Pumping Up the Improv Jam

The Jam It’s Tuesday night and there are eight improvisers on stage at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) pretending to throw up because someone brought a bad casserole to the housewarming party. Each person who walks on stage is introducing some new gross bodily function and it’s kind of a peak Jam moment - funny, weird, and everyone’s in on the joke.

I’ve been going to the improv Jam since my Level 1 class when Danielle Seright invited me. Of course, it took me several weeks to actually get the courage to go with her, then I spent a few months interning Tuesday nights. Now I co-host the Jam with Jason Hensel and Patrick Hennessy, so I’ve seen it from all sides.

I love the Jam. I love its weirdness. I feel like it gives you a chance to really test yourself, to see if you can play with beginners and also get experience playing with people who have been doing it a lot longer than you have. My student card got picked to do a set with Primary Colours when I was in Level 3, and I was so nervous I introduced them incorrectly and then didn’t go out in a single scene. We can’t be heroes all the time, which is maybe the point of the Jam.

If you’re unfamiliar, Jason, Patrick, and I give a few announcements, explain the rules, and lead a quick warm-up before breaking everyone up into groups for the night. Anyone and everyone can participate, but we usually have some people just there to soak up some free laughs. We start at 8 p.m., but people wander in and out throughout the night. Some people participate in one round, and some help us close it out.

I think the Jam is important at all levels, so I asked three improvisers with different Jam experiences to answer some questions.  

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What's your name?

KS: Kaspars (occasionally using covers as Kevin, Karl & John).

JH: Jason Russell Hackett

TH: My given name is Tia Marie Hedge, but I go by a few nicknames: Sweet T, Tuba, Tina, T, SBT. All are accepted and still accepting new ones.

What's your improv experience?

KS: Just graduated Level 3 here at DCH. Never tried improv before!

JH: I started taking classes while they were still being offered in Denton in January 2013. Prior to that, my comedy experience was limited to some mediocre stand-up sets and some now embarrassing blogs that could probably be easily located through a Google search if one was so inclined.

TH: My improv journey did not begin until April 2016 when I signed up for classes at DCH. I actually had no idea what improv was until late 2015, in October, when an old friend introduced me to it. Prior to that, I have not had any other sort of theater or comedic experiences. I'm a baby in the scene.

When did you start coming to the Jam?

KS: May 2016

JH: I started coming to the Jam while I was still in Level 1 because I was super gung-ho about improv and wanted to get on stage as soon as possible. My first attempts were… not good. But those humbling experiences were so vital because it made the moments when I made the right moves and was rewarded with laughter a clear indication that the classes were working, and that I was one step closer to becoming like the performers that intimidated me every time they graced the stage.

The JamTH: I started watching Jams back in October when I got introduced to improv. I didn't start going up at Jams though until the week after I started my Level 1 class because I was terrified to be on stage. But after my first Jam, I fell in love with it. I immediately started going every week.

What does the Jam mean to you?

KS: Hmm, I keep coming and staying late, always late for work the next day. It’s fun. It’s challenging! Always different people and perspectives. I think I enjoy doing improv. Also, I’m from abroad, which makes it a great way to meet new people and hear local references. Jokes are tough to get at times. Not a Jam goes by that I learn something new and weird.

JH: The Jam is one of the most important components of the improv educational experience. Classes are where you learn the techniques needed to be a good improviser, but the Jam is the laboratory where you get to experiment with those techniques in front of a live audience. For a brand new improviser, I think it's essential to go at least once before your first showcase because it's the perfect way to get past the nerves of simply being on stage without wasting the precious few minutes of your showcase doing so. For the more experienced improviser, I think it's just as important. The Jam is somewhere you can help the new improvisers by leading through example. Having those experts interspersed through the rounds gives the newer improvisers an anchor and can be as instructive as actual class time. Additionally, there have been times when I've been down on myself as an improviser, and the Jam has been key to shaking those feelings away. I can go there, play with people I've never even met before, focus on the basics of improv that I've been neglecting, and try out new techniques I haven't had the courage to try elsewhere. Anyway, that's a very long-winded way of saying it's important for everyone.

TH: The Jam to me is a great way to expand your play styles and knowledge of improv. It forces you to learn how to play with a variety of different players, seasoned and beginners. It's a great place to practice things you want to work on getting better at or to go to have a fun time. Other than improv stuff, Jams were the way I connected with most of my friends that I have now.

Favorite Jam memory?

The JamKS: I remember “find the killer” game a while ago, where the group marked the dead person laying on the floor using “numbered cubes with antenna (?!)” from the tables and conducted a murder investigation! Awesome!

JH: I have two. The first is from when I just started, and I ended up hanging out until the last rounds of the night, where the only people left were myself and the experienced people who intimidated me. Also, we were all drunk. I remember this one scene where everyone was on stage and the scene was this orgy photoshoot, and I was standing behind Ashley Bright, who was bent over a chair, for what felt like an eternity, saying nothing but watching the scene grow around me. I could feel the scene coming (heh) to its natural conclusion, and decided to ask the question I'd been keeping in my pocket the whole time… “Hey, can I pull out?” I made those intimidating improvisers laugh, and I think I've been chasing that feeling ever since. The second has been watching my girlfriend, Veronica, begin her own improv journey and to see her at the Jam, full of nerves and excitement, creating her own friendships with her fellow Level 1s. Although this has also had the effect of making me feel old as hell, improv-wise.

TH: Besides the numerous amount of absurd and hilarious scenes I was able to be a part of, my favorite Jam memory was a certain Tuesday night after class. I was in Level 2 at the time with a new class I had just joined that term. We were all basically forced by our teacher, Sarah Adams, to go to the Jam together. Also, I've never seen any of my new classmates at a Jam before. So it was a little exciting for me to see them do their first Jam. My favorite part of that night was seeing all of them laughing and smiling on stage and having the time of their lives up there. They didn't care who was watching. They were just playing with their friends!

Advice for anyone nervous to Jam?

KS: I did hear “Just get out there!” many times, and while it’s very true and one should have it under your sleeve at all times, I found that having just a slightest tip can make a huge difference especially for folks like me who are not natural "go-getters"... and usually brain drains to alarming levels (probably blood runs down all the way to butt!) once getting anywhere near the stage. So, once I saw this YouTube video… (long laugh). So here it goes: “Just get out there.. AND try (when appropriate) matching (doing the same as) your counterpart (preferably twice as hard).” The few times I tried, it reduced some of the fear and got me into silly and fun scenes (at least for me), with some initial idea and an illusion that you know something. And, of course, extra trouble if others pick up on the fact that you are “up for shit!” (long evil laugh). Obviously, Jams are a ton of fun, and the hosts are always there for you!*

JH: I'm sure everyone is going to say “just do it” in some form or another, and I agree. But that's easy to say and hard to do. I would say, go to the Jam at first just to watch. You don't even have to get up there, just observe what's going on. But, since you've come all that way, you may as well get up and do the warm-up and get assigned a number. If you want to bail after that, no pressure. But since you have a number, you may as well get up on stage and at least watch from the sides. Just feel what it's like to be on stage in front of a crowd, and realize that it's not as scary as you thought. And since you're up there on the sides, you may as well at least try to walk out at the beginning of one of the scenes, even if you don't have anything to say. You can pretend to be an inanimate object, and just stay in the background. But since you're out there in the scene, you may as well give it your all and use the skills you've learned in class to make the scene as good as you can. And then get off stage, walk straight to the bar, and buy yourself a drink. You've earned it.

TH: My advice for anyone who is nervous about going to a Jam: Don't be. I was, and I regret that. It held me back from growing as an improviser. Most people are scared about screwing up or saying something stupid on stage. Well, THAT'S WHAT THE JAM IS FOR! It's where you get to screw up and learn from it. You get to be the silliest or weirdest you can be, and the people standing on stage with you are going to be just as silly or weird as you. (And they might possibly turn into your best friend.) The Jams are a place to have fun, and that's exactly what it is, fun! I smell butts. I fart 24/7 (This is was Shahyan's answers. Also accurate.).

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So there you have it. You’re fully prepared to spend the night at the DCH Jam, or just watch, or maybe you aren’t prepared at all and that’s kind of the point.

*Kaspars, please, you’re embarrassing me.

The Jam

Darcy Armstrong is a graduate of the Dallas Comedy House Improv program and a Sketch Writing student. She writes for feminist comedy website superglooze.com, walks her dog frequently, drinks chardonnay at the DCH bar, and performs with Glistlefoot.

(Photos: Jason Hensel and Darcy Armstrong)