“And all we need from you is a suggestion of…”
Those words start a majority of improv shows in one variation or another.
A panel at the upcoming Improv Wins conference will take on the debate over the efficacy of taking suggestions at the beginning of an improv show. In advance of that discussion I wanted to share a couple of my thoughts on this common invocation.
Above is a photograph of a performer I admire named Rush. He has been doing one comedy show for better than 20 years that centers on him eating mud. The show doesn’t change, but damn if it isn’t still popular. Mud eating is raw, stupid, powerful, & crowd pleasing. In that picture a young lady has been brought onto the mudpit stage to fulfill an audience participation role. You see, I am a big fan of audience participation. I performed at renaissance festivals growing up, so the idea of the show’s patrons having a role in the spectacle is something with which I am quite comfortable. However, I contend that most improv shows do not need audience participation and that it is actually hazardous to the art we practice.
I think of our art as occupying a tension between rock shows, performance art, theatre, and sideshow. But I also think that essential, critical, crucial to this art is the desire of an audience member to find themselves on stage and be part of the magic being created. The power of this desire is destroyed by actual participation.
Of course a lot of shortform, and the very occasional longform show, involves direct audience participation. An audience member is brought up on stage to giggle or be nervous or attempt something akin to what the improvisers are doing. The audience member might be put in the scene or asked to spur along the action. For us, as improvisers, this is a no win situation. Either the participant will look inept, making them not enjoy themselves or seem foolish to the rest of the audience, or they’ll be able to effortlessly perform the same tasks as a trained improviser. The second scenario is actually worse than the first, as then you’ve essentially proven that the performers on stage have no skill or qualification beyond simply being the people up there. Hopefully, we all have more respect for our art than that. Some shows are a gimmick and we know it: they’re not our attempt at the art of improv, they’re our other sideshow-like efforts at entertainment. But for the zenith of what we aspire to, audience participation is counterproductive.
A suggestion is essentially an outlet for audience participation.
On tour recently I saw a lot of shows with multiple suggestions: forms where after a scene or two the improvisers went back to the audience for more information. “For this next scene we need a lyric from a pop song”, “Ok, where else could we see these characters?”, or “The next suggestion from the audience’s list is ‘Berserker’!” are the kinds of statements that change longform/scenic improv from one thing to another. In my opinion that sort of thing blurs the line between shortform and longform. By taking emphasis away from a scene, or set of scenes, as a comedic work of art and instead putting the emphasis on integrating the audiences’ ideas you establish a “game”, thereby creating a kind of longer-shortform where the scene’s primary purpose is to reference, not create.
In general, I usually say that a suggestion only has two roles in longform improv. The first is to “prove” to the audience that the work they’re seeing isn’t scripted or rehearsed.1
But why do we need the audience to understand that an improv show is in fact improvised? What do we fear about them potentially believing that what we’re doing could be comparable to other types of theater or stand up comedy? It is my belief that most improvisers are insecure about what they’re doing and often are trying to beg the audience’s indulgence. We are making them culpable by saying “I asked you to shout out something clever, and the best you could come up with was ‘Unicorn’ so don’t judge me if I can’t make up something more witty than what you’re about to see. After all, all I have to work with is your silly suggestion.” In Zen and the Art of Improv, Jason Chin points out that improv, like home movies, is a mostly amateurish entertainment watched almost exclusively by well-wishing family and friends. Of course, we all want it to rise far above that! I believe that good improv is as good as stand up, scripted sketch or theater. Furthermore, I believe that audiences are savvy enough to understand what “improv” is, or to ask if they don’t. However, if you fear an audience member saying “For something scripted, that really blew!” and you think it would be better if they said “Sure, that show was a bit long-winded, boring, and low-brow but, hey, they made it all up just off the cuff!” I would ask you to reconsider your standards. If what we do is inferior to theater or scripted comedy unless everyone is SURE it’s just make-um’ ups, then we’re doing inferior work.
The second major defense for the suggestion is that the improvisers need a suggestion to provide them with enough information to create a scene. This argument is essentially that our brains are empty enough that scenes can only take place if a word or idea, from outside of the improvisers themselves, starts the gears turning. That idea is patently false and easy to disprove by how little most suggestions get used in the majority of improv shows. 2 Gathering information as a start to a scene or piece is a useful thing to do only if the improvisers at hand truly intend to focus all of their attention on exploding the possible interpretations and meanings of their given theme. If, on the other hand, the group improvising can admit to the truth that most improv pieces comprise their own world, mystically, as the piece goes on, they shouldn’t be tethered to the demands of a pre-established theme.
There are two kinds of shows then: one where exploring given information is the point of the piece (as in Armandos, Megaphones, Asscats, and many Harolds 3) and another kind of show where spontaneous theater is developing between the players on stage out of some sharing of their particular experience and soul. A suggestion does nothing but hinder a group, or form, whose sole aim is not exploration of information.
Again, we do many things in improv communities and there are many types of shows and experiments that we put together. But, in my opinion, when I want to represent the highest form of what improv can be or explain to someone what “improv is” the idea of an audience suggestion is not going to come up. It is not a significant part of what I believe the most challenging and inspiring improv can be. Improv is about a palpable experience of two or more people exploring each other’s minds in the moment on stage together. It is about a strange kind of co-dreaming in which we can indulge and inspire others to desperately wish to join in. It is about the tension between the stage and the moment the audience shares watching the stage. Most times, I just don’t want it to be about “Unicorn.”
- That is why the famous opening of TJ & Dave shows has an antagonistic bent: “Trust Us This is All Made Up” is a phrase which tells the audience to just calm down. Since the audience came to see a spontaneously made up show, they’re surely seeing one, and there’s no need for a suggestion as long as they are willing to trust a little. ↩
- If the suggestion “Carrot” only yields someone eating a carrot in the first scene and then in a later scene a carrot farmer is upset about his crops, I feel cheated frankly. If information is asked for the resulting information should comprise the fulcrum of the show. “Carrot” should give us a gold market (i.e. karat), a bargaining scene with a character who switches between incentives and threats erratically, a punctuation enthusiast always trying to interject something into a sentence, and Bugs Bunny at a minimum. ↩
- These are improv show structures that traditionally rely heavily on information generated from audience or outside monologues or special openings that create a wealth of shared information from suggestions. Of course there are many more and they’re all legitimate and fun. I am merely pointing out that not all longform shows have this structure, even if they retain the vestigial tail of an opening suggestion. ↩