Jimmy Carrane is an improviser, interviewer, teacher, author, and long-time member of the Chicago improv community. As creator and host of the Improv Nerd podcast, he’s interviewed the comedy cognoscenti, from TJ and Dave to Rachel Dratch to Bob Odenkirk. He is currently writing his third book about improv.
When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?
I think when I was very young. My first memory was I wanted to be a stand up. I always loved comedy. I thought I was going to be a big, famous movie and TV star and have my own sitcom. As you know, those guys make a lot of money.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?
Lately, I would say Howard Stern. I have always been attracted to this whole concept of truth in comedy. I love his honesty. He can really tell a great story and he does wonderful interviews. I am more inspired by him than jealous, which for me is progress.
What was your first paid improv-related job?
David Koechner tells the story, which I barely remember, that apparently I had gotten a gig for a group of us doing improv games at a race track. As I remember it, the gig was doing games for some guy’s birthday party. Either way, we got paid. They paid me directly with a check and I divvyed up the money. I went to the bank and cashed the check and then paid everyone cash. It was $50 bucks. This part we both agreed on: I Xeroxed the $50 bill that I paid him and said something like “Keep this as copy of the first money we made improvising.”
How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?
No one was a better hands-on teacher than Martin DeMaat. Much of my teaching style comes from him, just from simply taking his classes and observing how he encouraged us to spend a lot of time warming up and having fun and how he could side coach and say very little but get a lot out of you. Del Close was a huge influence as well. He taught me about the importance of emphasizing truth in comedy, and he taught me to respect myself as an artist. David Koechner was my roommate when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, and before I met him, I really didn’t think I could do characters or impressions. But I would watch him do it and study him, and then I realized I could do it, too.
Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?
It’s both. Improv is whatever you want it to be. Improv is flexible. For me, the skills that I learned in improv were extremely valuable when I started hosting a show on Chicago Public Radio. I knew how to listen very attentively to each guest, how to adjust in the moment to their personalities and drop my agenda in my questions. It helped me become an excellent interviewer, which of course has helped me in my podcast, as well.
What kind of things might an improviser do to make a living?
How do you know if you made it improv?
Any job that keeps you in the arts is something that can benefit from improv training. You can write for a sitcom, work in radio, create commercials, or work in advertising. Of course, if you want to stay closer to the comedy world, you can teach, coach, direct, act or produce. Over the years, I have done all of those as well as film and TV work that comes to town, acted at trade shows, written corporate shows and videos, served as an MC for events, and lead team building for companies using improv training. Anything that keeps you in the comedy-improv-acting-writing game is perfect for someone with an improv background.
What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?
I do not know that one.
Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)
In my travels around the country teaching and doing live tapings of Improv Nerd, this issue of getting people to your improv is a problem in every market. I think most improv is still dependent on improvisers for their audience. Today, improvisers have more performance opportunities and are taking more classes than ever. If you ask an improviser if they would rather go see a show or be in one, I think you know what the answer would be. So those people who would 10 years ago be in the audience are doing bar-prov or are in class or at rehearsal. I think improv needs to be more accessible to a mainstream audience. Shows like Improv Shakespeare and Baby Wants Candy seem to have accomplished this, but it’s very difficult to do. If you figure out how to get more butts in the seats, let me know.
What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?
I was with the Annoyance Theater and we were doing improv on a hot and muggy August day on a children’s stage at an outdoor festival in Chicago. It was around 1997, and the general public didn’t really know what improv was, especially kids. The show before us was Universal Studio’s Beetlejuice ahow. The set was amazing. It looked like and it cost half a million dollars. It was a set from a movie. It had smoke and all these special effects. The actors dressed like the movie. It was the slickest, most professional thing I had ever seen. The crowd was packed with kids and parents. The parents were more blown away than their kids. The response they got was like were at a rock concert. I was like, “Oh man, this is like trying to follow the Rolling Stones! God help us.” At this point, we hit the stage, dehydrated and with half the cast hung over because it was Sunday around 10 a.m. We had about 15 children with their parents sitting on the grass and in the first improv game, one of the least edgy cast members decides to go blue. The audience dwindles at this point. We try to explain what improv was, but it was futile. Nobody cared. We pushed through and kept going. The only reaction we seemed to be getting were families getting up and leaving. Though we were humiliated, we were grateful that improv is a team sport, and we had other people to share in our misery.
Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?
Yes, I think as a teacher there are far more opportunities both teaching in the corporate world and in improv schools and theaters. There are also more opportunities to get paid as a performer than when I started out. Today in Chicago, you can do a boat for Second City, or write or perform or do corporate training for most of the big improv theaters. There is even an ad agency in Chicago that hires improvisers to help with the creative side of adverting. Yes, there are a lot more opportunities.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I would like to have a national radio and TV show, be a best-selling author and be a famous stand up/storyteller doing one-man shows in huge, sold-out theaters for 1,000 to 1,500 people. And I’d also like to be a loving father who pays attention to his kids and a great husband who pays attention to his wife – unlike what I got in my childhood.