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Interview: Jimmy Carrane, Comedian

By Rachelle Bowden in Miscellaneous on Jun 27, 2005 5:39PM

2005_06_jimmycarrane.jpgChicago is known for a lot of things that aren’t so funny. Gangsters. Scandal. A baseball team that is cursed. But Chicago is famous for being the home and breeding ground to some of the most famous actors and comedians around. Known fondly as the “Second City,” Chicago has also been home to an improvisation mecca of the same name.

Chicagoist loves improv and has gotten up on stage a time or two ourselves. Improv is going on nightly here in Chicago, and people travel from all over the country to be a part of it. Jimmy Carrane has been part of the Chicago improv community for over fifteen years and been part of The Second City, Improv Olympic, Annoyance Theater, Live Bait Outreach Program, and the Victory Gardens.

With the popularity of improv making its way more into mainstream media (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Reno 911, A Mighty Wind), Chicagoist interviewed Carrane to see what was happening in today’s improv world.

You teach improv. You talk about not "being" funny, but rather staying in the moment and reacting to what is happening in the scene. What are the biggest mistakes or misconceptions improvisers make or have in your opinion?
I think people try too hard to be fast and funny too quickly in their development. There is no feeling to the work, it’s a clever-fest. .Sometimes a boring clever- fest. I think you need to understand both speeds, that regardless of the speed there is a connection with your gut --an instinct. Instinct takes time to develop and you have to do at least 1,000 bad shows before you get there. I have like six more to go myself. Improv is hybrid, I like it when it’s closer to theater, than when it is a set up punch line.

Now I think improv has gone in the direction of going faster for the sake of speed. Personally, I cannot play fast, I actually shut and feel lost and confused and become judgmental. It's the opposite of improv. I like to work organically, that’s why I shop at Whole Foods. The truth be told, if I am going to grow as an improviser I will need to learn to play fast. I am open to it, my ego is still resistant.

I've heard you talk about your childhood; about you being a mean kid at times, can you talk about how this has influenced your humor?
It makes me sad to think about all the times I used my humor to make fun of people, or put them down. I could be cruel and actually intimidated people. I was in so much pain I did not realize this. I was wrong for doing that. I was an unhappy child. My senior year of high school I was 5' 8" tall and I weighed a little over 300 pounds, so in terms fitting in -- I didn't. I didn't fit into anything.

I also grew up on the North Shore. With all the social pressure and the culture up there; it made things even harder for me. I always felt like the new kid and I moved there when I was in the first grade. I never felt I belonged. Which may not help with your self esteem, but is great for your comedy, because you are automatically the observer.

I have theory that a person with true sense of humor can make fun of themselves and I learned from overcompensating for being fat. Anyone who can't doesn't have a sense of humor. Supermodels don't have a sense of humor, because they don't need one. That's my definition. I am rigid on this rule, it’s pretty much a red and blue state thing with me. For me feeling like I didn't fit in has helped me develop my sense of humor and in terms of getting along with other people I am still working on it.

How did you get into improv? What initially attracted you?
For one, I am lazy. Improv is a lazy man's art form, it was the first place I felt I belonged and it was the first place I felt self worth. I had been funny since I was kid and never thought I could do anything with it. After taking some Improv classes at Players Workshop of The Second City in the late early eighties (sic), I was now one of the popular kids, which I had always aspired to be.

What makes you laugh? Who or what inspires you today?
The original version of The Office, Curb your Enthusiasm, Sideways, Nip/Tuck. People playing things real and subject matter that makes you really uncomfortable. That inspires me.

What other jobs have you done along the way...

I sold office supplies. Worked in restaurants. Gave sample out of juice and Kim and Scott's Gourmet Pretzels in the grocery store. Was a Marshall Field’s Elf and Department Store Santa. Customer Service for Real Estate Company.

...did you find yourself being the cut up in those jobs?
Not really, any time I have to show up somewhere on a regular basis I lose my sense of humor.

What are you working on now? What is on the horizon for you in the performance realm?
I am teaching and directing and actually writing book with Liz Allen called Improv Better, it is based on the Ten Blind Spot For Improvisers. I am directing a wonderful show called Four Chairs and teaching my elective called the Art of Slow Comedy over at the Improv Olympic.

I am doing Summer Rental at the Unhinged Series at Second City, etc., and I would really like to do a sketch show with a great cast and great director. I like to learn sketch comedy. There's a lot of great sketch out there. Hopefully someone will contact me off this interview.

Chicago is known for improvisation -- it seems we created the art form. Is there something about Chicago or the Midwest that breeds this kind of comedy? Is there something about the local flavor here? The people?
I think we are not a product oriented city like NY or LA. We are artists here for better or worse and we enjoy the process, probably a little too much. So the concept of ensemble lives and breathes here, it's in the culture, it's in the neighborhoods, it's the fabric of the city.

There is also a sensibility that plays to the rest of the country. Midwestern people are down to earth and not pretentious, unlike the NY and LA scene. Unfortunately Chicago people have leave to go NY or LA to get their well deserved success.

You've actually done quite a bit of interviewing yourself; you've been heard locally on WBEZ. What makes a good interview in your opinion?
I am regular contributor to a show called 848 which is on at 9:35am -11am. People always get confused with the time because of the title of the show. I think usually writers are the best interview because the are concise and to the point with what they need to say and they have written it before they speak.

Anyone who is in comedy and wants to play is always fun for me, especially people I have started out with and who have become successful. Because we have a history. Once I get over the jealousy it’s a ball.

Who have been some of your favorite interviews?
Shelly Berman -- because he’s so out there. Jon Favreau, because he works here in Chicago and he’s articulate. Matt Walsh, Jeff Garlin, and Charlie Finn because I knew those guys and we could play around on the air.

I just did interviews with Jeff Griggs and Robert Klein that was really fun because of the subject matter. Griggs’ book was on Del Close and an excellent read and Klein’s book was about himself.

Where is (are) your favorite place(s) to eat in Chicago?
I love the Wishbone on Lincoln and love S & G on Lincoln. George who is the G in S & G still makes homemade soup. Plus, my headshot is on the wall, next to Ron Dean (‘ local actor) and Wayne Messmer and his wife and most of the staff knows my name.

What former Chicago athlete or actor do you think would be a good mayor?
First, I think Daley would’ve made a really good pope. So that he’d be out of here, we could replace him with Scott Skiles. If he could turn around the Bulls like that, I wonder what he could do for the city. Plus, he doesn't seem like a guy who would give favors to his friends.

Favorite stretch of road to drive in the city?

I don't drive. I like most of the stops on the Brown Line. I especially like watching the train heading north into the Paulina Station, it looks like a silver sausage coming into the station there. Mmmmm, a silver sausage, I’m so poetic, aren’t I? I think that's a good place to stop.

Thanks, Jocelyn!