Jimmy Carrane has performed with some of the biggest names in comedy, and accomplished things in his career that most of us could only dream of. But take heart; you can learn a lot just from listening to him talk to the luminaries on Improv Nerd. In Part Two of our interview, Jimmy talks about the podcast, self esteem, and where he sees improv going.
Photo © Jimmy Carrane
P&C: One of the chapters in Improvising Better is called “Stop Wanting.” Why do you think some people have an attitude of “Why didn’t I get picked [for a show or a team]?” while others just go out and produce their own shows?
JC: I think it’s an inside job, and I struggle with this. “Am I good enough?” “Am I worthy?” “Do I deserve success?” You know, you’re putting yourself out there, and that’s a very vulnerable thing to do.
Not only are you putting yourself out there, but if you wanna succeed at this you’ve gotta fail a lot. And I think that’s a big issue.
There’s some people that I’ve seen in Chicago that weren’t the most talented, but inside they believed they deserved it and they’ve gone on to very successful careers. There’s people that I’ve seen who are immensely talented and end up quitting and they’re not improvising anymore.
So I think it comes back a little to people coming from dysfunctional families. I think we’re working out a lot of our family issues and other issues inside improvisation in the community. And we said this in the book: it is so, so, so important for improvisers to find support and nurturing outside the improv community.
The big mistake that I had when I came in – I was really screwed up, now I’m less screwed up – was, onstage we have these rules: Yes and, Listen, Make your partner look good, all of that stuff. That works on stage. That doesn’t necessarily translate off stage, so get help. Find people that will support you and nurture you and give you affirmations that you need, because this business is filled – and I’m one of them – is filled with dysfunctional people. And we’re all trying to get healthier, but it can be a very tough environment if you don’t get support.
P&C: You can get too focused on “I’m gonna make my life revolve around improv…”
JC: Well that also affects your life. If you’re immersed in the community and you never have a life and you never take a date night or you never go to a movie or you’re not living a real life, you have nothing to bring to that stage. And I’ve seen it.
I’ve worked with people, directing longform improv shows, and you can just see it in their eyes: they are gone. They don’t have anything more to give because they’ve over-extended themselves in improvisation. The well is dry.
If you don’t have a life, you can’t bring it to stage. It doesn’t work that way. Especially in improvisation.
P&C: Absolutely. Now let’s talk about Improv Nerd. What made you decide to start the podcast?
JC: Well I was at Station 773 where I teach my classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, and I talked to them about doing this, and they were very open, very supportive. It really was an extension of my teaching. I really love teaching improvisation, I just enjoy it so much, and I really wanted people to hear from these incredible artists here in Chicago. But not only their accomplishments; I wanted people to reveal part of themselves.
So when you’re at home listening on your computer, or you’ve got it on your iPod, you hear TJ talking about his insecurities, or Tim Meadows talking about how he didn’t feel he’s enough after 10 seasons of Saturday Night Live. So people at home can relate that these people get to this place, but they had to struggle. Everybody had to struggle to get here.
If you listen to TJ’s, he’s had a very hard life. Susan Messing was very honest and she talked about her struggles in theatres; how she was treated. Dave Koechner, if you get a chance to hear that, that wasn’t a live show, but I just loved this from that show. Dave is gonna be in Anchorman 2, and he was in the original Anchorman, and he talks about the four leads on that cast: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrel, and Dave Koechner. They all went home to their wives and said, “Oh my God, [one of the other actors] is doing better than I am. This is gonna be his movie. I’m not doing as well, I can’t keep up with them.” And then they all met on the set in a trailer and they all confessed that this is how they were feeling.
JC: To me, that is so important for the improv student. Because Dave Koechner is no different than the guy who’s just starting. It’s a different level, but there’s still fear, there’s still insecurity. And that’s the thing that’s common, and that’s the thing that I think is really important that these people share; that no one had an easy path to this.
P&C: I find that there are a lot of kind people in this community.
JC: Yes, there’s a lot of benevolent souls in this community. And I love it, you know? I went to Detroit and this woman comes up to me and says, “I love your podcasts. They’re so honest, they’re so inspirational.” It’s so fulfilling. It’s like I’m reaching a bigger audience, I’m teaching a bigger class. It’s so rewarding, I can’t tell you.
We just did – it hopefully will air in a month or two – we did an interview with Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele. There’s also one where it’s the two of them. I was in my head and very worried – “I want a different interviewer!”
He gave a course in improvisation. It was totally different from the other interview that I did with Jordan and himself, and it was so… People were like, “It’s educational, it’s inspirational, it’s entertaining.” That to me is just so rewarding.
P&C: One of the great things about Improv Nerd is that you interview people, and then you do an improv set. What made you think of incorporating that? Did you think of it as a Master Class for the listener?
JC: No, I kind of think of it as a big longform. Like, we do the interview, and certainly we’re going to be inspired by that when we do the improvisation. And I gotta tell you, the improv part… You know, I’ve been interviewing people on public radio here for ten years in Chicago. So the interview I always look forward to. But the improv scares me, because I wanna be great at it. So I’m starting to find, “OK, now I can be as honest in the interview part as I can in the deconstruction part afterwards.” And I think that’s very helpful too.
Improvising with Keegan, I was playing a black character. “How did you feel about you being bi-racial, me playing a black character? I was always taught that in Chicago, you don’t play kids and you don’t play black characters.” And so to get his opinion on it. Or “I made this choice. And I really made this choice ‘cause you were getting a lotta laughs and I thought, y’know, I’d like to get a laugh too.”
JC: That kinda stuff, I’d like to bring even more of that to that part of Improv Nerd. But that’s the part that scares me the most because that’s really revealing, and that’s where my ego’s involved.
P&C: But you have the awareness of it. I find that people who’ve done personal development work, when you talk about ego, the fact that you’re even talking about it, you have this awareness that that exists. So I feel like you’re actually probably already doing a good job. (laughs)
JC: And I think for me, especially the classroom… I’ve been able to use the classroom to become a better teacher. You know a lot of people say, “Oh, I learn so much from my students.” And it’s true, it’s like, “Well, how do you do it?”
I had an incident where there was a woman, she was an older woman, and there was this younger guy, and they did this scene where he swooped across her breast. He didn’t touch her breast, but she was very jarred by that. So she emailed me and she said, “This has never happened to me, and blah-blah-blah… I’ve been in a lot of acting classes.” And then I had to respond to her.
And what I had found out – and I talked earlier about this – I had been sexually abused. I totally shut down. And so that was helping me get over my sexual abuse, and I said, “I really checked out, and had I been more conscious, I would’ve side-coached you. Y’know: ‘Back off, don’t touch me,’ something like that.” And that to me, that’s where the teacher can learn from the student. That’s made me a better teacher.
I approach teaching today as, I don’t have any lesson plans anymore. I go in and I’m like, “I’m improvising with my students.” Meaning, I’m improvising my lesson plan. Whatever comes up, I’m gonna follow them. And that’s made a big difference in my teaching.
In my class there was a woman, she was getting caught up with sexual stuff; she was really blocked. So then we just did an exercise that dealt with that. And then there was another guy who felt he talked too much. So then right in the moment we created an exercise where it dealt with him being… He’d sit in the scenes and be quiet throughout the scenes, not say anything, because he talked too much, or felt he talked too much.
Those kinda things, to me, are the most powerful things, and it’s right in the moment. I’m improvising with them, and that to me is so exciting. That’s how teachers get better, when they’re willing to deviate from their lesson plan and go, “Hey, just like I’m on stage, what’s in front of me? What did they just initiate? I’m gonna use that and I’m gonna follow that.”
At the end of class, that was the thing they felt was the most beneficial; when you took something in the moment and you worked on something with somebody individually. Because the other thing is, you may be working with one person, but my experience is it affects the whole group. Some other members of the group benefit from that as well, even if you’re working with just one person.
P&C: Absolutely. I’ve seen transformations in classes or workshops that the whole room felt was a breakthrough, even if it was dealing with a specific behaviour of one person, as you say.
JC: Because it’s group dynamic. That one person is holding onto something for the whole group.
P&C: That’s a really great point.
OK, in all your years of teaching, performing, and writing about improv, what are you most proud of?
JC: Oh my God, I am proud of so many things. Wow. I’m proud of Improv Nerd. I’m really proud of Improv Nerd. I’m proud of Jazz Freddy. I’m proud of The Comedy Underground, which was a short-form group that had just phenomenal people: Andy Richter was in it, Dave Koechner was in it, Kevin Dorff was in it, Brian Stack was in it…
JC: My God, who else? Mitch Rouse was in it, Jay Leggett, Brian Blondell, Brendan Sullivan…
In terms of The Annoyance, a show that I’m hugely still to this day proud of is a show that was written through improvisation called I’m 27, I Still Live At Home And Sell Office Supplies. That show ran for a year and a half and it was a huge, huge hit. It was something that I always wanted to do, and it’s something that I’m really, really proud of.
Another show that comes to mind is Naked. It was probably one of the first two-person improv [shows], I guess. It was me and Stephanie Weir from Mad TV and she is amazing. She is just a phenomenal writer, a phenomenal actress and a phenomenal improviser. We did one scene for one hour, same relationship.
The other show that…I was in the original cast of Armando here at the iO, and that was a very special time that brought people from UCB, people from Second City, there was a house team at iO called The Family that Adam McKay was on… Charna Halpern had just opened her space on Clark & Addison, and that was a very exciting time because all of these people like Jazz Freddy and The Family and UCB and Second City, we all came together to do Armando.
Armando Diaz was actually Armando. It was scary; it was very, very scary, and very rewarding too, at the same time.
P&C: Do you find that a lot of times it is the things that scare you the most that, when you do them, you’re so happy you did?
JC: There isn’t one project that I haven’t gone into feeling that, “I’m not good enough,” or… That always comes up.
P&C: Not with Improv Nerd though?
JC: Yes. I didn’t feel I was good enough.
It’s taken me a while to get confidence. I didn’t feel like… there was parts of the show that I would get, and there were other parts that I wouldn’t get. There’s times that I don’t feel that I’m good enough. Even stuff that you create.
P&C: I think when you’re putting yourself out there, it’s easy to be hard on yourself about the results. What’s amazing to me is, you’ve been doing it for so long and are so respected, and you still have those moments.
JC: The other thing too is, when you put up a show, I don’t care if it’s a scripted show [like] I’m 27, or The Armando; it takes a while in front of an audience. Anywhere from eight to twelve – it all depends [on] your learning curve – but it takes a fair amount of shows to figure out what it is.
And I feel like in Improv Nerd, we’re still figuring out what it is. Which is exciting and scary. The exciting part is, it’s new every night and you’re not just phoning it in. The scary part is, you don’t know what to expect and you can’t control it.
P&C: Listening to all these amazing things you’ve done, in some ways it feels they could only have happened in Chicago. Do you think it’s necessary to move to Chicago, New York or LA? Say you live in Ottawa or Austin; do you have to go to one of those Big Three cities to be successful?
JC: I think it all depends what they want. The other thing is, you bring up Austin…it’s so interesting because Austin has got this flourishing community there now. Tom Booker and Asaf Ronen, they started a theatre. Asaf was in New York, Tom was in Los Angeles, and Tom was at The Annoyance with me. So you’re getting these people that have major market experience now going into smaller markets.
If you wanna be on Saturday Night Live or you wanna be on Mainstage at Second City or you wanna be a writer for Colbert, yeah, you probably have to go to New York or LA or Chicago. But if you wanna do it and have a great longform group and be really respected and probably make some money at it, I don’t think you have to move to one of those cities.
I think it’s beneficial to come to Chicago to study, or when teachers come to Toronto. In many of the interviews of Improv Nerd you’d ask people, “Do you have to move LA? Do you have to move to New York?” And a lot of people say because of the internet and YouTube that you can get stuff…you know, content…[that] you don’t have to move there necessarily anymore.
P&C: I think a lot of Canadians yearn to go there, but maybe it’s that “grass is always greener” kind of thing.
JC: I think it all comes down to your goals. What’s your vision for yourself? Do you wanna do Mainstage at Second City? Do you wanna do one of the boats at Second City? Do you wanna live in a bigger city, and be more exposed to stuff? That’s only gonna help your art, if that’s what you want. But I think today there’s a lot of good people in these smaller markets.
I go to Rochester and there’s a guy named Law Tarello and John [Forrest Thompson]… Those guys, one spent time here at iO, was a student of mine, and Law was at UCB. And they’re starting a theatre in Rochester. And that’s really changed, and that’s really helpful; that these people in major markets are going into smaller markets because they have experience, and they’re bringing that from the bigger cities.
P&C: Which is very cool.
JC: Oh it’s really cool. And the other thing is to just get exposure. I mean if you’re in a small city, you’ve gotta come and watch improvisation. That’s why I love it when I teach in St Louis or Detroit or Rochester and people will email me saying, “What are the shows to see?”
And that’s great, because that is such an important thing. And that’s why Chicago is such a mecca, because we have so many shows. And people forget that watching improvisation is a teaching tool in itself.
P&C: For sure. It’s funny, when Cameron and I started improvising, we didn’t go to many shows. And then when we started watching them, it was like, “What were we thinking, learning in a vacuum?”
JC: Yep. It just keeps inspiring, and keeps the community growing and growing and growing.
Image © Jimmy Carrane