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.
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.
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.
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.
I find it interesting that Jimmy Carrane says here that he believes most improvisers come from dysfunctional families. In interviews elsewhere, TJ Jagadowski says that you have a leg up in improv if you were raised well. (He says that in this clip, for instance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdrsAANBsBU&feature=share&list=PLF6ED491E53C414A4 ) What do you make of the tension between those two comments about improvisers and their families?
Hi Alyssa, I hear you, but think it comes down to personal experience and/or POV. Todd Stashwick says his childhood was a good one, which may be why he likes to explore the darker side of things in his acting. Perhaps Jimmy knows more people from dysfunctional backgrounds. I know people with positive family dynamics, and others who left theirs behind to find sanity. I personally don’t think either gives you an edge in improv, since as Jimmy says, it’s such a transparent art form. I think the best people bring truth to the stage, regardless of their personal history.