Gorton Community Center was very fortunate to have actor and improvisor Jimmy Carrane teach an improv workshop for teenagers. His career started in 1986 when he drove down to Chicago and found his passion for improv. He began working to improve his improv skills at The Second City and iO Chicago, both of which are comedy clubs and theaters in the city, the places where Belushi, Aykroyd, and many others cut their teeth as comedians. His journey also brought him to be one of the original members of The Annoyance Theater, which, along with the other two aforementioned theaters, he began teaching at years later.
He is constantly travelling and teaching improv across the nation. He also has a popular podcast called Improv Nerd, where he interviews and talks with well known actors and comedians. To learn more about his decorated career and his passion for improv, I asked him a few questions.
How long have you been doing improv, and when did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
“I started taking classes after I graduated from New Trier High School. I think I was 19 years old. I am 52 now, which makes me very old and wise in improv. I always thought of myself as an ‘improviser,’ rather than actor, but I think I wanted to be actor in my late 20s when I started getting film and TV parts.”
How has your career as an actor/improviser developed? How did you get to where you are today?
“The simple answer is that I took a lot of classes at Second City and iO Chicago, made friends with people in those classes, and ended up doing really cool projects with them. Next thing I know, I am doing shows at Second City, The Annoyance and iO Chicago.
Recently I had Scott Adsit from 30 Rock on as a guest on my podcast, Improv Nerd. We had both taken improv classes together in college, and he said our teacher at the time had referred to me as a “log” in improv class. Scott said I should receive an award for “most improved” improviser he’s ever seen, which I take as a huge compliment.”
Are there different kinds of improv? If so, what type of improv do you do/prefer?
“There are a lot of different kinds of improv. I would say the three most common are short form, long form, and musical improv. I like scenic-basic improv, which means that we create a miniature play for the audience, which is what you do in long form improv.”
What was the first show you ever performed in?
“I grew up in Kenilworth and went to Joseph Sears School. I was in a play called The Prince and the Pauper and I had a small part. I think I was a lord. I had a song and danced with the other lords and maidens, and there was this part where I always got a laugh. I remember the other parents giving me compliments. After that I took a five-year hiatus.”
Have you ever directed any shows?
“Yes, I have directed and coached a lot of improv shows over the years in the city.”
Who is your favorite playwright?
“I like Tracy Letts. He is from Chicago.”
To any high school student looking to pursue acting, what advice would you give them?
“Enjoy the process. Don’t be so worried about the results. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be kind to everyone. Try new things. Taking improv is really important to becoming a better actor. Improv helps you become a better listener; all good actors are great listeners. Improv also gives you confidence and stage presence, and it also helps you respond more honestly to your scene partners, which is really important in being a believable actor.
Also, don’t blow off your classes in high school, and take advantage of all of the high school activities you can because the more stuff you learn now, the more you will be able to draw from later. I wish someone had given me that advice.”
What are you currently working on?
“I am teaching improv in the city and I also teach improv-based workshops for companies that help people with skills like team-building and creativity. I am still producing my podcast, Improv Nerd, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary, and I do a show once-a-month at Second City called Jimmy and Johnnie.”
When you go on stage or are about to perform, do you get nervous? If so, what helps you ease the anxious feelings?
“I still get nervous, even scared. Remember to breathe and focus on the other people on stage with you. That is the great thing about improv; you are not doing it alone. I think talking about how you’re feeling before you go on stage, saying something like, “I feel scared tonight,” has always helped me reduce my fears.”
Any advice to students who get nervous by being on stage?
“Admit that you’re nervous to another person before you go on stage. If you don’t feel comfortable saying it to someone who is in the show, use your phone to call one of your trusted friends and tell them you are scared. Don’t hide it. By sharing it with someone else, you’ll find that the fear will usually lessen pretty quickly.”
What production/sketch have you performed that you think carried the most meaning and impacted your audience the most?
“I did a one-man show 25 years ago called ‘I am 27, I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies.’ It ran for a year-and-a-half at The Annoyance Theater, and I got a lot of critical acclaim for the show. Suddenly, I had become the spokesperson for kids who had moved back home with their parents. People still recognize me from that show today.”
What famous actor/actress/comedian would you compare your acting/comedic style to?
“I think I’m a mixture of Larry David and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.”
What kinds of topics do you talk about in your podcast?
“In Improv Nerd, I interview some of the biggest names in comedy who have all had an improv background. I’ve had the chance to interview everyone from Key & Peele, to Broad City, Bob Odenkirk, Jane Lynch, Cecily Strong, Jeff Garlin, Adam McKay, and many, many others. In the show, I like to talk about overcoming obstacles. Everyone who has been on the podcast has had a fair amount of failure to get where they are today. I want my listeners to know that if you want to succeed in the arts you are going have to fail sometimes.”
Do you have any other meaningful advice to give to high school students trying to express themselves?
“It’s really important to get support from other people to help you find your own voice. So find other people, if that is in a class, or in a play, or improv group, choir, or band. You will need the support of other people at this point in your development to get the courage to take risks and put yourself out there. I didn’t really start expressing myself until I was 19 years old in my first improv class, and I wish I had known this sooner.”
What about your workshop at Gorton are you most looking forward to?
“I grew up on the North Shore, so I know the pressures and expectations today’s high school students are going through. This workshop is not about getting a good grade or even doing it right. It’s about having fun making mistakes, because in improv there are no mistakes. Giving yourself permission to make mistakes is how we become even more creative and gain confidence in all aspects of our lives.
I love bringing a group of people together who may not know each other, and in a very short period of time having them bond so they can have a great time expressing themselves and creating some really funny stuff that they could have never come up with on their own.”
If you would like to hear more about Jimmy Carrane, listen to his podcasts, or find out when and where he is teaching next, make sure to check out his website linked below.