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Laura Bailey is a hilarious improviser, stand-up, sketch comedian and song bird who’s hawked her comedy wares from Toronto to Chicago to New York City and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She hosts and produces femme phenom, Chicka Boom, with Jess Beaulieu. Catch Laura’s solo improvised musical, Unplanned Melody on Saturday, April 13, 10 pm at The Black Swan.

Photo © Jeff Higgins

Photo © Jeff Higgins

At some point in your “career” as an improviser, you will probably be called upon to participate in a “jam,” also widely known as a “complete and utter clusterfuck.”

Both novice and expert improvisers are routinely thrown off by The Jam. I cannot think of one improv class I have taken where, after learning a technique, some frustrated classmate has not lamented to our instructor, “But how could I possibly do this in a JAM!??” Sadly, I have never heard a great answer.

As with all improv, there is no magic formula for success in The Jam. Certainly familiarity with your fellow jammers helps a lot, but in its absence hopefully these tips will help you to at least enjoy yourself a little/not be an asshole.

1. Relax. Don’t take anything personally. As Todd Stashwick would say, “Improv is all toilet paper.” Should your precious offers be ignored, in reality there is nothing you could possibly do that will even verge on being important enough to be angry about. No one is trying to ruin the scene; believe that everyone who is improvising is doing their best the whole time.

2. Lower your expectations. A Jam doesn’t always have to suck, but OH BOY are there a lot of things working against it. Linda decided to play through her shingles and can’t actually move. Claudio has elected to be a coffee table in every scene for some profound reason that no one gets. Susan won the lottery spot to play with the Second City Main Stage cast, and she is FREAKING THE FUCK OUT.

My point is, the Jam is going to be as good as it’s going to be because not everyone is on the same page, and that is largely beyond your control. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

3. No touchy-touchy. For the young, white, sexually-repressed improv majority, a hand on the shoulder is just fine, thank you very much. If you don’t know your fellow Jammers that well, do not attempt kissing, hitting, lifting, licking, pushing, pulling, or any other such physical behaviour on your scene partner’s body.

Don’t yell in his face or spit on him. And for all you handsy motherfuckers, this is not “da club,” it’s an improv scene.

People improvising are vulnerable because they are trying to go along with what’s happening. Be respectful and don’t touch a stranger on stage in a way you wouldn’t touch them offstage consensually.

4. Be Positive. When it comes to The Jam, I recommend taking “Yes, And” literally. Getting into an argument with someone you don’t know is almost certain death for your scene. Not only are you trying to improvise with someone, you are also actually making a real first impression on another human being.

When speaking to an acquaintance, you wouldn’t open with, “Hey fuckface, where’s my dinner?” Despite this being a classic improv initiation, making this sort of offer right off the bat to a stranger has a similar effect to saying the real thing. Especially rude is throwing in “subtle” improv notes like “You’re not listening to me.”

An easy way to avoid making your fellow Jammer hate you is to simply back up whatever she says 100%. Just tell her why her ideas are the best thing that ever happened to Cat Island, meow. Why not? The people you play with will love it, and so will the audience.

5. Fill in the Gaps. As the Jam gets rolling, you should notice what’s happening and what’s not. Goofballs are doing ridiculous characters with bad accents. Newbs are not initiating. Every scene has eight people coming out off the top. If nothing else, just do what is needed.

Cartoon characters need a voice of reason. Point at a Newb on the back wall and just start talking to them. Or hang back, pick one person in the scene you want to riff on, and tag out the other seven people soon. And for God’s sake, EDIT. This isn’t to say you can’t go big and get your ideas out there. As Susan Messing says, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Just allow your ideas be motivated by what the set needs. You’ll end up challenging yourself in new ways by playing roles you don’t normally play.

6. Have ideas and set up clear games. There’s a point of contention in improv as to whether or not one should initiate a scene with a premise in mind, or develop a game organically with your scene partner.

Whatever your preference, in The Jam nobody knows what anyone thinks and all bets are off. No one has the faintest idea what to expect from anyone else. So, when you let your fellow Jammers know what to do, it’s as if you threw a life jacket to a drowning school bus.

You will never see agreement happen faster and with more gusto than when someone initiates a “Boardroom Idiots” scene in a jam. They know they’re being directed, and they are all just glad to have been thrown a frickin’ bone.

Was there a monologue or opening to the set? Draw any scene ideas you can and initiate them shamelessly. In a jam, it’s hugely supportive to have people who act like they know what the fuck they’re doing and actually including other people at the same time!

7. Don’t be a hero. Don’t go into the Jam thinking you need to do your best work. Most likely you will be outnumbered there. There will be some jams that where you need to do a lot (see: Newb Jam), there will be some where you need to do very little (see: Goofball Jam).

It’s easy to think of your time in these scenarios as “carrying the whole show” or “not getting a word in edgewise.” Think of it more as, different jams will need different things, and you can choose to do those things or not. Personally, I find it way easier to do what is obviously needed than to think of something else.

Somewhere in our pasts, either on stage or in the audience, we have all been horribly, irreparably scarred by The Jam. It is a rite of passage no improviser will turn down – especially if it means you can play with your heroes – yet it is also thought of disdainfully as the place where good improv goes to die.

Competing styles seem irreconcilable. Robot Ninja Pirates bleep-bloop through your pretend fairy rose garden that tells the future like it’s nothing. And yet, some Jams still manage to have moments of brilliance.

As clichéd as it sounds, all you can do is try your best and have fun. Wait a minute, what if you did that all the time…?

Photo © Dan Epstein

Photo © Dan Epstein

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  1. Michael Robinson #
    October 4, 2017

    Back when I was in high school, we had an improv team and I absolutely loved to watch them. What you said here about relaxing before you perform is absolutely right. I still remember talking to some of my friends and they said something very similar to what you said here about not taking anything personally and just letting loose. Thanks for the good read!http://synergytheater.com/School_of_Improv.html

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