Improv icon, Columbia alum talks comedy

By Amanda Murphy

Chicago is famous for a lot of reasons. Pizza, hot dogs, Michael Jordan and Al Capone are commonly what comes to mind when Chicago is mentioned. But in the last 30 years, improv comedy has quickly risen to the top of what the city does best. Fostering the careers of Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and many more, Chicago maybe be nicknamed The Second City, but the city has proven to be the premiere enclave for breakout comedians.

At the forefront of the industry is Columbia alumnus Jimmy Carrane, who has been involved in Chicago’s improv comedy scene for more than two decades. Having worked with the likes of Mike Meyers and Andy Dick, he has submerged himself in multiple comedy facets of Chicago. A performer and an instructor, he has worked to not only bring the city lots of laughs but to teach his students to do the same.

The Chronicle spoke with Carrane about what Columbia was like 20 years ago, his new show “Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane” and what it would be like to interview Abraham Lincoln.

The Chronicle: You’ve been in the improv scene for more than 20 years now. What first attracted you to it?

Jimmy Carrane: When I was in high school, I had gone and seen Second City, and then I took a year-and-a-half off after graduating high school before I made it to Columbia. When I got into the city, I was like, “You know what, this is something I have always wanted to try.” So when I was approximately 19 years old, I enrolled in the Players Workshop at Second City.

The Chronicle: Chicago has come to be known as an improv city—maybe even the improv city. What is it about Chicago and the Midwest that you think breeds funny people?

JC: I think one of the secrets about being funny, especially when you start out, [is] there isn’t a lot of pressure. And if you’re at a party, for instance, some of the best performances I have ever done are when I was relaxed and comfortable around people [who] I felt accepted me. So Chicago is that way. It isn’t like New York or L.A., where there’s that carrot dangling of, “Oh, you could get a TV show, you could get a movie part [or] you could get a screenplay produced.” So, I think in a lot of ways, it’s a great learning laboratory. And Jon Favreau, who directed “Elf” and “Iron Man,” has called Chicago “the salt mines of comedy.”

The Chronicle: You teach improv and you often return to Columbia to do guest teaching and workshops. What are the important parts of comedy that you try to highlight for the students?

JC: I come in every semester … and teach a couple things that I think are really important. Like one of them I teach—for comedy, film and stage—is to make it believable. We want to believe that this is really happening to these characters. That’s something I’m a huge believer in. The other thing for film students to understand, and I think this is a basic improv concept, [is to say] yes and to agree. So if an actor comes on the set and says something, be open to their ideas. Because the idea, if you agree to it, can go anywhere and that opens more possibilities, it keeps the actor looser and it keeps a lot of play and fun going on the set.

The Chronicle: Your show “Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane” interviews fellow improv icons about their creative process and personal life. How did you get the idea for that show?

JC: Well, I started the show at Stage 773 [1225 W. Belmont Ave.], which is this beautiful space in an older theater building. And I’ve been hosting my Arsenal Comedy there for a while and they asked if I had any new ideas for shows. So I combined the three loves that I have. One is to tell honest monologues, which I do at the beginning of a show. The second thing is to interview people. I have interviewed comedians and other people of pop culture for WBEZ for eight or nine years. And I’ve been doing improv for 20 years. So it’s a combination of all three of my passions.

The Chronicle: Besides your show, do you have any new projects you’re working on?

JC: I have a podcast, which is really exciting, because people from all over the country have been like, “Oh, we can’t get to Chicago, but we really like what you’re doing.” The other thing is I’m working on a book that I’m really excited on how to teach improv in theater. My 25 years of experience about getting the best out of your students.

The Chronicle: How about just in general. If you could interview someone—dead or alive—and not necessarily in comedy, who would it be?

JC: Abraham Lincoln. I think he was very funny and very underrated. He was one of the first people who really had a comic persona, you know with the beard and the hat. He dressed in all black. He was very droll, too. So I think he would definitely be someone I would want to interview.