Info

Posts tagged Improv Nerd podcast

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

On Friday, November 18, Jimmy celebrates the 5th anniversary of Improv Nerd with a special show featuring Scott Adsit at the Chicago Podcast FestivalWe asked Jimmy about the podcast, his career, and how to succeed in improv.

P&C: Congratulations on five years of Improv Nerd! When you started, did you ever think you’d do over 200 episodes?

JC: Never. I never thought that. At this point I thought that I would’ve been a really big TV star; someone would’ve said, “Oh my God, this guy can really interview people. Let’s give him his own show.” So I probably would’ve done 100 episodes and gotten a TV deal.

P&C: Like Marc Maron?

JC: I thought maybe like a talk show, or a radio show. It’s interesting, because if I would’ve known what I know now starting out, podcasting – podcasting has just exploded – I don’t think I would’ve done it. Because I really thought when I started out, it was me and Marc Maron and that was it, who were doing interview comedy podcasts. And the longer I did it the more I realised there is tons of podcasts out there, really good ones.

P&C: There is. I’ve had this conversation with friends, where you’re doing something and you think, “I’m gonna do this!” But then you see or hear something and you think, “I can’t now, someone’s already doing it!”

But no one will ever do exactly what you would, because your worldview is unique. So I’m glad you started at a time when you didn’t think, “It’s been done already,” because then we wouldn’t have Improv NerdWas it because you had a specific goal in mind, that you wanted a TV or radio show?

JC: Probably, it was a goal of mine. But certainly I thought I’d be in the top 10 comedy podcasts. I really thought I was going to be Marc Maron, that popularity, so that’s really what I was shooting for.

I know for me it’s really hard to do something and not expect certain results. I have certain expectations. That is the hardest thing.

P&C: You’ve interviewed so many amazing people: Key & Peele, Adam McKay, Jill Soloway, Mike O’Brien, Mick Napier, TJ & Dave, Susan Messing, Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson, and Bob Odenkirk, just to name a few. Even reading that list is mind-blowing! Who was your favourite interview, and why?
JC: There were so many…Bob Odenkirk was one of my favourites because I was a huge fan of Mr Show. We did the interview and got really personal about his Dad and about Second City, and he talked about having this incredible feeling because he wrote the sketch for Chris Farley, the motivational speaker, and it was originally a sketch at Second City.

And he talks about just this great feeling. And at the end of the interview he said – I’m paraphrasing – “That was the most personal interview,” and then he signed his book, “Thanks for ripping my heart out.” And to me, someone who [I] idolised and really looked up to, because he’s mentored a lot of people, that just meant a lot to me.

The other one that – any one [interview] I could really talk about – but Dan Bakkedahl. He’s on Veep and Life In Pieces, and has been a friend of mine here in Chicago and I talk to him a couple of times a month. His interview was like the perfect episode. He was very honest and candid about his successes and some of the things along the way, like being on The Daily Show and what happened at Second City – I think he, if I remember, punched a hole in the wall because he was so upset.

And the thing is, he’s got great perspective on that. He is just one of my favourite improvisers to improvise with, and it was just so much fun. Because when you interview people that you know, it can be a little harder because you want to respect the boundaries; a lot of stuff that will get into your subconscious because you talk to them on a frequent basis.

Abbi and Ilana from Broad City impressed me. They didn’t make a Harold team at UCB, which is a very big honour and something everyone shoots for, akin to making the MainStage at Second City. If you get there, it’s a ticket to stardom. And they made their own path. And the other thing that impressed me about that was, I think it was the second season of the web series, before it went to Comedy Central, they took their own money and invested in the production. And I always thought – including myself, I need to learn this – if we all did that, how much farther would we be? They really believed in what they had.

P&C: I agree, it’s investing in yourself and believing in yourself, even when you don’t know if it’s going to be a hit. And it’s not like improvisers are walking around with huge wodges of cash, but if you do it for the love of it, it’s amazing where it can go.

When Shit Girls Say went viral, and then Shit New Yorkers Say, Ilana and her brother were in it, and I remember seeing, “Coming soon: Broad City, an Amy Poehler-produced web series.” So it started with one little video they probably made themselves for 20 bucks.

JC: For me, I’m obsessed with, “What is the secret?” with each of my guests; what has made them successful? Everyone has a different path, but I’m always trying to uncover, if I can walk away with one nugget or one tip on how to be successful – not that I’m going to apply it to my life (laughs) – but I feel like I’ve done my job.

P&C: Absolutely. I think everyone’s looking for shortcuts, or ways to avoid some of the problems, or whatever.

On that subject, you’ve been improvising for over 30 years. What advice do you have for someone who’s impatient because they’re not, either great at improv yet, or famous, and they’re in their 20s or 30s?

JC: I would say one of the biggest things is building relationships. So if you’re in a class, you’re already networking. Because here’s the thing: opportunities, or guests that have appeared on my show, Adam McKay or Jon Favreau or even Mike Birbiglia – not that I knew Mike, but he’s in my sphere so I could reach out to Brian Stack and say, “Hey, could you help me get him as a guest?” – all of that stuff comes from being a nice person, a kind person, and being someone who’s fun to work with.

I certainly in my 20s, probably 30s, and even my 40s, had an attitude, was a comedy snob, I still struggle with that. But if you can focus on the relationships, as well as having fun as you’re moving up the ladder hopefully, it’s going to pay dividends down the road. If you’re were a jerk, it’s going to be a lot harder for you if a friend gets a job, let’s say on a late night talk show, to reach out to him and say “I’m putting this packet together, can you look it over?”

I think the other thing is something I struggle with, and it’s constantly asking for help. I love it when people contact me and say, “Can you talk to me?” or “I just moved to Chicago,” or “I wanna move to L.A.” That stuff is invaluable, especially if people are successful and have done what you wanna do.

P&C: Some people might be intimidated, because they think, “Oh, so-and-so’s probably too busy,” or “We’re not on the same level, and who am I to approach them?” So you’re saying don’t feel that way.

JC: I’ll tell you, I wish I’d continue to ask more and more, because I have a very hard time asking. But there’s always going to be…for me, there’s more fear that they’re gonna say yes than that they’re gonna say no.

I love Jeff Garland. He’s one of my favourite people, one of my favourite performers. I’ve interviewed him twice for the podcast, and probably a couple of times for public radio. He’s always very generous with his time. He was doing a show at Steppenwolf and I had contacted his press person, and they said “Jeff’s only doing interviews on certain days, sorry.” The next day the press person contacted me saying, “Jeff didn’t realise it was you, he’d be happy to do it, he’ll give you 40 minutes before his show.” And I gotta tell you, I felt a ton of shame. I was honoured, but I called my [therapist]: “He’d do that for me?” And that’s the thing, that I think for me, not asking, I avoid.

I’m in therapy, I talk about it on the podcast, [he says] “You’re not afraid they’re going to say no. You’re afraid they’re going to say yes.” Because what I’ve experienced, there’s a lot more feelings that come up when somebody says yes. There’s a lot more feelings when you get “This might become a TV show.” There’s a lot of feelings with “You might get a part in a Judd Apatow movie.”

P&C: Is it feelings of “Do I deserve this? Am I good enough?”

JC: That comes up, but also sadness, like “Why didn’t this happen sooner?” Anger, like, how dare anyone recognize that I’m talented? It’s really hard, I was talking to a friend, she’s a great singer, her name is Meagan McDonough, and we were joking. It’s true, whenever you get close to your vision or your goal, you wanna quit. I don’t know what it is, but you just, like, “Uhh, I wanna quit.” And there’s been a lot of times where I felt like I’ve gotta quit, and I’ve done it. And now I know, that’s just part of it, that’s just part of my process.

P&C: Having the self-awareness to recognize that. I think Cameron and I have, just from being on the planet longer, we’re getting better at “Oh, I can see this pattern with me,” or this self-defeating behaviour.

Which dovetails into my next question: What have you learned, personally or professionally, from talking to these 200 or so people?

JC: I think the hugest lesson – and I was talking to my wife Lauren before the interview – I thought that everybody thought like me, which is, “Fame is the most important thing.”

And the thing that I’ve learned is, there’s a lot of people doing improv, a lot of very accomplished improvisers and teachers that really aren’t obsessed like I am about fame.

P&C: Did that surprise you?

JC: Yes, it totally surprised me. As an interviewer, just like as an improviser, you’re bringing your life experience and your point of view and your obsessions to the interview. It leaks out.

Growing up in Chicago around Second City, and seeing so many people that I started out with going to New York and Los Angeles and becoming huge in TV and film, I always thought you got into it – not that I originally got into it to be famous, though on some level I probably always wanted to be famous because I thought that would make up for my low self-esteem – but that that was the end goal. And to see people not only in Chicago, but to travel around and go into smaller cities and see these people that are creating these great improv and comedy theatres, and the work is really, really good, and that they’re super happy doing that, it really did surprise me.

P&C: Improv and comedy – and really, the world – is going through a sea change in 2016 with regard to awareness of and treatment of women, and also people of colour. Do you see things moving in a better direction now in the improv community?

JC: It’s hard for me to really give that perspective because I’m a white male. I would say that bringing it to the surface, that’s gone on for the last year, is really helpful. I consider myself a pretty sensitive and pretty compassionate person, and I think it’s helped me become more sensitive to these issues.

P&C: I was talking to Susan Messing about your episode on the subject, and I thought you handled it really well, even though you’re a guy (laughs). It’s a tough thing; we’ve got similar issues in Canada, and I’m sure England and Australia are having similar conversations…and this was all before Trump. (laughs)

JC: That episode…I was really afraid. It was a very angry time, and I was afraid that I was walking into something… I thought everyone handled it so well, and people’s points of view came across. Being a white male it’s not my issue to talk about. I can’t speak from experience, but I can give people a platform to discuss it. Hopefully the discussion keeps going.

P&C: When you started the podcast, there were very few improv resources available. When Cameron and I starting improvising, there was Truth in Comedy, your and Liz Allen’s book, Mick Napier’s book, and that’s pretty much it. Now there’s this plethora of podcasts, new books, blogs, e-books, improv camps, new theatres cropping up in small towns that never had that kind of thing before. Do you think having all these resources is making better improvisers?

JC: Yeah, I think it is. I will get someone contacting me periodically from somewhere in Europe, let’s say a very small town in Ireland, and they’ll say “Thank you so much for Improv Nerd, because it’s like getting a Master Class.” I think being in Chicago or any major city that has a lot of access to teaching, we probably don’t think of it as much, but there’s so much going on in Europe.

I do intensives in the summer and I get a lot of people coming to Chicago to take Second City and iO, and then they’ll study with me, and I’d say most of my students in the summer are from Europe. And what’s interesting is, Europe is like what Chicago was when I started back in the ‘80s. Will Hines has a book and Paul Vaillancourt has a book and Mick Napier just wrote a new book, and I think this is really good because [it helps] people in different countries where they don’t have access to the kind of training we have in big cities.

P&C: We all know improv has exploded in popularity, especially the past five years. Do you think it’s possible to become too popular, in terms of stage time and opportunities?

A friend of ours auditioned for a Harold team recently and he was number 600-and something. I thought, wow, you’re one of 600 for a chance to audition to maybe get on a team. And I guess that’s the reality because there’s so many people now vying for a place. So my question is, how big can this get? Are some people going to get frustrated because they think “I’ll just never have a chance”?

JC: If the improv community gets bigger, if you’re number 626 and you audition and you don’t get in at one of the big institutions and theatres and schools, that doesn’t mean you’re not good. We mentioned Broad City; they didn’t look at UCB as their gatekeeper, they created their own thing.

There’s so many people that I’ve had on the podcast who’ve said, “Once I gave up wanting to get into Second City, the opportunity presented itself and I got in to Second City.” So, when I hear that I think, that’s a lot of people doing improv, doing comedy, and I hope that just because they don’t get in there that they give up.

What I’ve seen since I’ve started is that people have become a lot more savvy. Here in Chicago, it used to be that people would do three or four MainStage shows. Now if somebody does two MainStage shows that’s a big deal, because they already have representation in Los Angeles, a manager and an agent. There’s people in Touring Company at Second City that are being scouted and are getting managers and agents. So it’s really changed.

When I started, if you were thinking about going to L.A. or you were going to get a headshot and do commercial auditions when you first started out, you were selling out. Del really preached an artist mentality, and a lot of us took it to heart, for better or for worse.

The other thing I think is interesting, because I not only come at it as an improviser and a performer, [but] as a teacher: I have seen the teaching side of it, not only here in Chicago – iO has exploded in terms of its training centre, the Annoyance, Second City just did a 25,000 beautiful square foot expansion of their training centre; there’s other theatres like Under The Gun, and Kevin Mullaney and Bill Arnett and Dina Fackliss teach independently here in Chicago, which is really super encouraging, and I of course teach here in Chicago – so that movement’s going on. But also what’s going on as far as corporate. I do it for team building, [how to] be more creative. I’ve seen it with doctors, people teaching doctors how to have better bedside manner. Or social anxiety… So the teaching aspect probably is endless in terms of where people can take this.

P&C: That’s a really good point. Cameron teaches Play Anxiety Away. A lot of students don’t necessarily want to be improvisers, or perform onstage. But some of them fall in love with it so much they end up going through the regular Second City program and even Conservatory. And others are like, “I just wanna be able to leave my room without breaking into a cold sweat,” which was Cameron’s story. The diversity of classes available now is probably tenfold what it was a decade ago.

JC: When I go and teach workshops across the country, I’m seeing a lot more people coming to improv later in life. And that’s where it’s like, they don’t care about being famous, they don’t care about getting the writing job on The Daily Show. They’re doing it because they want to express themselves, and they want to be part of a community.

The two greatest things about improv is, one, it’s very accessible, anybody can do it, and two, you feel like you’re part of something, even if it’s a class of 12 people, you feel like you’re part of a community, something bigger than yourself.

P&C: Totally agree. OK, last question: What does the future look like for Improv Nerd and/or for you outside of that?

JC: Oh, God…

P&C: No pressure.

JC: Well, every 10 years I do a one-person show. My first show was called I’m 27, I Still Live At Home and Sell Office Supplies. So I’m hoping to start to work on that. I have a lot of material from my daughter, who just turned 16 weeks, and the whole experience. So I don’t know what the show will be about, but I would love to do that.

As for Improv Nerd, I did go out [to L.A.] in the Spring and try to pitch it, and I got some interest about it. It would be great if someone would just turn it into a TV show and I’d get eight episodes and get the biggest names in improv and it would be on Seeso… That would be great because I love interviewing people. So, I don’t really know, but that would be my vision.

P&C: Thank you for speaking with us, and for doing Improv Nerd and putting your passion out there, because it’s inspired a ton of people. And I also want to give a shout-out to your blog, because your blog fucking rocks. I love that you express things that I think many of us have felt at one time or another. Love your writing, love your honesty, so thank you.

JC: Thank you.

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 just about everybody in the comedy cosmos. He has written three books on improv, and his blog is a must-read for improvisers. 

 

We’re huge fans of Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd podcast, and this season is no exception.

The line-up includes Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich, Second City Mainstagers Scott Morehead and Rashawn Nadine Scott, iO Chicago teacher Jeff Griggs, Jorin Gargiulo of Revolver, and Rush Howell of 3033.

Jimmy will also be doing a special interview with Jeff Bouthiette, head of the Second City Training Center’s music program, at the first-ever Chicago Musical Improv Festival.

Since 2011, Jimmy has interviewed more than 130 guests, including Key & Peele, Bob Odenkirk, Broad City, Jeff Garlin, Andy Richter, David Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Tim Meadows, and Scott Adsit. If you’re in Chicago this summer, it’s one show you don’t want to miss.

SCHEDULE

All shows will be held at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue in Chicago.

June 20 – Katie Rich, 4:30 p.m. (as part of the Women’s Funny Festival)
July 5 – Scott Morehead, 4:00 p.m., Jorin Gargiulo, 5:00 p.m.
July 12 – Shithole’s Kevin Gerrity and Zach Bartz, 5:00 p.m.
July 19 – Rashawn Nadine Scott 4:00 p.m., Rush Howell, 5:00 p.m.
July 26 – Jeff Griggs 5:00 p.m.

TICKETS
General admission: $10, $8 for improv students

Call Stage 773 at 773.327.5252 or purchase online.

Jimmy Carrane headshot

Photo © Julia Marcus/Zoe McKenzie Photography

If you haven’t yet heard Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane, put down that Hot Pocket and get thee to a pair of headphones, toute de suite.

The show’s unique combination of interview-plus-live improv makes it a stand-out in a sea of podcasts, and host Jimmy’s deep knowledge and love of improv has helped it build a large and loyal following.

Past guests include such luminaries as Andy Richter, David Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Tim Meadows, Key and Peele, TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, and Scott Adsit.

Now the podcast has launched a new season, featuring SNL alum Nora Dunn, chef Rick Bayless, and writers from Conan and The Colbert Report, among others.

Showtime is Sundays at 5 p.m. at Stage 773 in Chicago. Tickets are $10; $8 for improv students.

Image © Improv Nerd

Image © Improv Nerd

 

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