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After years of being told to “work on my weaknesses,” at home, in school, and at work, I stumbled across this startling piece of advice:

Instead of focusing all your energy on things you don’t like or aren’t good at, focus on your strengths and get better at those.

(brain explosion)

Think about it. If you constantly focus on weaknesses, you’re effectively spending your time preoccupied with a negative. What if, instead, you spent your time getting great at things you enjoy?

Last year I got an email from my childhood best friend. When I read this, I laughed out loud:

“I remember we were going to be famous writers and those crazy plays we put on in grade three for the wonderful and patient Miss Van der Woude, and one in particular in which I was wearing Francis Walch’s glasses and you diverted from the script and went rogue chasing someone around the set for 10 minutes until Miss VW said ‘Enough is enough!’ and calmed everybody down with a good old maths equation.”

Four decades years later, all of those things (writing, comedy, improvisation) have taken centre stage in my life.

“But I already know I love improv,” you say. “How do I get better at that?”

Be creative as only you can.

If you’ve ever watched Chopped, you know that even world class chefs don’t excel at everything. Faced with the same ingredients, one chef will make flavours sing. Another will demonstrate a flair for presentation, while another might surprise with their out-of-the-box thinking.

The same goes for improv.

Cameron has natural acting ability. He’s also very comfortable with silent scenes. I, on the other hand, can count on that hand the number of silent scenes I’ve done. But I’m really good at initiating, editing, and giving context.

Find the things that make you excited, and become a master at those.

If you watch any long-running team perform, you can see the different personalities at play. Certain members do certain things more often, and that’s OK. Maybe one has training in clown, while another has a background in singing. They both bring something fun to the party.

The New York Times ran a piece last week on TJ and Dave. Even those guys have their own particular style, things they each do exceedingly well. TJ doesn’t try to be Dave, and Dave doesn’t try to be TJ.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take classes, workshops, or try to improve your skills. But if you’re constantly beating yourself up for not being brilliant at every part of improv, it’s time to give your inner critic a big cup of shutthehellup.

What makes improv so magical is the collaboration and diversity of skills and talent. When you allow yours to shine, the universe will applaud.

(For more on this, see How To Succeed At Anything By Being Yourself.)

Portrait of the author as a young artist

Portrait Of The Author As A Young Girl

 

Your favourite improv nerd already owns the Game of Thrones box set, a sonic screwdriver, and every volume of Axe Cop.

Fresh out of ideas? Well relax. There are still a few goodies we guarantee they’d be happy to find in their stocking.

Second City Gift Certificates

Experiential gifts are some of the coolest things you can give. So why not share the joy of clapping along to Big Booty with a bunch of strangers?

Like a lot of people, we fell in love with improv at Second City Training Centre. From Level A for beginners, to writing, acting, and specialty classes, you can give a gift certificate for any of SCTC’s awesome courses. Click here for info on Chicago, LA and Toronto.

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Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy

If your friend lives in Chicago, a gift certificate for any of Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy classes is just the ticket. Click here to purchase.

The UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual

Authors Besser, Roberts and Walsh have poured 20+ years of knowledge into this mutha of all improv books. Coming in at just under 400 pages, it covers everything from two-person scenes to Harold structure, and was designed for beginners as well as seasoned improvisers. Click here to order.

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Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out

We’ve said it before: no one writes more engagingly about improv than Mick Napier. (For our review of the book, click here.) Like UCB’s manual, Improvise appeals to both novice and seasoned performers. And at 144 pages, it’s the perfect companion for those improv festival road trips.

Click here to order.

© Mick Napier

Trust Us, This Is All Made Up

If you’ve ever seen TJ and Dave perform, you know you’ve witnessed something profoundly unique and brilliant in the world of improv.

Watching them play is like a master class in itself. Which is why every improviser should own a copy of Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, a documentary of the duo performing live at the Barrow Street Theatre. We’ve probably seen it a dozen times, and still learn something with each viewing. Click here to order.

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Photo © Crista Flodquist

Mr Show: The Complete Collection

True, it’s not improv. But Mr Show with Bob and David redefined comedy for a generation.

Younger audiences may recognize Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad, or David Cross from Arrested Development. But between 1995 and ’98, the two of them created one of the most subversive sketch shows ever imagined. Multiple viewings are a must, due to the insane amount of creativity jammed into each episode. Click here to order.

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The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series

Without Larry Sanders, there would be no Office. No Alan Partridge. Even, some suggest, no Deadwood or Oz. In fact, it’s impossible to conceive of a world TLSS didn’t influence.

Long before reality TV, The Larry Sanders Show was a groundbreaking satire combining social commentary and “faux reality,” with a cast so talented it boggles the mind. Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, Wallace Langham and Jeremy Piven shared the screen with some of the greatest actors and musicians on the planet.

The box set contains all 89 episodes, plus commentaries and a feature-length documentary. Give it to really someone special…if you can bear to part with it. Click here to order.

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Few writers can make us laugh out loud. Augusten Burroughs is one. Michael Ian Black is another. And Mick Napier is a third.

There’s an honesty to Napier’s writing that makes it instantly relatable. (And hilarious.) But beyond being funny, it’s also instructive.

If you have any interest in improv, comedy, theatre, or directing, do yourself a favour and read his personal journal about the making of Paradigm Lost.

Annoyance has thoughtfully put the whole thing online here.

Photo © Ted Tremper

Photo © Ted Tremper

Screen shot 2013-10-26 at 11.23.54 AMMan oh man.

It’s not often you get a chance to give something back to one of your heroes. Someone who’s given so much to improv, and to improvisers worldwide.

So when we heard about the Kickstarter to build a new home for The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, we couldn’t wait to share it.

If you’ve ever read Improvise, or taken an Annoyance intensive, or have any interest in improv whatsoever, we hope you’ll check it out.

Photo © Crista Flodquist

Photo © Crista Flodquist

“I thought we shared a thing, and that you might choose to express that thing with a hug.” “I chose a hug in my way, which is to come closer.”

“We need more ice! We don’t, but I love saying that.”

“You park a police car in front of your place, you’re probably gonna be OK. Put cops in it, even better.” “Hey Jerry! Someone just stole our police car.”

“Winter’s an OK season.” “Tell that to Napoleon!” “I don’t talk to him.”

“Guys, it’s pro bono.” “What?” “It’s like when a lawyer takes a job for some shitbag that can’t pay.”

“I gotta talk to the three…uh, whattayacallits…the, y’know…three uh…” “Musketeers?” “I don’t know what they are. No, I wouldn’t give them that…” “Little pigs?”

“Let’s put some Asia on this goddamn jukebox!”

“Ben Franklin was a great man. Not handsome, but got laid constantly. Constantly.”

As Breaking Bad builds to its (nooooooooo!) series finale, we’ve been thinking about what makes it so great. No, scratch that – not just great, but the Best Fucking Television Series of All Time.

Each and every episode for five seasons, science teacher-turned-megalomaniac drug lord Walter White has gotten into a situation so crazy, so scary, so insanely fucking out there that you are (a) convinced he must die right then and there, and (b) in awe of Vince Gilligan for not taking the easy way out by just doing a time dash without explaining just how things worked out OK. (Dexter, anyone?)

Because in Walter White-slash-Heisenberg’s world, things do not work out OK. They get much, much worse.

Unlike other shows, the characters on Breaking Bad are accountable. They do not escape by the miracle of Deus ex Machina, or convenient cut-aways. They act, and they suffer consequences as a result of those actions. Things often happen in real time. When there is a cut-away, it’s from one scene directly to the next logical moment.

Great improv works the same way. Not by glossing over things, but by giving weight and importance to every word, every movement, every choice.

Del Close told improvisers to play like “a raving paranoid onstage. Nothing is taken at face value, nothing is tossed aside.”

If your scene partner yawns, or slurs a word, or calls you “honey,” don’t let it drop. Seize upon that, and milk it for all it’s worth.

Do the next right thing and the story will take care of itself.” – TJ Jagodowski

P.S. Only five more episodes to go, bitches!

 

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