Happy 14th Birthday Skinny Improv! Or how the best idea I ever had made me, broke me, destroyed me, and rebuilt me.
Happy 14th Birthday Skinny Improv! Or how the best idea I ever had made me, broke me, destroyed me, and rebuilt me.
14 years ago today The Skinny Improv had its first public show at Evangel University, which I paired with a play I wrote called "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." It was a free show for students on dead day and I remember it being a good crowd and a funny show. The emphasis was on the play, but if I remember correctly the improv set was the big winner that day. I never would have thought that when I decided to start The Skinny Improv after moving to Springfield to finish my degree and just do a little college improv group that it would turn into the juggernaut it was. I simply wanted my degree in 2 years and then to move to Chicago, do the Second City, iO, annoying superstar comedy guy and then be really famous. But The Skinny Improv just kept growing. It became my full time job until I shut down full-time operations in August of 2014.
That dumb little idea I had while walking in an outdoor shopping center in Pleasanton, CA as my tour with Isaac Improv was coming to a close would change my life in more ways than one. That sombrero (thanks Lindsey woods) with the pink pill box hat (thanks costume department) on it that would become the logo for Springfield's first full-time professional improv theatre. The Jackie Kennedy-Onassis Sombrero of Shame (Shame! Shame! Shame!) would become my creative outlet. I would love it, hate it, fear it, loathe it, dream it, strangle it, live it, some days curse the whole idea I came up with and other days prayed that this would not be the best thing I came up with. I poured everything I had into it. Build a small comedy empire that would cost me thousands of dollars, quite possibly my marriage (which did fail), friendships, lovers and dreams, and also help to usher in a wave of depression that almost literally killed me. It used me up, spent me, burnt me out and would launch comedy careers for thousands of students and performers. The Skinny Improv and its entities would do, at its height, 500 shows a year all over the country. I would listen to that muse and follow my dreams and work to do something not done before in the Springfield theatre scene. What would you call it? The ushering in of the small production theater? The storefront theater? We were never Springfield Little Theater nor did we have their production value and big musicals. We never tried to recreate the boundary-pushing and heavy plays, musicals and otherwise staggering works of Springfield Contemporary Theater.
My mantra as executive director and producer of The Skinny Improv was: Come up with an idea and let's try it. I had five major goals I wanted to do when I opened it in 2002.
Those were the 5 things I wanted to do and did them. But the improv shows on the weekends were the bread and butter. MainStage cast was electric. Improv Sports was killer. I’m a scary judge of talent on stage. I know what I can do and how someone can fit. One of my heroes, the late Mick Denison, a local director and incredible man, said "Cast a show right and you've got 80% of it done" I casted good. Really good. So much talent in this town and people wanted to work at Skinny Improv. We added shows. Some killed. Others were not so good (Nick Cage Mystery Science 3000). Shows we had if I can remember: The Jeff Show, Betty and the Baldwin, Improv Sports, Mainstage, The Trifecta, Cage Match, The Bat, Better Luck Next Time: An Improvised Game Show, The Mystery Hour, Mike’s Weird Jam and Joke Bucket for $1, The Facebook Show, The Massacre, Ask the Bobs, The Jeff Show Presents: The Other Jeff, the one jimmy wilson did that sounded like a law firm, Use Your Words, Down the Rabbit Hole, that one stupid one I was in that I shouldn't have done but did it anyways because I'm weak and toxic, Sidekick Sketch Comedy, The dirty, cussy one Tyler Snodgrass and old Scott Kirchner did one night, and I'm sure there were others.
Lots of really good humans did some great work. We made something special. I wanted Skinny Improv to be where the misfits could find a community. To be a part of something bigger than themselves. To find their voice. To get the stage time and go on and move to a bigger market. We have people in Chicago doing brilliant work. Nick Semar. Tim Lee. Jessica Landis. Tyler Snodgrass. Levi Hobson. Jimmy Wilson. Dan Clair. And others I'm forgetting. Skinny Improv has west coast representation too: Sarah Moore. Jeremiah Gallagher. Leah Gunn. Maggie Leahman. I know I'm forgetting more. Please forgive me. East coast. Mike Hauschild teaching at a college. Miss those janitor openings, Mike. And againm I'm sure there are others. We've had Yakov Smirnoff take classes and feature several of us to write for him and work on his pilot. We've had lawyers, ad people, doctors, father and sons bonding. That one boyfriend and girlfriend that were super serious but broke up in like week 3 during a break in class because I think he brought up something personal in a scene with her and never saw them again. People wanting to work on public speaking, or to just not be as shy. So many brilliant and kind and funny and dynamic people performed and helped us do close to 10,000 improv shows, dozens of plays, numerous stand up nights and just silly show ideas. I never saw it as a thing. I just got to do a great comedy show and jack around with my friends. We focused on craft in classes and then the show was planned from start to finish to be a comedy show. From the moment the doors opened and the music was playing and seats filled up. Actors in the green room, catching up, talking, crying about not getting a real fish for the fish tank (looking at you Megan Fitzgerald or shall I saw FISHgerald!). We did improv scenes. We had Mark and Dorothy, who came and saw almost every show. Mark and his groaning laugh would let a performer know if the bit was a little too hacky.
I remember we had this couple on a first date. Months later they get engaged during the show. And months after that we did the wedding of the same couple. We had kids come every year for years for birthday parties. I loved The Skinny Improv because we played clean. We didn't sacrifice funny for dirt. We had intelligent, smart, brilliant shows. We had odd bits. A Marine named Taylor Bolton was a kid going off to Iraq the next day and we brought him up and asked the audience to raise a glass to Taylor Bolton and we proceeded to make up wild and amazing fake stories about him. That game became a staple and we always called it Taylor Bolton after him. Hope he's ok. We did live reenactments of the Family Circus comic. We made up songs. We had Miranda. We did it for a long time. 12 years. Skinny Improv was successful because I had no idea what I was doing. I'm not a businessman. I made a lot of mistakes and I could hire onstage talent but I wasn't good at hiring office people and helping them be a success. Most everyone who worked for me was a good person who did a good job as best as they good. I handicapped them with not being a strong communicator, forgetting to do important things like file taxes and renew crap. I made a ton of mistakes but despite my innate ability to screw things up we did it for 12 years.
We had other groups break off and try to start their own things. Some in leadership panicked and predicted the sky would fall because these new groups were starting. I'd say, “Starting a group is easy. Sustaining and building is hard.” I'd reach out to them and ask how I could push their shows. I'd tweet go see this person’s new show. I'd say in my own theatre, “Go see that”. I'd be the new group’s biggest cheerleader. I like to see people succeed
So what happened? Why did it stop? Why did you shut The Skinny Improv machine down? It got personal. I got burnt out. Loads of things. I got hit with a mass exodus of talent where several key performers left for bigger and better things. Although I was usually prepared, I didn't have people ready to step up so. Quality suffered. And I was dealing with major personal stuff. Shows started to suffer as a result, and you're only as good as your next show. If audiences like a show they tell everyone and you see a small bump. They don't they tell everyone, your numbers are off for a while. I was trying to save a marriage. So my mental focus was on that. I let toxic people manipulate me m to sacrifice ideals and I couldn't stand tall. Marriage became weaker. Depression kicked in the door and decided to kick my butt. I'd been doing shows almost every weekend for 16 years. I was tired, burnt out and made a lot of bad decisions. Ticket sales began to suffer. People were watching Netflix at home. Marriage was done. I checked out. Depression got worse. I needed a job. No one would hire me. I was let go from a show in Branson, as well as other jobs. Self esteem and confidence were gone. Toxic. Toxic. The toxic is slowly draining me of any good and happiness. Depression manifested itself in rage and I was angry and bitter and just kept getting angrier and angrier. Rage. Depression. Insomnia. Self loathing. Self sabotaging the good things. My bad attitude was a cancer in the theater and I knew I needed to remove myself. So I didn’t perform as much. I didn’t teach as much, but I picked too many toxic people to run things and started to implode. I went further down the rabbit hole. I was depressed like I'd never been. I barely get out of bed but then stayed up all night with my thoughts and the rage and the depression, with nothing to build off of. Apathy. Let the toxic do whatever. Nothing matters. Screwed up selling The Skinny Improv to a friend so I could move to Chicago. Because I listened to toxic voices though, the sale went south and I almost lost a good friend. Sorry, man. I should have been better.
The depression cycle continued picking up steam. A hurricane of self destruction and bad choices destroyed everything. A tsunami of dumbassery and I screwed up a relationship and lost her. I didn't know how to give love, revive love, be love. I knew how to hate myself and learn to hate more. My non-improv friends didn’t know what to do. I was slipping. Hurting. Got more depressed. Didn't care about comedy. Hate. Rage. Self loathing.
Letting everyone down, I just needed one thing to hold on to. But I couldn’t find anything. No sleep. Several times up 4- 5 nights in a row. My brain was weak. I couldn’t fight it. I started thinking of ending it. Wanting it. Needing it. Almost... I'm close. Show going on below me. (Lived in a loft above the theatre) and I'm ready, I'm close but I see my dog. My dumb big dog that I rescued a few years earlier. He wa staring at me with those eyes of his saying, “Please. Don't go. I need you.” I could hear people laughing downstairs in the theatre I created, doing the games I picked. Doing the craft I taught them and I was sitting just above them in my loft barely holding on. The literal knifes edge. They didn’t want me in the theater. I couldn’t stand to be around toxic. Nothing was getting done. I'd made thousands of people laugh. Springfield didn't know what improv was when I started. A thing was happening below me that I made and I was this close to not being a part of the problem anymore. To not exisiting. To just not being around anymore. But my dog. My sweet loving dog. Who rescued who? He snapped me out of it. And then I remembered about all the people who doubted me. Who made fun of me. Who talked about me behind my back. Who said I was a loser now. I wasn't going to give them chance to be right. I'm a fighter and I'm strong. I messed up and hurt but I was hurting and in pain and hurt a lot of people and made a lot of bad decisions. So I wiped away the tears. Sat with my dog. Tried to quiet all the negative voices and hurtful things I told myself. I realized I couldn’t be in Springfield. Too toxic. Too many triggers. To many reminders of her or her or how I screwed it all up. I can't keep Skinny Improv going just to keep it going. It was done. I planned. I plotted. I moved to OKC two weeks later and shut it down.
Then I began to heal. I had three months in OKC to remind myself I still had an inkling for this craft I've been doing since 1996 and I'm good at it. Worked and met with some amazing people in OKC (Kristi K Boone, Kyle, Kendon, Aimee, Von, Hi Lo Cat Party, Edna's, Meredith, pool tables, the okc improv leadership and new friends who will never know how much they healed me by letting me in their community and giving me a chance to perform and teach. Then it was time to move again. This time to the house I lived in when I was in junior high in Jacksonville, AR. Same room. No friends really. Jobs were hard to find. But it was me and my dog and I was healing. Got cast in some nice plays. Did some good work at a dinner theatre that I did a show at when I was 19. I was healing. But I knew what was next. I needed to face Springfield and all the triggers and fight that dragon. So I got a job that's not me. Moved back. Worked. Jumped back into some improv too soon. It hurt, but I faced the demons. I healed. Lost the job (well didn't lose it. I knew where it was they just asked me not to come back) and needed to move again. So I went to Chicago and lived on a friend’s couch for a few weeks (thank you Nathan Shelton!) I was on the way. I was healing. I got a job at Second City, the premier improv and sketch comedy training center in the world. Google it. I started by running the theaters at night as a night manager. It felt right. Still flawed. Still messy. Still me. I felt important again, doing what I know. I was around creative but I wasn’t a slave to it. Watching the people perform in those theatres and other ones, I knew I could do it. The talent was still there. More healing.
Then I got another job at Second City, my dream job. The whole reason I was there. I helped produce comedy shows at the legendary Second City. My self esteem was growing, as was my confidence. I could do this. I helped produce all the touring shows, cruise ship shows and one of the resident theaters. I wish it would have hit on all cylinders earlier but I tried. Thanks Joe, Nate, Monica, and Erica. I had fun. It took me some time to find my rhythm and I started feeling that click again. That spark. My ideas were coming back. I felt the old Jeff. I did some improv with some old Skinny Improv people now in Chicago at a bar (Kara thank you) I was taking classes and producing shows at second city. By this time I had to move a few times and my dog was forced to go live with a friend in Little Rock and he's happy. I ended up crashing on another couch and being able to form a friendship with one of the best humans I know. Brandon BJ Smith, fun doesn't describe what we had. I was allowing myself to have fun. To laugh. To be silly. To not take myself so seriously. Buddy I appointed in you. Thank you for letting me be me and helpIng me heal. Chicago was hard. It wasn't perfect. I let the toxic voices back in and destroy my head. I'd walk or hours just letting these voices, these words slice at me. Words encourage me and words hurt me. I would never let anyone talk to me the way I let myself talk to me. I didn't believe I deserved good and happy. Stupid Jeff who wasn't special and no wonder everyone who ever loved him left him and couldn't grow up and was exhausting and unattractive and people's lives were better off without him. But I had to stop it. Stop talking to myself like that. So I did. Reversed the words and felt a change coming. Still healing. Learning to expect and let myself love me. Then my brother tells me he's moving to Seattle to work at a church. He'd been here in Springfield and my parents are in their 70s and live in southern Arkansas. I feel like one of us should be close in case something happens. My hero, my sister, who knew when I was hurting and would reach out was getting married and I needed to just be close to my family. I called my friend Lucas and mentioned I may move back. But that toxic voice is back. Still healing. Voice is saying, "Everyone will think you're a loser and couldn't cut it" I could picture Lucas in a hotel bathrobe he got somewhere, sitting on some sort of boat, while drinking scotch when he said, "No. You did it. You accomplished what you meant to do. You answered the questions that you've been needing to. Move back with your head held high."
A buddy who owns a company and man I respect was looking for a salesman. He hired me and I moved back in May. I made a promise to not overwhelm myself and only do my art and comedy when I wanted and if it makes me happy. My friend Chris opened his home to me and let me move into the spare bedroom. I had a room and starting finding strength in little things. I bought a car from my job, I had a room of my own and could afford to buy the good bread. Still healing. I threw a new improv group together called 5 Shot Jackson and put some shows on at Patton Alley Pub with the incredible Cherry Bomb Burlesque and the so-talented and hardest working woman in show business, Kaycie Surrell. We did two shows together. They sold out. It was fun again. I was still healing but feeling stronger. But I screwed up and didn't handle a communication thing well. Again, my apologies. I'm sorry I let you down. At the same time I was playing Smee in Peter Pan at my playhouse, Springfield Little Theater, and having a blast. I made people laugh. Still healing but I’d come along way from the darkness. Depression wasn't as bad but panic attacks and anxiety stepped up. I remember the week before we opened I was playing safe. I was scared. The click wasn't there. I begin to head down this path of self doubt and just knew that the fight I've been in with depression had killed that part of me. I knew I had more in me but I was so scared. The director comes up to me and says to the effect "not sure what's wrong but I need jeff Jenkins. I need you to be what you can be. Go and play" and when he said that, click, I felt it. And got rid of fear. But I was still fighting. Had a panic attack on stage during the show. Never happened before. Then another one the next night before the show and I'm sitting in Pickleman’s Deli, just bawling. I couldn't function, much less go out and do the show like I expected myself to do. I knew I was going to screw everything up and stupid jeff but Best stage manager ever had some Xanax. Thanks Julia!! I needed to find things I could control. Started eating better. Started walking. Lost weight. Now I weigh less than I did in high school. I'm still up fighting.
Proud of what Seth White did after I shut down Skinny Improv and he picked up the pieces and opened Springfield Improv, doing great work. There are independent teams booking shows. Crisco Chris Rochelnis hustling at Blue Room Comedy bringing killer stand up acts in. The Mystery Hour is zooming. George Cron is still producing his serials. David and Meg Rice and Bryant Turnage picked up the mantle for the Shakespeare stuff and are doing tremendous work. Actors are working. I was in a super fun show with people I cast in their first shows long ago. I got to sit in a dressing room every night and dissect comedy and comedic structures with fantastic high school and college kids. Booked some improv shows for Christmas parties. Got hired to shoot some fun videos with my comedy buddy Jeff Houghton. Made some videos of my own. Started working on my new play again.
People who trained with us in the Training Center are booking national commercials, writing award winning musicals, being a ninja warrior, directing critically reviewed shows in Chicago, doing brilliant stand up and then some are better public speakers, they're new moms, they won an Emmy, they went viral, they are student pastors making a difference, working for the federal government, writing new stuff, getting married, raising awesome kids and killing at their job, beating their own demons and now counseling others on addiction, teaching sign language and dancing on C Street, coming up with genius show ideas, growing in confidence in his craft along way from his first role in HVZ, growing the heck out of a college improv group, taking improv classes in LA, coaching his son’s basketball team, teaching a Sunday school class, teaching teenagers improv and sketch. It just keeps going.
The Skinny Improv was special and if you read this whole thing please don't think I'm bragging on myself. That's not my style. I did a thing and it was good. I miss it. I miss the friends, I miss the moment a student gets in in class what I always called the matrix moment. I miss hearing kids laugh because we fell down in a kids play, I miss that sombrero. I miss the music. I miss the AC never working. I miss when that suggestion is thrown out and you and your partner create gold. I miss the audience laughing. I miss Mark’s laugh, I miss that we could have a 12 year birthday party and a bachelorette party the same night and everyone had fun. I miss making a callback from 45 minutes earlier and the audience is dead. I miss doing it for Riley. I miss when it was special, I miss the Boyz 2 Men flashback wrap up at the end of the show. I miss Kidprov. I miss “I'm not a real therapist but I've just been through a lot of crap.” I miss when my best friend and improv partner knows exactly where I'm headed.
I made a ton of mistakes and hurt a lot of people. A lot. Everything that went wrong and was unpleasant for people. That's my fault and I'm sorry. I don't apologize what I did to survive. But it's time to go from surviving life to living life. Springfield, thank you for supporting The Skinny Improv, for the awards, for still coming up to me since I've moved back and mentioning how much you enjoyed it. Thanks for showing up and laughing. Thanks for the suggestions and thanks for being just weird enough to realize we had no idea what we were doing and that i was literally making it all up as I went along. Thanks for being you, Springfield. Glad we're good again.
The turn. The click. The creativity. It's back. Still healing but it's time to get back in. Everyone put your hands in the preclappatory position. It's time to begin something new. The idea and dreams that's been waiting. Don't doubt me. I'm still flawed. I'm still messy but I know me. I got back up and said "what else you got?" Probably still let people down and probably still screw up but my mistakes and failures don't define me. Click. Springfield? Man you ain't seen nothing yet. Got your back. Let's go create something that inspires a kid. Time for you to see what I've been seeing. What I knew was left in me. Play. Dream. Repeat as necessary.
jeff Jenkins is an award winning comedian, actor, writer, producer and director and writes about how improv comedy helps him in his ongoing battle with depression and living his best improvised life.