One of the toughest parts of performing improv is talking to friends who fundamentally misunderstand what it is that you do. They helpfully offer you their crazy anecdotes so that “you can use them in your improv” or say things like, “I know it’s made up, but how did you decide who was going to play what character?”
I like to make an analogy to sports: hockey players don’t know where the puck is going to go, but they all know the rules and what kind of actions help or hurt the team. That seems to lay to rest questions about how we decide which players enter which scenes, but it doesn’t seem to be a completely satisfactory explanation, either.
I think I figured out why.
I believe it is important for an improviser to begin the show by asking for a suggestion, whether it be a single word, a song lyric, a monologue, the contents of a wallet, etc. In a magic show, the magician could easily provide his own dollar bill, or have his assistant pick a card out of the deck, but he asks for a volunteer. Partially to “prove” it’s real magic but, more importantly, to give the audience some level of investment. After all, they know there’s no such thing as magic, so why should it matter if you use an ordinary dollar bill?
In improv, the trick is in taking an ordinary suggestion and seeing it inspire interesting scenes. If you don’t ask for a suggestion, I don’t really get to see the inspiration. (On the flip side: if you do ask for a suggestion, then perform it literally, there’s not much inspiration to see.)
The amazing thing about improv, to me, is that it depends on a fact of nature that most people do not believe to be true: that ideas are cheap and you can always make as many as you need, on demand.
I think that is why people who don’t do improv don’t get it. They have been led to believe (by whom, I’m not sure, I’m still tracing the conspiracy) that ideas are rare, precious things; that inspiration is like lightning, you must wait around for it to strike. They believe that ideas are something you have, but do not make.
They believe that people who have ideas are geniuses. But Thomas Alva Edison, widely regarded as genius, knew that perspiration is more important than inspiration. He told everybody, but they still give him more credit for his ideas than the fact that he simply worked hard.
Maybe one day everybody will figure out that the way to have ideas is to make them, and nobody will be impressed by improv any more. But until then, people who don’t make a habit of making ideas will have a hard time believing that you can.