As a kid, I always knew I was funny. I just had nowhere to channel it until I found myself at 19 years old enrolled in my first improv class at The Players Workshop of The Second City in Chicago. As a fat and insecure adolescent, I had developed this wicked sarcasm that was my defense against the world.
To say I was lost in my life when I took my first class is an understatement.
I was a mess. I had no direction. I was depressed. The only thing I was confident in was my ability to make people laugh. I grew up in house where I was neglected and was given very little support. My creativity was squashed on a daily basis, until one morning I woke up and it was gone. My parents were big believers in telling me I could be whatever I wanted to be in life. The President! The pope! They had high expectations for me, but no interest in showing me how to achieve it. Basically, I was on my own.
Even before my first improv class, I had this notion in my head that I was incredibly talented and one day I was going to be famous. Those are not bad thoughts to have really in you teens, except that they got in my way of me learning and just having fun. I wish I known what I know now when I started out as that overweight, smart ass teenager back in the ’80s. I was desperately trying to prove to myself and to the other students that I was talented, and my goal was to be the funniest in the class. I was secretly competitive and jealous of others and quickly excluded the people I judged as not as talented as myself. I became fast friends with the talented people, and after class at the bar we would huddle and talk shit about the other less-talented students. I was pretty sick back then. My judgement did not stop there.
I would question and judge each and every warm-up game or exercise, and if I thought I looked stupid doing something, I would half-ass it while I was making snide comments under my breath.
Now, as I look back on my behavior in my first improv class, I realize I was acting that way out of fear and insecurity. It’s not an excuse for my actions, just the facts, but if I could build a time machine and go back and talk to my 19-year-old self the night before my first class, here’s what I would say:
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: How are you feeling?
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: You sound like a therapist… How are you feeling? Are you kidding me? How do you think I am feeling? You are a lot of help.
51-YEAR-OLD-JIMMY: I don’t know how you’re feeling. That’s why I am asking you.
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: Well, I guess… I am scared. Is that what you are looking for? I AM AFRAID. Now, will you leave me alone? Fuck, what if I am no good at improv? What if I suck? What If I have been lying to myself all these years, and I am really not that talented, or worse, not as funny as I think I am? If that happens I think I kill myself.
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: Have you thought how you want to kill yourself?
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: Thanks, you’re real funny. You should try to make a living at this.
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: I know you are not going to believe me, but actually it’s a good thing that you are afraid. What you are about do is scary. Do you know how brave you are for being willing to show up to that class? My guess is the rest of the class is just as scared as you are, except you have an advantage.
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: What’s that? I know I am a pussy?
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: No, that you’re in touch with your fear. In my experience, once you speak it out loud, it has a chance to dissipate.
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: But I want to be the best! I want to be the funniest! I want to prove to them I am going to be famous!
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: Do you want some feedback?
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: From you? (pause) Sure.
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: You are talented, very talented, and you don't have to prove that to your teacher, your fellow students or even yourself. That is a given. You belong. Don't worry about being the best in the class, the funniest or becoming famous. Actually, those three things will get in your way when you first start out.
You are there to learn and have fun.
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: Could you sound more like a self-help book?
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: Hmm… let me think about that one and get back to you. When you go to class tomorrow you’ll meet some of the most fascinating people who will think like you do, and hopefully you'll get to be friends with some of them. Some people you will meet in your class tomorrow will go on and become super successful and some may not. It doesn’t matter. Like I said, it's more important to try to make friends with people than to worry about being the best. So, be nice to everybody, because you never know where people are going to end up. Don't be a dick. It will be hard at times. You just have to trust me on this one. I know I am getting ahead of myself.
19-YEAR-OLD: Wow, don’t be a dick? What book did you get that from, the Bible? Is that Old or New Testament?
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: Pace yourself. Class isn’t until tomorrow. I have found it most helpful to trust your teacher, the other students, and most importantly yourself. Yes, you will be tempted to make fun of them or comment on an exercise or a game because you are afraid you will look silly. But you know what? Being silly in improv is normal. So be silly every chance you get. I know, this is not going to make much sense to you now, but I would like you to see you fail, not once, but a lot of times. Keep failing. Failure is the best teacher. Always has been. I know it's a scary concept to promote failure, but I want you to get good at this, and the only way you can good in the arts, hell, in life, is to keep failing your ass off.
19-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: I think I got that down. I have been doing that for the last 19 years.
51-YEAR-OLD JIMMY: I want to be clear with you here: Your success and failure in this has nothing to do with your self-worth. That is so important because I know you have your wires crossed on this one and you will think if you have a great class you are worthy to live, and if you have a so-called bad class you are a piece of shit. You don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself!
I want you to know how courageous you are for just showing up and that I love you very much and I want you to take that love with you into your class and know whatever happens you are loved.
Live - Laugh - Love.
As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”
Jimmy Carrane is host of the popular podcast Improv Nerd and author of the brand new book The Inner Game of Improv: 5 steps to getting a bigger career in improv. You can subscribe to his blog, listen to over 160 episodes of Improv Nerd, register for his Art of Slow Comedy Classes and buy his books at www.jimmycarrane.com.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to share.
If you’re feeling particularly brave, share your experiences in the comments section below.
You will find hints and suggestions to improve your performance as a troupe or an improvisor. We also cover stories from the field of performing on the stage as well as teaching improv. Sometimes we include case studies of our corporate work to show how improv can boost office productivity and morale.
Should you have any questions about our classes, our work, or our essays, feel free to contact us and start a conversation.