i frequently get asked about the ideas i store for walking up on stage and doing improv. if something amusing happens at work, someone will very likelyly say, "ha! that was funny. i bet you'll do that in one of your shows!" if some crazy happening happens in my outer-life, i'll often get a word in my ear to the effect of "you should write that down so you can use it in your next performance." despite how often i describe what impro is and what we do, people still assume that i go up on stage armed with a series of sketches and events that i then just act out.
i've had it after shows, too. even when a friend or colleague has come to see an improv gig, even if they themselves have provided one of the audience call-outs that determined what happened in the show, they still might ask which scenes we decided to do before the show started. after they've had it explained to them that the success of the great bits is nothing to do with extensive pre-planning of every detail, but extensive working on the skills needed to facilitate those things happening. you don't think up a character before the show and then walk into whatever scene and somehow make it fit. at no point do we ever think of a storyline, make sure all the performers know all the details about how its going to go down, then walk out onto stage fully prepared for every nuance. we don't do that. it's called improvisation for a reason.
some people do that. it's called 'acting'. it's a very different art-form.
or it's known as 'sketch comedy' (also different).
a good sketch comedy group will spend a year finding good material worthy of a show. as an impro show is different every time, imagine the physical impossibility of writing that amount of material. go on, imagine it. i rest my case.
oh no, wait, i've got a series of other points to make. deal with it, i have nothing better to do with the these hours i spend sitting next to my job.
when alex ross paints his immaculate images for comic books, no-one suggests that he just takes a photo and then traces it. people don't say to him, "that's really good, who did you copy it from?" alex ross is the incredible artist he is because he worked at it. he practiced. yes, he must have been born with some amount of natural skill, but that's not enough. he didn't just pick up a paintbrush for the first time and come out with a pile of photo-realism. he first needed to learn how paint rests on paper, and the way the brush fibres react under different pressures, and how much green he needs to add to get the colour he wants. he studied how light works. he found what textures rested easily on the eye. he also needed to find what worked for him, specifically. rather than just saying to himself, "picasso used oil colours, so that's what i need to do to be a good artist," ross needed to find what tools suited him; what brushes made sense in his fingers, what types of paint he understood.
even after learning all those skills, a brilliant picture doesn't just miraculously appear because alex ross is good at painting. he needs to use those skills and actually do the painting bit. then the miracle happens.
when an improviser heads up on stage, they do it armed with tools. they have things they have worked on that help them, skills that they've developed. they don't just walk out thinking they're funny and everything will be alright, that's called arrogance and arrogance has a very limited shelf-life in improvisation. first there are basic skills that help create successful improv, and then there is the relentless development of those rules to encourage better performances.
note my language here. at no point am i suggesting that anything guarantees a successful improvised performance. you can work on your skill until you're red in the face and your skin is falling off with physical and mental tiredness, but never at any point does this provide you with any certainty. alex ross still has to use an eraser every now and again. neil gaiman has to go back and re-write the odd paragraph. (so. many. geeky. references.)
people often say that if you put ten thousand hours into anything, you become an expert. after 10,000 hours of practice, you should be really very bloody good at something. painting, acting, piloting a plane; with a little bit of natural ability and 600,000 minutes of your time you should be brilliant. by my calculations, if you put a fair amount of time into impro each week - if you attend loads of workshops, shows, rehearsals, practice sessions etc. 10 thousand hours happens after about 8-10 years.
but even then, there's no way you can be absolutely certain that you're going to alley-oop yourself on to stage and provide the best thing an audience has ever seen. i've seen some of the best improvisers in the country lose their way in a show, fall out of a scene, resort to cliche.
and that's the joy. that's the humanity. as the troubadour says, it's a highwire act. part of the theatre of impro isn't the guarantee that what you're seeing is the best comedy act of all time, ever, but that the performers could fail at any point. they could be the best improvisers in the world, but still they're jumping in front of the audience's headlights and playing chicken with their expectations.
the same joy extends to the performers themselves. the reason we aren't doing plays or sketch-comedy, the reason we're absolutely not going up with pre-decided skits, plans, characters... is because it wouldn't be fun for us. it would be pointless. you wouldn't feel satisfied with the job you've done. it'd be like popping into a newsagent and seeing the magazine cover you designed, and suddenly realising you completely forgot to fill in the back section of megan fox's coat. you haven't done enough. you've been lazy. what you should've done is pasted a breeze-block over her bland fucking face.
as an improviser you have a responsibility to the audience. no improv performer wants to provide a paying member of the public with a half-arsed show. but the responsibility doesn't extend to 'planning the funny' in advance, it is about preparing yourself to find the funny once you're up there. anything else is dishonesty. and taking public money and pumping it into dishonesty is reserved for other types of people.
improvisers love that they're going up on stage without knowing what's going to happen. so that's what they do. i could go up onto stage with the best idea i've ever had emblazoned on my chest beneath my shirt. i could go up onto stage and tear it open to reveal the funniest set-up for any joke ever, guaranteed to kill the audience with mirth-power like some sort of super-human comedy machine... but then all i'd need to do is just call myself a 'sketch comedian' and... well, i'd probably get bigger audiences actually.
but i wouldn't have as much fun. and i'd have to sit down and learn a script (urgh).