Students ask me after they’ve taken an improv program or class the following question a lot: “What should I do next?”
My response is always, “What’s your goal?” If you don’t know what you want out of a class how can you judge whether or not you should take it?” A lot of students appear to get lost in the labyrinth of classes sometimes. They graduate the beginning improv program and take Conservatory. They get done with that and sign up for the writing program. Take a long form class. Take a music improv class. Etc. Nothing wrong with taking classes to make yourself better, but you need to know why you’re taking that class? Just for fun? Because it will give you another tool in your tool-belt of improv to help your chances of getting cast? And what’s the point of getting cast onto an improv entity? Is it money? Respect? Fun? Because you love it more than anything else in the world and you need to get your fix? Because whether it’s accurate or not it seems to you like the best step to take to reach your ultimate goal?
If you’re goal with improvisation is fun only, go nuts. Take all the classes you want. If it’s fun to do, but not something you wish to go pro in, then stick with your day job, take a night or three a week to doing this fun thing and repeat. But if you wanna be on Saturday Night Live and you think that taking every class in the catalog will necessarily get you there then maybe you should re analyze what you’re doing.
The reason people like Vanessa Bayer and Michael O’Brien and Tina Fey and so many others get cast on SNL has little to nothing to do with what all classes they took. Sure, taking classes is almost always the first step. And they all did that. But none of them exhausted the catalog at any given training center. They learned in the classroom and starting putting themselves out there. They learned on the job so to speak. They made sure to produce their own sketches and improv teams and what not. They devoted the lion’s share of their ‘learning experience’ to learning from doing rather than learning from a classroom.
As I write this I’m reminded that I teach improv at two different theatres and it’s a portion of my income. So, I’m certainly not trying to talk anyone out of taking a class. I want to teach you. Others do too. And you’ll learn. But I can’t imagine ever giving someone this advice, “You should always be enrolled in an improv class of some sorts. That will really be important when it comes to getting hired for gigs,” if asked the best way to get to SNL.
Let me be clear. I don’t know how to get on SNL. I’ve never even auditioned for them. Many of my friends have. But I never put a lot of time or effort into trying to get an audition. It’s just not my passion. I’m sure I would love it if I got the chance. And I’d work my ass off to try and be good at it. But I really wanna get into episodic television. Sure, SNL is a path that has lead some people to episodic television (Kevin Nealon got famous on SNL long before Weeds for example). But it’s not a guaranteed path and it takes a lot of luck and a lot of hard work to get that job. I just feel that I have other goals taking up my time and work, so I never did a lot for the SNL thing particularly.
That said, I know a lot more about upping your chances to audition for that show then the vast majority of people I’ve taught improv to. I know what not to do for example. I know what others have done. And I know in a general sense what helps in show business.
Show business almost always rewards people who put in the work. And while taking classes can be challenging, it’s only a first level. It’d almost be like wanting to be the world’s greatest chef and only learning how to obtain ingredients really well. At some point you gotta graduate to the actual cooking part. Then the refining part. That is a whole other level.
How do you react when you have an audience of two watching your 11PM show on a Tuesday? When you find something that works for them, you know you understand comedy better than most. And it takes a while and it’s different for everyone. But when you can be fearless in front of any crowd and turn almost any situation as a win for your performance then you’ve mastered an ability nearly impossible to teach in a class room environment.
So, I can’t give you an answer to ‘What should I do next?’ Unless you can clearly state to me your goal and make me understand both your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a mathematical formula really. Your abilities minus your weaknesses divided by your goal equals a set of possibilities each with a different rough estimate for their likelihood at success.
However, just because it’s math doesn’t mean that anyone can answer your question if they have all the variables. Through my experience I have a wider range of knowledge about the possibilities than most people. I’ve just been at this game for a while. Again, I can guarantee nothing. But I feel like my advice is often more likely to help than that of another student’s. So, I encourage you to ask me if you want my opinion. I’m happy to be honest with you. But first you have to be honest with yourself.
If you set a goal for yourself you must factor out all humility, deprecation and negativity in general. If you can admit that you wanna be the next Chris Farley, then you literally took the first step to becoming that. I don’t know if you’ll eventually take all the necessary steps to complete that journey. That’s up to several other factors. But I can tell you that no journey starts on the second step. Chris Farley could only have become Chris Farley because at one point he decided he was going to do just that.
In his case, his skill, luck, perseverance & timing worked out to help him arrive at that goal. You may not. But my point is that you’re guaranteeing failure if you won’t even admit that it’s a goal. Sure, it’s possible to ‘stumble’ into that life. It’s also possible to win the lottery if you only play one ticket. But if I really wanted to win the lottery I don’t think I’d only buy one ticket. I’d only buy one ticket if I wanted to in the weakest of senses.
Please don’t confuse me with a self-help guru. I’m not saying it’s there for the taking and you need to decide to take it. That’s misleading verbiage. I’m saying I have no idea if it’s there or not. But I know it won’t be there if you don’t make it your goal. Once you do that, there are a million more factors involved. It’s like unlocking the first gate in a series of eight gates. May only get through four or three. But you’ll get none if you don’t start with a plan to get any.
My best advice other than that? Buzz trumps all. You may be the most talented improviser on the east coast. But if no one is talking about you, it will mean little. You basically have to go viral. I don’t mean that necessarily in the youtube video sense. That’s a way to do it, but entertainers needed to display this quality long before the internet.
If I go see your performance and I tell my friend then chances are other people are telling their friends. We have this innate human quality to want to share our entertainment with others. It’s as if we take ownership of a video we saw on Youtube just by virtue of the fact that we saw it. And now it’s our responsibility to preach it’s gospel to the masses.
So, as entertainers our best bet is to figure out what we can do to get people to talk about us in a positive way. Here’s an fictional conversation as an example:
Guy: I saw the Second City mainstage show last night.
Boss: How was that?
Guy: Amazing. There was this tall guy who did a great bit where he was the gay friend to a bunch of Shakespeare female characters.
Boss: That’s a funny idea. I gotta go check this show out.
In my make believe conversation the guy was telling his boss about a show from 2005 at Second City that one day would become the viral video hit series ‘Sassy Gay Friend’ with Brian Gallivan. It didn’t just amuse the audience. Most good shows will amuse the audience. This show amazed this guy. And that amazement inspired him to talk about the show with others.
So, whatever you do: voice over, pantomime, 90s song parodies, etc. Do it well and often enough to get people talking about you. It will almost always lead to opportunities once you get people to talk about you. It’s like you’re impressing the audience into becoming your publicists unofficially.
Is that my goal with this blog? Nah. This blog is for me. Maybe it will go viral one day. Probably not. It’s not my goal. But sometimes a single ticket buyer wins the lottery.
I dare you to ask yourself what your real goal is.