Wednesday, January 27, 2010

There's no "I" in "improv"

Some of the best improvisers I know have the tiniest egos.

In his Second City boot camp classes, Michael Gellman teaches you first to focus out. iO theory teaches you to treat others like geniuses and artists. Even Annoyance theory, which insists that you take care of yourself first, isn't encouraging ego—it encourages confidence, and making sure you contribute to the scene.

This was all reinforced recently, when I saw TJ & Dave in their new documentary "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up." (Which, I can tell you, you will get more out of every time you watch it.) They heap praise on each other, and can't believe their good fortune in performing with someone as talented as their scene partner.

Talk to anyone who's studied in Chicago, and they'll tell you it's the students and the improvisers clawing their way to the top who are the snotty assholes who won't talk to newbies. The experienced players—the ones you go there to watch or study with—are the kindest, most gracious ones.

It's kind of funny to watch improvisers thrown into Hollywood. Watch Tina Fey or Steve Carell or Jack McBrayer on an awards or talk show. The only time they show any ego is when they're in character.

Look at the leaders in our own community and you'll see the same thing. They're holding themselves to the highest standard—and they're their own harshest and most vocal critics when they don't reach it. They're modest to a fault—getting them to promote their own shows is like pulling teeth, because they hate the idea of bugging people to come watch them. Civilians are surprised to hear that the funniest improvisers are typically introverts—in both the usual understanding of the word (shy and self-conscious) and by the Myers-Briggs definition (being around others, especially as the center of attention, exhausts them).

Why do I find this so crazily appealing, or feel the need to write about it?

Maybe it's realizing the folks I have the most fun with are the ones who still, after all these years, are the most excited about learning new things. Or because I was lucky enough to spend the night hanging out with the ladies of Olive Juice at the Roving Imp—where generosity of spirit oozes out of the walls. Maybe it's because of my Christian upbringing (pride is one of the big sins). Or coming of age in the modest, self-deprecating Midwest.

Or maybe it's because I struggle with ego. You have to be confident enough to get on stage—but not so confident you irritate the fuck out of everyone around you. Bold enough to ask people to come see you—but not cocky enough that you take it for granted. Self-aware enough to know you have some talent—and to be realistic about how much (or how little).

It's a fine line, and not an easy one to walk.


  1. OK, I've heard that before...that actors, comedians, and improv types are often introverts. What's up with that, do you think? What gives?

    I kind of love giving presentations. But that makes no sense to me. I am the most introverted person I know, besides my husband. (Neither of us ever pressures each other to leave the's awesome.)

    I'm just not sure what to make of that contradiction.

  2. I've often wondered what it is about improv that draws a certain type of person to it. 'Cause we do have a type.
    I would actually say that improvisers fall right in between extro- and introvert. Or in Myers-Briggs terms, they're roughly a zero.

    Much like other things in life, improv is best when there is a balance:
    -Sufficient ego to lap up and seek the adulation that comes along with a good performance, but sufficient humility to allow others to shine.
    -Secure enough to be bold on stage, but insecure enough to never be fully satisfied with a performance and remember what wasn't so hot.

    I think these insecurities, which vary in magnitude greatly from person to person, are the biggest hindrance to show quality right now. This is because there has been so much melting down/getting defensive/being an a-hole at the first sign of criticism that nary a negative word is uttered. Our collective skin is mighty thin.

    Back to the balance thing - I appreciate the generosity of spirit and general good-naturedness we share among our improvising peers, but there is considerably too much sunshine blown up too many asses. Sometimes reality--not the self-esteem movement--needs to be on the agenda. This isn't T-ball. We're not all the number one best player, and we're not all winners in every scene.

  3. Bryn: I don't know...but yeah. And I've seen you present—in one recent-and-memorable day-of-presentations, in fact, you schooled EVERYBODY. With a kitteh photo, no less. (Also, does Gill have an older brother? 'Cause DAMN.)

    Josh: I thought the rule was that you would write a really articulate counterpoint to my blog, not say what I wish I'd said in a clearer, more concise way. Not fair.

  4. Responding to my own blog in comments. But mostly because Bryn and Josh have me thinking. Is that cheating?

    Right as I was going to sleep last night, I considered writing the counter to this entry. If this one is "Why I like modesty and self-deprecation," the bad cop version is "why blatant ego makes me want to poke people in the eyeballs."

    But your comment, Josh, is right's balance that matters.

    I've worked with players who are so deeply insecure you're afraid to give them a note because YOU KNOW it will result in a meltdown. You burn most of your energy couching your critique in language so inoffensive and nonthreatening it wastes EVERYONE's time. What you should probably do is say, "Look. You're clearly doing this to meet a need that would be better met in group therapy than improv scenes. And you know it. Go grow a pair, figure your shit out, and then come back and try again."

    On the other hand, I've encountered players so absolutely convinced of their own awesomeness that you JUST KNOW any negative comment will be blown off, blamed on someone else or rationalized out of existence.

    Whether you hit the I, E or X on the M-B, the truth is: The best improvisers are STARTLINGLY NORMAL. They're not anti-social geeks. They're not childishly whimsical. They're not self-absorbed drama queens.

    They're nice, smart, empathetic people who connect easily with others.

  5. They're nice, smart, empathetic people who connect easily with others.

    Ding ding ding ding ding! Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

    That's exactly what I was trying to verbalize with the "we do have a type" statement.

    And I don't want to discourage encouragement. It just needs to be tempered.

  6. This comment brought to you by The Anti-Josh: Eschewing Succinctness For Over 400 Words

    "Our collective skin is mighty thin." – mighty thin indeed, Josh.

    Whatever happened to the phrase/ideology "Take the note"? When did we, as performers, lose the ability to accept criticism – constructive or negative? When did we lose the understanding that tip-toeing around a possibly delicate or awkward situation helps no one, but harsh words often hurt and eventually will fall on deaf ears? Are we so full of ourselves – collectively or individually - that we are no longer approachable and rebuke anyone who has something to say about our performances whether in person or in print? Have we forgotten context? Do we no longer understand where someone is coming from when they write or talk to us about our performance?

    Perhaps one of the problems - that transcends improv - is the sense of entitlement.

    Often in life, you're sold this belief that once you get your degree all these amazing, high-paying job opportunities will be laid bare before you like some mythical treasure trove. You've completed your quest and that is your reward. Of course, the reality is that once you reach that treasure trove, you see there are others who have beaten you to it and are already plundering the hoard. How is that possible? That was YOUR reward; it's what YOU'RE owed. No one should be able to take that away from you.

    Now let's apply that same ideology to the local improv scene...

    We've all seen it before; someone has taken a class and feels they deserve stage time. Really, Johnny Sucko? You deserve it? Sure enough, they believe they do and, especially in the local scene, they will more often than not get the stage time. Great, we've just reinforced that behavior for them and any other new improviser close to that situation. This can now spawn the idea that because they made it to the stage so fast, somehow they are more special than anyone else. They've got talent, they know the score, and they're above it all. All they really have is attitude.

    Allow me to say this goes beyond the novice improviser to the seasoned veterans as well. Just because you’ve been performing longer, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically entitled to something better. As with any other profession – author, reporter, musician, film maker, etc – you’re only as good as your last endeavor – book, story, cd, film. When it comes to these matters, the public has a short memory.


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