Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Geeking Out with...Jimmy Carrane

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog.]

Jimmy Carrane
If you consider yourself a true improv geek and you’re not yet partaking in great, heady quaffs of the  Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane podcast, then you are in for a tasty, satisfying treat. Longtime Chicago improviser, Jimmy Carrane invites his brethren to the stage for a personal, improv-rich conversation followed by a short set together. After which, Carrane and his guests talk out their set and take questions from their savvy audience. His list of guests reads like a recipe of riches, including Tim Meadows, TJ Jagodowski, Dave Pasquesi, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, Susan Messing, two members of the community pride, Improvised Shakespeare, and a slew of other super talented improvisers. Along the way, listeners may begin to relate to Carrane’s self-doubting persona, which becomes increasingly appealing much the same way that Marc Maron’s humorous self-loathing grows on you (or at least me) in his podcast. As I listen to Carrane’s personal journey, I find myself tuning back in to root for his personal progress as much as for the pearls of improv wisdom dropped by his guests. Either way, damn good listening, folks.

Jimmy Carrane is the co-author with Liz Allen of Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser. One of the founding members of The Annoyance Theater, Carrane has taught there as well as at The Second City, iO Theatre, and Victory Gardens. Currently, he teaches a popular workshop tantalizingly entitled The Art of Slow Comedy. In addition to many, many improv, theatrical and movie features, Carrane has been a member of the original Armando team at iO, Carl and the Passions, Jazz Freddy, and Naked with Stephanie Weir, which is credited with innovating the monoscene.


PAM VICTOR:  Let's start with your improv training. When did you know you wanted to be an improviser?

JIMMY CARRANE: Wow. It’s like this, I started doing it after high school when all my friends went away to college. I went to this place that is no longer here in Chicago called Players Workshop. Everyone went there. And I was pretty much in denial that I wanted to do this for years.
Jazz Freddy

I then went to Second City and then iO - it was called ImprovOlympic - and then over to Annoyance Theater when the was the hot theater in town. That is where I did this one-man show I had written through improv called I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies. That was like the perfect storm. Between the success of the Annoyance and the topic of kids moving in with their parents, I got a lot of national and local press. During that time I was in a wonderful longform group called Jazz Freddy with people like Dave Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Kevin Dorff and Brian Stack. Around that time I also started teaching at the Annoyance.

PAM:  Mmmm! Sounds delicious.

JIMMY: I never had the feeling [that I knew I wanted to be an improviser] until in my forties. And it was like, “I am getting noticed, I can do this.” I broke away from my parents’ expectations, especially my mom’s that I was get a real job in an office with insurance and a 401K.

PAM:  Ugh. I hear that. Recently, I was thinking about parental expectations and improv, and how I could explain to my (Jewish doctor) father that success is not always equated with money.

JIMMY: Improv had a very narrow path back then. It was, "Do iO, get hired by Second City, and then be discovered by SNL." There were not many options. Today, there are many different was to make money doing improv.

I came from a family that did not encourage you to have feelings. It was a typical suburban, dysfunctional family, where the mother stayed at home, neglected the kids and overate, and the father went to prison. We had addiction in our family, which is not new to anyone who is in improv. We learned to deny our feelings, bury them in the backyard, stuff them. So it was dangerous to express yourself. I was a fat, creative, and very sensitive kid – a pretty observant and intuitive kid. Improv helped with that in a way. I am now working in therapy and recovery on how to get in touch with my feelings, which is so important to becoming a better improviser and teacher.

PAM:  Phew. That's quite a journey. Good for you.

JIMMY: My girlfriend comes to the Improv Nerd shows, where I get to interview an improv icon, improvise with them, and then we talk about what we do. She has come to almost ever show, and she is like, “You always play low status.” That is because that is how I see myself in most of my life, except for teaching and sometimes interviewing people.

PAM: Backing up a little, who were your major teachers, the people who you credit with helping you find your voice as an improviser?

JIMMY: In terms of teachers, Martin DeMaat was a huge influence. He was a loving, kind man who was a direct disciple of Spolin. And Del Close, though I never thought he was the best hands-on teacher like Martin was. Del inspired you, and got you to believe that what you were doing was important. The whole “improv is an art form” came from Del. But it’s interesting - studying with Del was like coming from a big, Irish Catholic family of ten kids. When you have that many kids, you all have different experiences. I interviewed both TJ [Jagodowski] and Dave [Pasquesi] for the podcast, and they both had different experiences of Del.

The other thing I got from Del was the whole “truth in comedy”. When I first started at iO doing the Harolds, I loved doing the monologues, when you just tell a real story from your life. And the first couple times I did it and did not embellish anything, just told the truth and got a laugh, I was like, “This is cool. This is so easy.” I love and hate the whole truth in comedy thing...I find it the scariest and most rewarding. Improvisation is a very personal art form. We can see the person through the choices they make. It happens on the unconscious level.

PAM: A question about your history: Is it true that your show, Naked, with Stephnie Weir was the first time anybody had performed a monoscene? Can you tell me about the process of creating that show and where you got the idea and gumption to stick with two characters in one scene for a whole hour?

Stephnie Weir
JIMMY: I think it might have been. I am pretty sure we were pioneers of two-person improv format. I was on a team with Stephnie at the time, which was Baby Wants Candy before they decide to do musical improv. (I left because I was burnt out and holding them back from musical improv.) Rob Mello was the coach, and he came up with the idea for Naked. He saw that Stephnie and I had a great chemistry together, and he suggested doing a show with us improvising one long scene, which I don't think had ever been done, at least not in Chicago. I wish I could take more credit for the show. It was really Rob's idea and Stephnie made it work.

When Rob told me what he wanted to do, I was scared - one scene, one suggestion for a whole hour! In a panic I remembering saying, "We could break it up into three scenes or something." In the end, I wanted to work with Stephnie. She is one of the best I’ve ever worked with. She was amazing, so imaginative, and such a great improviser and actor. The process was fun. As I remember we used some Meisner, created our own language, and looked for different devices to sustain a whole hour. Working with Stephnie, the hour went so fast, and I loved doing the show.

I wish I had been more open back then. I was constantly making the negative or the angry choice on stage, needing to yes and more, which was because I was afraid and jealous of Stephnie. I was pretty screwed up in those days.

PAM:  In your book Improvising Better, you say that you have a theory that most improvisers come from dysfunctional families. First of all, is this more true that with other types of artists? Secondly, do you know ANYONE – improviser or not – from a “functional” family?

JIMMY: I think a small percentage come from a functional family. I just interviewed Ike Barinholtz and his brother Jon and his Dad were there, so we interviewed them a bit too. I got the sense they came from a very supportive family. Dina Facklis said that her parents were very supportive. I think that there are some people that came from functional families, but I think that is what attracts them to improv, the dysfunction. At least that’s what attracts me.

PAM:  What is it about the dysfunction that is attractive for you? Do you find it therapeutic to improvise?

JIMMY: I grew up in a very chaotic household. People were over at our house 24/7. We were the house where all the kids would want to play because our parents did not have any rules. It was a loud house that was filled with chaos. So working improv theater is like coming home. I feel comfortable in that chaos. I think when I first started out, I was angry all the time in scenes. I feel so much shame for some of the people who played with me because I was not in touch with my anger and the stage was safe palace to express it.

In terms of my teaching, because of being in therapy, I see blocks students have that have nothing do with improv and have to do with some other issue that is interfering with their performing.

PAM:  I have learned from doing these interviews that improvisers are perhaps the most self-depreciating artists around (a trait I find quite charming). I’m sure you’ve noticed as well that even the most prominent and talented improvisers seem to feel like hacks and impostors sometimes. Do you have any insight into what’s behind this commonality?

JIMMY: Let's take me for example, since I fit in the demographic. For me, it comes out of insecurity and low self-esteem.

PAM:  Do you think it has anything to do with the fact that we typically don’t get paid jack shit?

JIMMY: No, I don't think so.

PAM:  Speaking of insecurity, one of the most useful tips from your book that has stayed with me for years is, “Fucking say thank you” to a compliment from an audience after a show. So…thank you for that, Jimmy Carrane.

JIMMY: That came out of me having such a hard time taking a compliment. It was really more for me than for the readers. I still have a hard time accepting compliments.

So thank you. I am practicing here.

Jordan Peele, Jimmy Carrane, and Keegan-Michael Key
while doing the Improv Nerd podcast
PAM:  Haha! Good job! Thank you for practicing here.

In Improvising Better, you re-create your Top Ten Blind Spots for Improvisers workshop. Any new blind spots you’ve noted since the book came out?

JIMMY: I was talking to Dan Bakkedahl the other day, and we were talking about how improvisers dress when they do shows. I don't think you need to wear a suit and tie - that’s overkill - but on the other hand you don't want to look like you just came from the gym or rolled out of bed. It's that kind of a low self-esteem thing. If you don't have respect for yourself, the audience is not going to have respect for you.

PAM: That's a great point. I actually think a lot about that issue. I want to look nice, but I also want to be able to play a homeless person if I have to.

On another topic from your book, I’ve been working a lot lately with how to be/play more vulnerable on stage. Can you explain vulnerability to me a little and how you think players can be more vulnerable? Does the actor need to be vulnerable or the character?

JIMMY: I don't think anyone can be vulnerable until they can slow down. The vulnerably comes in the silence between the two players at the top the scene. The raw connection between the two people on stage in a scene is like a live current of vulnerability. When we speak too much or too quickly we talk away those moments.

In terms of actors or the character, I would say everyone works differently, and how you get there is not important.

PAM:  Ah, slowing down. Explain your course “The Art of Slow Improv” to me please. And take your time because I want to savor every succulent moment.

JIMMY: First of all, this kind of improv is not for everyone. It’s the kind of improv I came up with and the kind of improv I love doing and watching. It’s about making improv easy and taking the pressure off yourself to be funny. People say that it's not about being funny, but then what do they really mean? It means learning to make an emotional connection with your partner. And that comes from silence at the top of the scene. Once you make that connection, you have everything you need in the scene: the relationship, the game, the environment. The one thing that I am proud of with my students is when you come to one of our performances on the last day of class, you believe everything that comes out of their mouths. That is acting. They have a confidence and poise on stage that you don't see in another improvisers. It’s not this frenetic, desperate energy and trying to be funny. 

PAM: Tell the people where they can take this class.

JIMMY: They can go to my website at or call me at 855-4-IMPROV. I teach in Chicago at Stage 773 and Green Shirt Studio.

PAM:  This is one of the many great quotes from Improvising Better: “The choice is simple: either you can learn the craft that will ultimately make you even funnier, or you can rely solely on your wit and take your chances. Being a good improviser and being funny are not synonymous.” Can you expound on that very apt sentiment please?

JIMMY: It’s really about trust and instant gratification. Are you willing to do the work here and being a journeyman? Or are you looking for what seems like a shortcut? My first several years were about the laugh. That came from insecurity. And then I hit this wall where you aren't doing scenes that can last, and you want to kill yourself after each show. You have hit a creative dead end. So you either quit or take it more seriously, which luckily I did it.

Carrane and Mick Napier at the Improv Nerd podcast
The key to improv is, "Are you willing to keep learning even if you have been doing for a long time?" For me, when you stop learning, it’s miserable and it sucks.

PAM: I love the format of your podcast! For those readers who haven’t yet listened to the Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane podcast, after Jimmy interviews his guests, he does a short improv set with them. Then they meet again to discuss the set and take questions from the audience. How did the Improv Nerd podcast get started?

JIMMY: It started at Stage 773 in Chicago, the Brian Posen theater. It’s a wonderful space and great people, where they have Sketch Fest each winter. I have been teaching Art of Slow Comedy classes there, and they had put a ton of money into the new space - it's beautiful - and we talked about doing some sort of show. I had interviewed people on public radio for years in Chicago, and it seemed like a natural progression to do it on stage. It had been suggested to me years before, and I was resistant. I liked what Marc Maron was doing, and I thought if we could get big name improvisers to talk honestly, it could be really helpful and cool at the same time.

Originally it was supposed to celebrate Chicago improv as an art form. Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man and Elf, had once said Chicago is the salt mines of comedy. And I thought, “Let's show the city these great people who are really masters in the art form.” I think it's gotten a little bigger. People are listening all over the country. I love that.

PAM: Who are you looking forward to interviewing in the next few months?

JIMMY: Matt Walsh and Rachel Dratch.

PAM: Are there any improvisers who you’re just dying to get on the show, but haven’t been able to manage it yet?

JIMMY: Bill Murray, Jeff Garlin, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey. I would love to get Stephen Colbert, Jane Lynch, Andy Ritcher, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Larry David….

PAM: I've noticed that when you interview people, you can be pretty straightforward and blunt about difficult topics, particularly with people who you have known for a long time. A brave move, in my opinion. (One example is TJ Jagodowski's interview.) Is that difficult for you? Are your guests able to separate Jimmy the friend from Jimmy the interviewer, or have there been repercussions after certain interviews?
JIMMY: Yes, whenever I ask the more personal question or the blunt question, I feel a ton of shame, so much that I can't use the left side of my body for an hour. It's like I had a shame stroke, and I feel like I am taking advantage of our friendship, and I am an awful person, and I want to kill myself. I have to remember if they don't want to go there with a particular subject, they can take care of themselves. I would say most guests love doing the show, and I take joy in that. What is so cool for me is people feel honored to it and really want to help out. That is Chicago for you. 

PAM: Maybe I’m outing myself as a wimp, but I think the improv part of the podcast is so brave. There you are, talking about the traits of the very best improvisers, presenting yourselves as great teachers (which you are, I know), and then you get up to improvise. How does that not freak you out and put you in a place of instant paralysis?

JIMMY: It does freak me out, but most things freak me out. The improv is the thing I least look forward doing and I am not as free. If I am just doing a improvised longform show somewhere else, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I feel I am responsible for the whole form/show. It's been hard to make that transition, from host to improviser. Like when we had Improvised Shakespeare or Baby Wants Candy, it helps me to say to the guest before the show, "I am really afraid to improvise musical or improvise Shakespeare." When I am honest like that, they are so supported and really take care of me. I have felt really taken care of by the guests. I hope to get better at the improv part of the show. Those darn Chicago improvisers.
PAM: I have to take a moment to give you mad props for the set you did with Improvised Shakespeare. The term “groin oil” is now forever in my lexicon of funny improv inventions. I hope all the readers will listen to that Improv Nerd.

But as your responses here display, and on your show and on your blog, you make no secret of the fact that you suffer from low self-esteem. Or perhaps it’s more apt lately and honorable to say you fight low self-esteem. On Improv Nerd, it actually seems to be becoming a bit of a persona that may have the effect of making you more likeable to many listeners….which, ironically, makes your show more popular, thus potentially raising your self-esteem. Are you ready to play the role of a Jimmy Carrane who doesn’t have a constant loop of self-criticism playing in his head? (I, for one, am pulling for you on that front...I mean, who doesn't love a good "underdog prevails" story?)

Tim Meadows and Jimmy Carrane
take the stage on Improv Nerd
JIMMY: The biggest thing that has helped my self-esteem is the number of “likes” on Improv Nerd Facebook page. I feel like it is extension of my teaching. One thing I wanted to accomplish in this show was to let people know that people in comedy are filled with self-doubt some times. That's the one thing I loved about the Tim Meadows and TJ interviews so much. Here are two people who have achieved a huge amount of success, and they still struggle on some level…because it is not easy for any of us, and that is where the hope lies.  Also, it important for me to be as honest as I can be. This helps the guests to be honest.

In terms of the low self-esteem going away, it's been hard to let go. I feel if I let go, I will let go of my comedy and I will have nothing to say. I know it’s pretty stupid, but right now I feel like I have lost my comic voice. Maybe I am finding it with the podcast. I don't know.

Catch up on past improv geek outs:
Geeking Out with…Chris Gethard of “The Chris Gethard Show”,
 …with Joe Bill of BASSPROV,
 ….with Keisha Zollar of Nobody’s Token,
 …Jet Eveleth of The Reckoning,
and many more!

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she producesThe Happier Valley Comedy Shows in Northampton, MA. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies and tea on her blog,"My Nephew is a Poodle".

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