I graduated the Second City Conservatory in July, 2002. Just three months later, the Conservatory’s graduating class would be followed by a documentary crew. This is the result…
One of the stars of “The Laugh Track” is Jay Olson. In 2007, he and I would end up being placed together on Whiskey Rebellion at the iO Theater. Shortly after we met, I felt I’d known him from… something. I pulled out my VHS archives and rediscovered this. He and fellow “Laugh Track” star Melissa Cathcart later married and now have a son.
Re-watching this, I’m reminded of how very important the Conservatory seemed at the time. It was my very first taste of improvisation. And at the time, I was sure I’d end up on Second City’s Mainstage. “Only a matter of time,” I thought.
When I was taking classes in the Conservatory, I videotaped each session. I lived in Michigan back then, so I’d use the headphone jack on the camcorder to play back our rehearsal through my car stereo as I drove 150 miles home every week.
I remember obsessing over our shows and tinkering with all my lines to make sure each one was a perfectly crafted comedy missile. I remember feeling jealousy and fear and self-loathing. I remember standing on the corner of North and Wells, smelling the air and telling myself that I had to move to Chicago at any cost. I remember the hours after our final show, wondering if I would ever have anything so special again.
For those of you just starting out in improvisation, the work may feel like a life-or-death matter. You’ll watch shows with veteran performers and dream of standing on stage with them one day. You’ll tell yourself that fame is just around the corner.
While all of that is fine for a beginner, the only truth I’ve learned in my comedy career is that persistence matters above all. I’ve played with hundreds of people in classes and teams over the last decade-plus. Nearly everyone gave up.
Getting in is easy. Chicago is full of theaters willing to take your money in exchange for a pat on the back and a little stage time.
Quitting is easy. A failed audition, a small audience, a string of weak shows or criticism from a teacher can reduce your dreams to dust.
The hard part is simply continuing. Jay and Melissa still perform because they found a way to move past roadblocks. Hell yes, they are talented. But talent alone doesn’t keep you in this game.
The Improv King is not going to magically appear, touch you with his scepter and add you to an untouchable list of geniuses. Hell, even if you get cast on SNL, you’re not assured of anything. Ask Paul Brittain.
The happiest performers aren’t always the ones with the most “success.” The happiest improvisers are the ones who simply love the process. I improvise to improvise. If critical acclaim or praise or stardom follow, so be it. But I’m just as prepared for critical hatred, disappointment and obscurity.
Wherever you are in your improv career, have fun. You get to play make-believe with adults. And sometimes, other adults will come and watch you. Sometimes, it’s art. Sometimes, it’s dumb. But it’s just pretend. Remember to place greater importance on reality.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com