basically the most over-committed, insane opening that people had ever seen.

What it ended up turning into was unconditional support for the weirdest things, and we would get some of the biggest laughs of the night in our opening because we just thought they were so silly, we wanted to just have fun with it.

P&C: You didn’t get to see one, but that’s usually how an S&P opening goes.

GH: (laughs)

Cameron: We got nervous because we had superstar Greg Hess [onstage].

GH: Well I blame Cameron for ending that opening, because I’m all about doing super over-committed, insane openings… All I wanted to do was jump around and free associate and no one would let me.

Cameron: (laughs)

P&C: Is there anything that drives you nuts in improv scenes?

GH: Oh yeah. Plenty. (laughs) I think the one thing… I was teaching another class today and the one thing I told people that I don’t like to see is just people being so polite and timid that they’re afraid to react and really give each other gifts onstage.

You see it here and you see it wherever you go, and it’s because we’re making it up we feel like “waiting for something to happen” rather than kinda diving in the pool and swimming around.

I think a frustrating thing to me is always, you’re up there saying how much you like this girl, but you’re basically just standing there and talking. You’re not actually doing anything.

I love that quote that “Acting is doing.” I don’t know who said that; probably Utah Hagen or somebody… (laughs) But it is kind of true in improv. too. I think improv is doing, it’s not the opposite of doing. So if I do have a pet peeve it’s people who get sidelined by their fear or their brain or whatever it is that keeps you from having fun and playing onstage.

P&C: What’s the funniest or the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in one of your shows?

GH: Well, Cook County has definitely gotten somewhat naked on stage before, so that’s always interesting. Back in the early days we almost were kicked out of the theatre because someone took Brendan’s pants off and he sort of dared them to take his boxer shorts off, too. We got a stern reprimand – as we should have.

But actually, one of my favourite moments, somebody from Toronto brought up to me when we were at the bar the other night. They saw a show where I did a two-man show – it was a Cook County show – and it was just two of us, and I accidentally roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face. His nose sort of exploded in blood, and um, we kept doing the show.

P&C: Oh my God.

GH: We stuffed bar napkins into his nose from the closest table. I’ve honestly never been so terrified onstage. I was just so…I thought I’d broken his nose; I sort of knocked his lights out for a little bit. He was just so dazed.

We had about 30 minutes more of the show and we just kept going, and it ended up being one of our favourite shows we’ve ever done. It was fun to go to Toronto and somebody came up to me and said, “I was there the night you roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face and bloodied his nose.” I just loved that because it’s a great example of taking a risk, having the risk go terribly wrong, but then seeing some really fun things come out of it. (laughs)

P&C: That’s pretty hardcore.

GH: Yeah, it’s real punk rock improv, I guess. I guess the most punk rock thing is that I screamed after I did it and didn’t know how to deal with it.

P&C: (laughs) That’s amazing. OK, last question: You’re a working actor in a very competitive field. What advice do you have for improvisers who want to make a living at it?

GH: Well, I think my advice would be, Don’t think about the living until the living shows up.

I don’t think I ever thought I would make a living doing improv until one day I kinda realized that I had enough opportunities to piece together that it didn’t make sense for me to be a desk jockey anymore.

I think that only came out of working really hard to try and learn it and to find people that I liked performing with. And then after that things started to fall into place.

That doesn’t mean be complacent; it means work really hard. I like working really hard at it for how much you love it, and hopefully the return on it is people asking you to do more. So that was always kind of a nice thing to think that, Man, I didn’t move here to think that I would get to pay the bills this way, but now that I get to I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

P&C: That’s great advice. I’m a big advocate of “Do what you love and the money will follow” – and that could mean doing a bunch of different things in order to practice what you love. Susan Messing said when Second City had its 50th anniversary, some people didn’t go because they compared themselves to alumni like Colbert or Carell. But that’s their path, and everyone has their own path.

GH: I do think that improvisers can be really complacent and feel like no one’s giving them any opportunities. That’s a big problem in Chicago, is we have all these talented people that probably should be doing it at a different level, like on TV or whatever. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they don’t think it’s gonna show up.

I think part of it is you have to put in the work for the return that you want. If you think that someone’s gonna show up and hand you a television show, it just doesn’t really happen. But if you write a TV show and do the work that it takes to learn how to write one, then there’s a better chance that you might get that opportunity.

Did you guys read the Patton Oswalt address at JFL?

P&C: No.

GH: Oh you’ve gotta read it, it’s really awesome. I just love his take on… That sort of, the playing field is just getting more and more equalized. There’s so many great young comics [and] with the internet and everything else; there is an audience and you just have to continue to try to make the thing that you wanna make, and hope that it can find itself.

You should read it, because his take is like, “The tides are changing,” and he definitely puts the feet of the industry to the fire, because he says “It’s time for you to stop thinking about it in the old way. Give these people who have a voice more opportunity.”

P&C: Very cool. We’ll read it and post a link. Thank you very much for your time.

GH: Thank you.

Note: You can click the link above to read the Oswalt piece. And if you ever have an opportunity to take a class with Greg, do it – or to paraphrase Susan Messing, be an idiot and an asshole.

P&C: You encourage acting (and reacting) in a real way in scenes. Why do you think that’s important?

GH: I think when I teach the reason I like it is because it gets people out of their heads, thinking that they have to be the most clever person on stage.

The cool thing that I always liked about improv was that everybody brings something to the table because of just who you are and what your point of view is. And that isn’t gonna come out as well unless you’re able to basically, not freak out, and connect with your scene partner and do a good scene.

Some of the groups that I’m a part of do some of the more absurd, sort of, silly things on stage, but I think the cool part of that is that there’s always a commitment to how absurd it is. I would say Cook County does some of the more unbelievable scenes that I get to perform, but everybody’s emotional commitment to them is 100% real.

P&C: [We were] saying that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying; if you’re doing it with utter commitment and truly living that character you will buy it, but you will also laugh.

GH: You can ride a bus and see things that are crazier than what are on an improv stage and the people on the bus are always really committed to whatever they’re talking about.

P&C: What is your view on openings, and why do you think they’re so hard for so many improvisers?

GH: Well, I just finished teaching a week of openings at iO for the Summer Intensive for Level 4, which is the Harold. I actually…you know what’s funny is, I don’t know why people think they’re so hard.

My feeling about openings is that they can be alienating, hard to watch, boring, and/or insane. And the reason for that is because everyone in the last few years, I think, has been taught that openings mean chanting and walking around in a circle and free-associating words and sort of building insane machines together…

P&C: Yes!

GH: …and then trying to figure out what that means.

And actually – and taking this from Holly, who’s my wife and is an amazing Harold teacher – she said “You know, an opening is just a time for us all to connect and to build a few ideas together, and it’s really nothing more than that.”

So the fact that openings have become such a burden is kind of too bad. Because really, an opening can be whatever you want it to be. And if you don’t like chanting and marching around then don’t do that.

P&C: (laughs)

GH: The cool part is that you’re just generating some ideas together and you’re connecting with your ensemble. And then hopefully you’re doing that in a way that makes the audience lean forward a little bit and thinks that “Oh, something’s happening here” rather than “Oh God, why did you take me to this on a Monday night? We’re never going out again.”

P&C: No wonder you’re not enjoying it if you’re doing stuff you’re not enjoying. That makes a lot of sense.

GH: The first Harold team I was ever on was a team called Sturgess; another team that had a bunch of great players on it: Nick Vaderah and TJ Miller and some guys from Cook County Social Club…

We actually went by the rule that we were gonna over-commit to the Harold in the opening at the very top, and try to do basically the most over-committed, insane opening that people had ever seen.
What it ended up turning into was unconditional support for the weirdest things, and we would get some of the biggest laughs of the night in our opening because we just thought they were so silly, we wanted to just have fun with it.

P&C: You didn’t get to see one, but that’s usually how an S&P opening goes.

GH: (laughs)

Cameron: We got nervous because we had superstar Greg Hess [onstage].

GH: Well I blame Cameron for ending that opening, because I’m all about doing super over-committed, insane openings… All I wanted to do was jump around and free associate and no one would let me.

Cameron: (laughs)

P&C: Is there anything that drives you nuts in improv scenes?

GH: Oh yeah. Plenty. (laughs) I think the one thing… I was teaching another class today and the one thing I told people that I don’t like to see is just people being so polite and timid that they’re afraid to react and really give each other gifts onstage.

You see it here and you see it wherever you go, and it’s because we’re making it up we feel like “waiting for something to happen” rather than kinda diving in the pool and swimming around.

I think a frustrating thing to me is always, you’re up there saying how much you like this girl, but you’re basically just standing there and talking. You’re not actually doing anything.

I love that quote that “Acting is doing.” I don’t know who said that; probably Utah Hagen or somebody… (laughs) But it is kind of true in improv. too. I think improv is doing, it’s not the opposite of doing. So if I do have a pet peeve it’s people who get sidelined by their fear or their brain or whatever it is that keeps you from having fun and playing onstage.

P&C: What’s the funniest or the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in one of your shows?

GH: Well, Cook County has definitely gotten somewhat naked on stage before, so that’s always interesting. Back in the early days we almost were kicked out of the theatre because someone took Brendan’s pants off and he sort of dared them to take his boxer shorts off, too. We got a stern reprimand – as we should have.

But actually, one of my favourite moments, somebody from Toronto brought up to me when we were at the bar the other night. They saw a show where I did a two-man show – it was a Cook County show – and it was just two of us, and I accidentally roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face. His nose sort of exploded in blood, and um, we kept doing the show.

P&C: Oh my God.

GH: We stuffed bar napkins into his nose from the closest table. I’ve honestly never been so terrified onstage. I was just so…I thought I’d broken his nose; I sort of knocked his lights out for a little bit. He was just so dazed.

We had about 30 minutes more of the show and we just kept going, and it ended up being one of our favourite shows we’ve ever done. It was fun to go to Toronto and somebody came up to me and said, “I was there the night you roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face and bloodied his nose.” I just loved that because it’s a great example of taking a risk, having the risk go terribly wrong, but then seeing some really fun things come out of it. (laughs)

P&C: That’s pretty hardcore.

GH: Yeah, it’s real punk rock improv, I guess. I guess the most punk rock thing is that I screamed after I did it and didn’t know how to deal with it.

P&C: (laughs) That’s amazing. OK, last question. You’re a working actor in a very competitive field. What advice do you have for improvisers who want to make a living at it?

GH: Well, I think my advice would be, “Don’t think about the living until the living shows up.”

I don’t think I ever thought I would make a living doing improv until one day I kinda realized that I had enough opportunities to piece together that it didn’t make sense for me to be a desk jockey anymore.

I think that only came out of working really hard to try and learn it and to find people that I liked performing with. And then after that things started to fall into place.

That doesn’t mean be complacent; it means work really hard. I like working really hard at it for how much you love it, and hopefully the return on it is people asking you to do more. So that was always kind of a nice thing to think that, Man, I didn’t move here to think that I would get to pay the bills this way, but now that I get to I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

P&C: That’s great advice. I’m a big advocate of do what you love and the money will follow – and that could mean doing a bunch of different things in order to practice what you love.

Susan Messing said when Second City had its 50th anniversary, someone didn’t go because they were comparing themselves to alumni like Colbert or Steve Carell. But she said that’s their path, and everyone her own path.

GH: I do think that improvisers can be really complacent and feel like no one’s giving them any opportunities. That’s a big problem in Chicago, is we have all these talented people that probably should be doing it at a different level, like on TV or whatever. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they don’t think it’s gonna show up…

I think part of it is you have to put in the work for the return that you want. If you think that someone’s gonna show up and hand you a television show, it just doesn’t really happen. But if you write a TV show and do the work that it takes to learn how to write one, then there’s a better chance that you might get that opportunity.

Did you guys read the Patton Oswalt address at JFL?

P&C: No.

GH: Oh you’ve gotta read it, it’s really awesome. I just love his take on…that sort of, the playing field is just getting more and more equalized. There’s so many great young comics [and] with the internet and everything else; there is an audience and you just have to continue to try to make the thing that you wanna make, and hope that it can find itself.

You should read it, because his take is like, “The tides are changing,” and he definitely puts the feet of the industry to the fire, because he says “It’s time for you to stop thinking about it in the old way. Give these people who have a voice more opportunity.”

P&C: Very cool. We’ll read it and post a link. Thank you very much for your time, Greg.

GH: Thank you.

Note: You can read a transcript of Oswalt’s speech at Third Beat by clicking here. And if you ever have an opportunity to learn from Greg, do it. Or  to paraphrase Susan Messing, don’t do it, and be an idiot and an asshole.

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