It’s hard to say without seeing what they see. But, I assume it’s one of two things…
Option 1: An issue of pure commitment. You’re not committing fully to the reality of the scene you’re in, and thus not really heightening them fully. If it’s that, then really what you need to do is make sure you play to the top of your intelligence and let the game affect you, especially emotionally.
Option 2: That you’re literally bailing on the ideas that you are setting up. This, based on the way you asked the question, seems the more likely option of the two. This happens all the time (especially with students around the 301/401 level.) I think this, like so many things, is fear based. People will find something they think could be funny, could be a fun game to play, but then they get cold feet and don’t go all in on what they find funny about it, either because they think it isn’t enough to base a scene on or they don’t want to steamroll their scene partner or whatever. If this is the case, then I think all you need to do is, in every scene, ask yourself “What do I think is funny about this scene?” Whatever the answer is, is your game. And then spend the rest of the scene SHOWING why it’s funny.
Since I’ve started teaching again, I’ve mainly only taught Advanced Study. And the thing I’ve noticed most is that people are seemingly TERRIFIED of being funny. I think this comes from all those classes where we tell students “Don’t try to be funny!” and “Don’t force the funny thing!” We say that because in 101, 50% of the students enter the class filled with pure terror and the other 50% feels the need to make a joke with every line. For that 2nd 50%, we need to get that jokiness out of them. But at a certain point in your improv “career”, you need to give yourself permission to be funny. Every game you play should be something that YOU find funny. Otherwise, what’s the point? Look at the improvisers you admire, and they always show you what they think is funny about the scene they’re in. So if you’re not committing to your ideas, that probably means that your teachers/coaches see you coming up with good ideas, but then abandoning them to either play something else or to try to find something new. And the simplest way to deal with that is to just trust yourself. I don’t want to watch a bunch of identical improv robots, I want to see people do what they, individually find funny… that’s what makes Zach Woods and Becky Drysdale and Drew Tarver all great improvisers, but also spectacularly different… they find different things funny and show that in their work.
Also, I find it funny that the VAST majority of these questions were asked by anonymous people… as if discussing improv were akin to asking super embarrassing Loveline questions.
The CliffsNotes version is that you need to add information and you need to be affected by what’s happening in the scene. The straight man character isn’t there just to be a stick in the mud and shut things down nor is she there to just be a sounding board for the unusual one to bounce their weird thing off of. Investing in emotion and real reaction while also adding new information throughout the scene pushes the game forward.
I’d also caution against the “throwing softballs” idea. You can set your scene partner up, sure, but the best game moves are the ones you don’t see coming, the surprises. So, to that end, you can’t make it too easy for your scene partner to make game moves, because the audience will be ahead of you. The example I always give is that it’s awesome when you can dunk a basketball, but no one is impressed if you say you’re going to dunk, and then someone runs out on court and sets up a ladder while you cautiously climb it to gently deposit the ball in the hoop. Same thing in improv… we want to see people take chances and pull it off, not do the easiest move possible. So, if I’m playing a game where I have an irrational hatred of fish, the softball move would be to tag someone out and set me on a boat in the ocean. Sure, a fine scene can come of that. But I’m more interested in the tag that takes me to the middle of a desert. How will I play the game there? I don’t know. And neither does the audience. And that makes it more interesting.
And yep, the straight man character should always be a fully formed character. She should be someone that you could see in her own scene, away from the “weird one” and still get a fun scene out of it. To me, every character you play should be like a real person in that in some situations they can be the normal one, and in other situations they can be the unusual one. If your straight man character doesn’t have anything distinct, specific or unique about them, then they’re boring. If your unusual character couldn’t be put in a situation where they behave perfectly normally, then you’re playing a broad cartoon.