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November 7, 2006

Jimmy Carrane Interview

Jimmy CarraneJimmy Carrane and Liz Allen have just published their book, Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser, which they developed out of a series of workshops they've been teaching for several years. I was able to sit down with Jimmy for a half-hour at the Salt & Pepper in Chicago and ask him some questions about the book and improv in general. The complete interview is after the jump.

(Huge thanks are due to Erica Reid for transcribing the interview.)

Fuzzy: So this book evolved out of the 10 blind spots.

Jimmy: Yeah.

Fuzzy: But it's 18 blind spots. My first big question is about who this is for specifically. I mean, this is for an improvisor who has been doing improv long enough to have developed some bad habits?

Jimmy: Yeah, I think it's for the working improvisor and how you define working is it could be they've been working for a couple of years, they could be working to get better. It's for anybody who's interested in getting better at improv.

You know, I've been doing it for between 18 and 20 years and I'm always looking to get better. So I think it all just it all just depends what your passion level. I don't think it's a numbers thing. I think it's more just like your desire to get better.

Fuzzy: The thing I was a little confused about was for about the first half of the book the tone of the book is very much directed towards "you are the improvisor who's trying to get better. Here's what you need to do." And I love right at the beginning the whole "There's only one way to improvise, and that's your way."

Jimmy: Right.

Fuzzy: And that's... I believe that there's a whole range. So, for the first half of the book, you direct some advice to you the person who's reading this book, and then there are some exercises, and then it's directed at the person who's leading the exercises. But I can't lead the exercises myself, because I'm the person whose trying to get better, and I have this blind spot. So, it's sort of then the "how to teach the workshop that Jimmy and Liz teach." Is it? Are those sections the 'how to teach'?

Jimmy: I'm not sure what's the question.

Fuzzy: I guess the question is who is that, "I can't do this at home." There's a chapter that's fundamentally like "You have to get out and do this with other people. But I can't do this alone? Somebody's gotta run me through the exercises. Or is this for somebody to learn to teach the workshop that Liz and Jimmy teach? Or is it for the both of them?

Jimmy: Well, I think it's really for both of them. If you've got this problem, maybe you go and you say to your — you know. Because people come to me and say "hey can you teach me — I hear you teach improv. Can you teach, can you do a one-on-one thing?" and I say I can't do it. I don't know how to do it. Maybe there are people out there doing it, but it's really important to have a group. So, let's say you read that and you had a problem, maybe you go to your coach or your director or your teacher and say "look I'm struggling with this problem. Here's this exercise to do it." On the flip side, maybe you're a teacher who's reading that and going "Jeez, I see somebody who's struggling with agreement — here's what here's what Improvising Better Jimmy and Liz are saying—let me try that." So it's really written for both parties. And I think, too, like I consider myself a teacher AND an improvisor. And I think today, more than ever, the great improvisors are also the great teachers.

Fuzzy: Ok. It wasn't a huge stumbling block, it just that halfway through each chapter, there's this little shift of like "Oh, oh this isn't for me anymore. This is for somebody who's going to tell me what to do."

Jimmy: Uh huh.

Fuzzy: So if I read this book, do I never need to come to your workshop?

Jimmy: You probably want to experience the workshop, just like anything that's in improv. I think one of the things that we designed that book to keep it small, to keep it very simple for today's short attention span and also that you can use that as a repair manual. All of a sudden, you're struggling with an issue that's in the book. Maybe you're dealing with misguided object work. And so, you can thumb through it and solve your problem that way. That's really how we designed it — it's more of a repair manual. Because it's hard to read a book versus actually being in a workshop.

Fuzzy: From your experience in the workshop, do people come into the workshop knowing what their problems are, or are they blind spots? Like, sitting home alone am I gonna go "Well, my object work is perfect. I don't see why I need to read this chapter at all." I mean, do people come into the workshop saying, "I need help with 'X'"?

Jimmy: Well, my experience of doing the workshop was, that was the whole design. That people, didn't know...that you were going to get two outside objective eyes and say, "OK, this is what we see in your work" and it's usually one or two things because you don't have that much time to deal with it. And I think if people come back and take the workshop or people come back and take a class with you or whatever, you see different issues coming up. You know just like I've been doing this for how long and there's different issues every year. You're dealing with a different set of blind spots or obstacles.

Fuzzy: Do people come into the workshop after having read the 10 blind spots and say...?

Jimmy: That I don't know. We talk about this in the book. We sent the blind spots out and we got a lot of good feedback, and some of the feedback was "You should write a book." So that's why we decided to do it. And the other thing that we saw in the years we were doing the workshop is that these problems just weren't Chicago people. We started to get people from LA, Toronto, Detroit, Phoenix and that's why we were like "Whoa—we're starting to see patterns throughout improv."

Fuzzy: Cool! Yeah, I guess I'm just hoping that I'm self aware enough that I can read the book and go, "Oh yeah, I have problems with that."

Jimmy: Well, we say in the book, at the beginning, is you're not going to identify with all the problems. And one of the things I'm the most proud of with this book is I think that it really speaks to today's improvisor. We talk about spreading yourself too thin, which I think is a huge epidemic in improv today. That is, people doing six shows, three classes, and showing up, and in the book I think we call them 'stage junkies.' You know — they just want that stage time, and I think that's a huge problem today and I know people don't even have time to go and watch shows anymore. And that is the three basic learning tools — there's classes, there's getting stage time and then watching people's shows. Now, if you're so busy, you can't see other people's shows, you're only working with two of the tools. And I think that's really a huge problem. I think another thing that I'm really proud of the book is that it's got an inspirational quality to it, that it hopefully is inspiring people and I'm really proud of that. And also talking about other issues like if you show up to a rehearsal and you're late or you show up drunk or you roll your eyes at an exercise the director's doing that in a lot of ways, you're already negating the rules of agreement. And I think that's a really important principle, and I think its those kind of principles, that for 2006 — that's really important to talk about besides just the exercises.

Fuzzy: Yeah, there's a lot of stuff in here that makes me not just go "oh, that's the problem I have," but "Oh! I could—ooh!" ways we can all be better. Yes, inspirational.

Jimmy: The other concept I really like, and it's a concept of Liz's is that the improv committee resides in your head. And she would say that throughout the workshop, and really it's a wonderful concept for people to understand because I know I suffer from it; I want that approval. I want that approval from the guy sitting at the bar, or the director, or the house team or the peer group or whatever it is. And I think that's a really great concept, because what happens is then that you're performing for two masters, and you don't win. The other thing I hope people get from this book besides inspiration is that it helps them find their voice, because my experience in taking classes and doing improv and teaching is to find your voice. I think hopefully, this book will help you get there.

Fuzzy: So you wrote this with Liz, collaboratively. And actually I've got a question about the the workshop — with the two of you, how you co-teach. I've co-taught a workshop, and it went terribly. We were always second-guessing each other.

Jimmy: Co-teaching is the most underrated thing in improv. Here we are, we're teaching about ensemble, and we have one person doing it. Now, you can argue, certainly economically it makes sense to have one person doing it, but like when I was teaching at Second City, I was lucky to work with some people and do co-teaching when classes were small, they would collapse the classes. So once you can put your ego aside and feel like you don't have to run the class, for me, my experience is that with another pair of eyes, you get more insight — you get it a different way. Because you're not responsible for the whole class, and that is incredible. In terms of doing it together, it's really like improvising for five hours or three hours or whatever you're doing. You're really doing a Jimmy and Liz show and you've gotta listen to Liz, and you've gotta listen to the class. It's no different than improvising, and when you're doing it right, you feel exhilarated. And when you're not doing it right you feel — it's like doing a bad show. And the other thing, too, is that you're learning from other. I've gotten exercises from Liz, I'm sure she's gotten exercises from me, and not only do you get their exercises, but you watch how they teach it, and that's really beneficial. Working with Liz, two things: It's made me a more compassionate teacher, and how can I put this? She helped me understand Del's teachings probably better than Del. When I was studying with Del, I wasn't ready really to hear what he had to say. I heard some of it, but it was almost like I had forgotten it, this part, and she's a disciple of Del's, and she really — I could really understand it now. I was ready at that time to hear it. I wasn't ready when I studied, because all I wanted to do was get on a team or be famous or work at Second City or become a commercial actor or whatever. It's really a great thing.

Fuzzy: So to loop back around, what's the best bit in here that's all Jimmy?

Jimmy: It's hard to say, are you gonna talk to Liz? You should ask her.

Fuzzy: You're allowed to brag.

Jimmy: (Jimmy declines)

Fuzzy: Ok. The State of Improv. So you've been doing this workshop now and you're seeing improvisors from all over — do you guys tour with the workshop?

Jimmy: No.

Fuzzy: So it's just people coming to Chicago.

Jimmy: Right.

Fuzzy: So say some words about the state of improv. What you see is going on, or even just here in Chicago?

Jimmy: What do I think that's going on in the state of improv? Well, I think there's a lot of things going on. Number one, I think, and we talk about this in the book — people are afraid to go to the dark side, and I think in a lot of ways, not everybody but there's some people that are afraid to go to the dark side and we taught a workshop called the "Down and Dirty Workshop" and it was really to address this issue. So I think people are afraid to go to any of these sensitive topics today — they're afraid to be politically incorrect. And I think one of the issues, and I know I even suffer from it, you get on stage and you're like, you know people are going to think, you know if I played a rapist onstage, then I'm a rapist in real life. I think that's one issue. You know, Johnny Depp isn't really a real pirate in real life, and...

Fuzzy: He's not?

Jimmy: No, he's not. And Hannibal Lector — Anthony Hopkins wasn't really a serial killer, but people are afraid to go there. I think that's one thing. I think the other thing I talked about is people are spreading themselves way too thin. When I started out, I studied at the ImprovOlympic, was there for about two and a half years, then went on to the Annoyance, in that time did Jazz Freddy, did Comedy Underground. You picked and choosed what you did. Jazz Freddy was this great long form, I don't know if you've heard about it, but Jazz Freddy was this wonderful form, just with incredible people: Kevin Dorff, David Koechner, Noah Gregoropoulos, Brian Stack, Jay Leggett — no, Jay Leggett wasn't in it, he was in Comedy Underground. But it was part of the long form movement. It was along with Ed and Filmdome and today I don't know if people would have done Jazz Freddy because everybody's spreading themselves too thin. I think that's a real problem in terms of the next revolution. I was part of the Annoyance Theatre. I was an original member, and that theatre, like you said, was a reaction to there wasn't at other venues. There weren't other venues, so they created their venue. And so people had to make that their single focus, and once they made it their single focus, it then started to blossom. People don't have that kind of patience today. The UCB is another great example. When Matt Besser and Matt Walsh and Ian Robinson and Amy Poehler were here, they made that their single focus, and then they said "Chicago, we're gonna go to New York and try it." They couldn't have done that unless they said it was their single focus. And Schadenfreude is another group that has done it here and they got a radio show and they built their name. But without that single focus, and it doesn't have to be for a long period of time today — it could be for three months, it could be for the run of a show — but without that, you're not going to have that Renaissance of improvisation like you have. There's some great improvisation going on, but to have those groups sticking out — I don't know necessarily if that happens. The other big big big huge thing is, ten years ago, Chicago was the only place to study for Chicago kind of improv. That's not true today. As you know, go on the website, there's three theatres in New York that have people that started in Chicago, there's at least a half a dozen in LA that people have done. So this is still the best place to study but it's expanded. Improv has expanded, not only into the major markets, but in smaller cities like Phoenix and New Mexico and Detroit. It's everywhere now. And I don't think that was true ten years ago. So that's been a really big thing.

Fuzzy: So you do a lot of interviews. This is my first interview. What should I have asked you?

Jimmy: I think you asked the right questions. We talked about the role of Chicago, how it's changed...well, maybe where it's headed.

Fuzzy: Yeah, I guess I thought of that as part of the big picture. What's the future? You talked about the revolution being stymied by people not being focused. Do you think you know what that next revolution's gonna be? Or what you hope it would be?

Jimmy: That's a great question. What I hope it would be is to go back to more real scenic stuff, longer scenes, just a slower pace. A slower pace not meaning that the whole scene drags, but it's longer, more relationship - more of the dynamics of a relationship. I think what TJ and Dave do on Wednesday nights over at the iO — I'd like to see other people be influenced by that. We've seen over the years that people have been influenced by Armando, the Movie and incorporated those kind of moves. It would be nice to see them embrace that kind of scene work. That would be really, really rewarding. I think with improv, you can push it to the end of theatre, or you can push it to the end of really bad standup. And I'd like to see it be pushed more towards theatre.

Fuzzy: Have you noticed that improv's everywhere now?

Jimmy: Yes.

Fuzzy: I've just been noticing. Maybe it was always there and people just talk about it more. Stuff like The Office - I was listening to the DVD commentary and they were talking about the fact that half their stuff comes out of improvisation. Is that the future of improv? That it wins by being everywhere - by being part of everyone else's artistic process?

Jimmy: Well, I think — that's a great question — I look at the evolution of improv in terms of commercial success, and really Curb Your Enthusiasm is almost like the pinnacle. From what I understand, he takes an outline and then people improvise dialogue. I don't think ten years ago people would've been open to that. You go on a commercial audition today, there's a lot of room to improvise, and that wasn't the case ten years ago. I think it's now become more accepted into mainstream, I'm gonna call it show business for lack of a better term, but mainstream television and film and stuff like that. So I think it's being embraced by that, and I think that helps improv. I think that helps improv because it's not just a parlor game, it's not just something that's happening in Chicago. It actually has a product. It becomes a product, because I think — this is gonna sound petty and whatever, but my experience in Chicago is very process oriented, and in my experience in Chicago, and I may be totally wrong — there was one group that went to the big Aspen Comedy Festival and it was out of I.O. and it was The Tribe and they did the improvised movie. And the thing about Aspen is it's all people in the entertainment business. People in the entertainment business are looking for the next thing, the television show, the Ray Romano, they're looking for Roseanne Barr. So I think it's hard for the industry to think what can they do with improv, and I think that's starting to change. So I think you're right, I think it's starting to infiltrate into film and television, certainly into commercials, but I don't ever think you're going to get there just on improv alone. I mean, if you look at The Office, they have a script, people aren't just showing up going "we're gonna improvise this." They have some sort of structure to do it, and so does Chris Guest when he does his movies, he has some sort of structure that they're gonna follow. So it's good for improvisors because I think it helps them get work and it's bad for improvisors because they think they can just improvise.

Fuzzy: Anything else?

Jimmy: I think teaching. I think something about teaching. Who were your influences as a teacher, or what about teaching or something like that?

Fuzzy: Well, who were your influences as a teacher?

Jimmy: That's a good question.

Fuzzy: (laughs)

Jimmy: Well, I think certainly Del Close, and what Del brought was, he really inspired. He legitimizes; he made improvisation an art form. The other person I really learned from was Martin de Maat, who was at Second City. And we talk about it in the book, they worked on different sides of the improv street, but I think in a lot of respects that they were going after the same goal. I also think teaching is a lot like performing. It's taken me five or six years just to — there's a great quote from Miles Stroth who says that it took him "three or four years to stop sucking," and I would apply that to teaching. It takes about three or four years not to walk into a class and be intimidated and have confidence and let go of control. Because a lot of times teaching is about like letting go of control and going "hey, this last class did it this way, well maybe this class isn't gonna do it the way the last class did it." And I think the great thing about teaching, too, with the expansion of improv, we've seen the expansion of teachers. You know, when I started out, in terms of teachers - take women for example - there was Josephine Forsberg, there was Charna Halpern at the iO, Josephine Forsberg at Player's Workshop - those were like the two big women teachers. And now you have Liz Allen, you have Susan Messing, Rebecca Sohn, Lillie Frances, you have these teachers, so I think women have a stronger voice now in at least teaching and directing and I think that's really been a change. I think, you know, when I started out at the iO, if there was one woman on your team, that was a big deal. Now, five or six years ago you had that team Jane that was outstanding that was an all-women team. So I think women's roles, and think about this, the generation now of Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, and Stephnie Weir. Am I forgetting anybody? But that generation. I mean, those were some really strong improvisors. So I think that's been a really huge — I think women's contributions in improv have been really strong in the last ten years. Not only performers but, like I said, it's teachers and directors.

Fuzzy: Yeah, that's been huge.

Jimmy: The other thing, too, is when I started at the Annoyance, the strength of the Annoyance for me when it first started out was, get Mick Napier to direct you, get Gary Rudoren to direct you, you had Jill Soloway, you had Ben Zook, you had Tom Booker, you had all these people that filled the niche. And now, that's the same thing that's going on I think with teaching and directing is, well, if you don't like how Jimmy Carrane teaches, don't work with Jimmy Carrane. If you like how Lillie Frances teaches, you'll work with Lillie Frances. If you like how Michael Gellman will teach, you'll work with Michael Gellman. The other thing I want to say about teaching that I've learned a lot, (we thank a lot of people at the beginning of the book) is that this book would never have been written if I hadn't called Liz and asked for exercises that I saw her teaching. And so, I think it's really important as teachers, cause I know I can get really isolated is, to ask people for help. I've had so much help like from people from the iO, from Second City and other places where it's like, "Look, I'm stuck on this — what were you doing?" And when I started out at Second City, Tim O'Malley, who's a wonderful teacher, really mentored me into their system. And that's really important. There isn't one god of improv anymore, there's tons of gods. And so, you only get better by asking, you know and saying "what works here? I'm stuck here, so what's your advice? How should I handle this problem in teaching?" That's what made me a better teacher. That's why working with Liz, when we're working, when we're doing the workshop, we're getting paid to learn — it's a great thing.

Fuzzy: I know from my own experience that somehow I'm willing to ask for advice as an improvisor all day long, but when you get to the point where you're teaching a class it's different. I mean, you're trained to go to classes, but then you think, well, you go to classes because the person who's teaching the classes, they're the expert. So the first time you get asked to teach a class, you're like, "Well, I'm supposed to be the expert now, I can't ask anybody for help, because I'm the expert, theoretically". But it is so easy to get trapped, and I've learned to ask for help in being the expert.

Jimmy: Well, my experience is, you wanna be strong in the class, but if you don't know what the answer is — here's something that I do: if I'm not sure what the answer is or I don't know the answer, I turn it back to the class and say "What do you guys think?" And I'll tell you something, nine times outta ten, they'll come up with an answer that's better than you. There's a lot of sharp people that have been in my classes, I'm sure there's a lot of sharp people that have been in your classes. The other thing we talked about, and this didn't make it in the book because it wasn't a book on teaching, but there was a chapter called "You're Teaching More than Improv." And we talk about a story in that chapter that did not make it in the book, that we were teaching a workshop and somebody came into our workshop and they were late. We have a very strict policy that you need to show up on time. So the person showed up an hour late thinking it was 12:00 and not 11:00. Well, Liz and I went and we conferenced and we said "OK, what are we gonna do about this?" And it was a hard decision for both of us to make, and we decided to say "You know what? We're not going to allow him into the class." So we went back and we told him, and we took a lunch break and the guy came back after lunch with the group and said "Can I sit in the group?" and so we turned it over to the group and said "What do you guys think?" And the group said, "Let him stay." So the guy got his money's worth, he observed the workshop. We didn't allow him to participate because he showed up late. And we offered two workshops later, a Down and Dirty workshop and an Individual Assessment workshop, and do you know that he signed up for both of them, and he showed up on time for both of them. So the point I'm trying to make in a long story is that a lot of times in the classroom, I think I'm teaching improv, but sometimes I need to teach accountability. Sometimes I need to teach discipline. Sometimes I need to teach self-esteem. And that's really difficult for me to do, but sometimes you're teaching more than improv. And that's how I learn from my students.

Fuzzy: If your influences are Del and Martin, do you yell at people, or do you hug them?

Jimmy: I think I find something in the middle.

Posted by Fuzzy at November 7, 2006 12:54 PM