Jimmy Carrane is without a doubt a force of nature when it comes to the improv world. With his hugely successful podcast Improv Nerd to traveling all over the country teaching at festivals and theaters. If you don’t know him by now you’ve probably been living under a rock. But hey! We turned the tables on Mr. Carrane and are interviewing him for The Improv Network. Here is an interview I did with Jimmy:
What excites you about improv today?
As I travel around the country, staying at the Courtyard Ahmedabad hotels and teach in both big and small markets, what keeps blowing me away is how good so many people are and how good the training is getting all over the country. It’s so cool to leave Chicago, the mecca of improv, and share what I have learned in over 30 years of doing this to all of these thriving improv communities. So, I would say without a doubt it is teaching, actually even more than doing shows. I love how my teaching has evolved, too. Today, I am actually improvising my lesson plan with the class, and just like in a good improv scene, we are discovering it together. This is going to sound really like therapy speak, but I don’t care: I love when I see my students start speaking up in class and not only start to find their voice on stage, but off stage as well.
When you first started doing improv, what would you say is the difference from improv then and improv now?
So much I don’t know where to start. For one, the size of improv has changed. When I started, improv was pretty much a Chicago thing, and today it’s global. This past summer I taught my Art of Slow Comedy intensives for two separate weekends in Chicago, and I would say the majority of the people were from other countries. And here is the best part: the students all worked well together. The other thing that has changed is improv is now being used to teach people in corporate America. That never existed before. There are so many uses for improv training besides getting on a Harold team. Since I started I have seen women take on a much bigger role. When I started, there was usually only one woman to seven guys on a Harold team. There is also more diversity today, although we could always use more, and there are a lot more people taking up improv later in life.
A lot of improvisers have a scene that they remember well. That was pure magic. What was that scene for you and what made it magic?
Two come to mind. One was the first time I was in Del Close’s class. It was a Monday night, and I was scared. I got paired up with a young Dave Koechner, and we did a scene where we were looking at the moon. It was slow and deliberate, and every line seemed to get a huge laugh. When we were done, Del praised us, which was not an easy thing to get, and I remember thinking I was on my way. There were also so many great scenes I remember from Jazz Freddy, but one in particular that I loved was one I did with Rachel Dratch. It may have been on the closing night of the first run of Jazz Freddy, I’m not sure. We played a couple, and I remember there was something in the scene about our house burning down. It was one of those rare moments that you live for in improv, because besides it being a super funny scene, it was also like an out-of-body experience, like I was channeling the dialogue. Everything that she said surprised me and everything I said surprised me. It’s something I keep chasing. I tell my students that if you can surprise yourself and your scene partner, that is nirvana in improv.
How many Improv Nerd episodes are you at? I’m sure it’s hard to pinpoint, but what was your most interesting interview and why?
We are now at like 205 episodes or something crazy like that. There are so many I really like, but one of my favorites is the Bob Odenkirk episode. It started with him on his computer because he was closing on a house in California, and by the end we were talking about his relationship with his father. At the end, he said that it was the most revealing interview he had ever done. I also really liked my interview with Dan Bakkedahl. Dan and I are friends, and sometimes it can be a little harder to interview your friends because you are not sure what is ok to bring up and what is not, and of course, you don’t want to piss anyone off. The episode was perfect though because he was so honest and I love improvising with him. I also love the TJ Jagodowski interview from the first year. It was everything I imagined the podcast could be. TJ was an open book, and I love playing with him as well. I sound pretty impressive, don’t I?
As an improvisor who listens to Improv Nerd, it sounds like a lot of prep goes into it. Can you tell us about your process before the interview starts?
Thanks for noticing. That is my background in public radio. Depending on the guest, I will typically do a pre-interview either by phone or e-mail. Before that, I will do research. And here is my favorite part: I will sit down with my wife, Lauren, and we will write up eight to ten questions. I will go into the interview knowing the arc of their life and career, and if I’m really cooking in the interview, I will only look at the questions now and then, and when I’m not, I will rely on them like a crutch. It’s a lot of work to get a good interview.
What I love about your podcasts and blogs is that they dig deep and they are very honest and you have talked about your life, fatherhood, your father and many moments in your life. Can you tell us about your experience being a father so far and the lead up to being a father?
I love my daughter, but a lot of my experience of being a father so far really sucks. What was I thinking having a baby at 52 years old? Nobody tells you how hard it’s going to be — no one. Not in the four weeks of baby school you take at the hospital, not your friends who have kids, nobody. Do you know when they tell you? After you have the kid, and even then they continue to lie. They tell you, “Oh the first two months are the hardest. Once you get through those you will be fine.” And guess what? When you get to two months, which we just did two weeks ago, they say, “Did I say that? I meant the first six months.” They keep moving the first-down marker on you. Do I sound angry? Well, I am. People advertise babies as these bundles of joy. That has not been my experience. So far, all we’re doing is keeping this thing alive and you get nothing back from the baby: no smile, no laughter, they cannot even respond to their own name.
Your life changes dramatically, you don’t get any sleep, you’re cranky all the time and you’re depressed. Yeah, I am depressed. Some moms that I run into will be honest and say, “I hear you. It’s awful,” but most people are like, “Isn’t it great?! I bet you are so excited!” These are same people who when they’d ask me how I felt about having a baby, and I would say I was scared, they would say something stupid like, “You’ll make a great father.” I know I would make a great father, that’s not the point. Please just let me have my feelings and don’t try to fix me.
But there is another side of it, too. Lauren said to me the other day, “You really love Betsy, don’t you? You always want to hold her and spend time with her. All this curmudgeonly stuff is an act.” She is right. I am certainly amping up my frustrations for the comedy aspect, but I have to admit that having a baby has been such a wide range of really intense emotions that I have never felt at this level in my life. I also have a hard time with any kind of change in my life, even if it’s positive.
Before we had the Besty, my Dad died. He had been sick for some time, and he was 81. We had a very complicated relationship (that’s another thing people don’t want to admit — we all have complicated relationships with our parents). So, when my Dad died, I felt scared, angry, relieved and yes, sad. When Lauren was pregnant with Betsy, I was terrified (I still am), I was a little excited and I was angry. Lauren and I felt really ambivalent about having a kid and we talked about that. We both felt our crazy therapist forced us into it and we blame him a lot when things aren’t going well and when things are going great. The poor guy can’t win. But that’s for another time.
Who are some of your improv heroes and why?
When my friends and I were studying at the Improv Olympic, we always looked up to Dave Pasquesi. I’ve always admired his patience and the fact that he always plays at the top of his intelligence, and there’s a coolness to him, too. Another guy we all looked up to was Joe Liss. He is a great improviser who does these incredible characters and when you watch him you can tell he just loves to perform. He is one guy I hope to get to interview for Improv Nerd. He always having joy up there when is performing.
What is some advice you would give a newbie entering improv? What about a veteran still doing improv?
My biggest piece of advice for new improvisers is to not make decisions about your career by yourself. I blew so many golden opportunities over the years, from turning down paying jobs to not going to an SNL audition, that were stupid decisions because I didn’t ask for anyone else’s advice. Your head will tell you dumb things, and if you bounce decisions off trusted people and take their advice, you’ll probably make better choices. I have gotten some huge guests for Improv Nerd because Lauren said, “Ask this person,” or “Follow up with that person.” I would never have followed through with many of those guests on my own. They only happened because I wasn’t doing it alone and I was listening to somebody I trust.
Another thing I would tell veteran improvisers is that they should find opportunities outside of improv. Lately I’ve been feeling stuck in improv, like I have wasted my life in this art form, especially when I see people who I started out with get things that I would like to have. I think veteran improvisers can feel like improv is supposed to complete them, but you can’t live on a diet of improv alone. Write short stories or a script, do stand-up, do theater, audition for TV and film — something you can make money at. I really need to take my own advice.
What are your favorite improv forms?
I am not much for forms. When I teach, I focus on the scene work. I think today, people are always looking for the newest form, while their scene work sucks. Forms will never save your screen work, ever. I like to use a loose form and just go.
You’ve traveled far and wide teaching improv and doing your podcast. Is there any festival or location that stands out to you? And why?
So many of these festivals, even the ones in smaller markets, are becoming much more sophisticated and are bringing in multiple big name performers and instructors. This is always great for me, because I get do several live episode of Improv Nerd. That happened at Out of Bounds, the Omaha Improv Festival and when I went to the New York Improv Festival at the PIT. It’s a lot of work in a short period of time, but it’s always a lot of fun.
One of my favorite memories was doing the Detroit Improv Festival. My guest for Improv Nerd was supposed to Mary Beth Monroe, and I was really looking forward to doing it, and then she had to cancel at the last minute and guess who they got to replace her? Keegan Michael Key. Can you believe it? This was after the first season of Key and Peele and they had just meet Obama. Keegan stepped right in and did the show. The guy is a class act. Two years later at the Chicago Improv Festival, I interviewed Mary Beth, so the lesson is it always works out.
We are hugely thankful to Jimmy for the interview. We are also thankful for all he has done for the improv community whether it be his teaching or his podcast. Giving improvisors of now and the future the chance to learn and be inspired.
Nick Armstrong is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the The Improv Network and is currently the Artistic Director of Mi’s Westside Comedy theater and a former teacher and member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He also performs at iO West on the longest running and critically acclaimed Harold team King Ten. He has also taught many workshops around the world.