Some of the best improvisers I know have the tiniest egos.
In his Second City boot camp classes, Michael Gellman teaches you first to focus out. iO theory teaches you to treat others like geniuses and artists. Even Annoyance theory, which insists that you take care of yourself first, isn't encouraging ego—it encourages confidence, and making sure you contribute to the scene.
This was all reinforced recently, when I saw TJ & Dave in their new documentary "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up." (Which, I can tell you, you will get more out of every time you watch it.) They heap praise on each other, and can't believe their good fortune in performing with someone as talented as their scene partner.
Talk to anyone who's studied in Chicago, and they'll tell you it's the students and the improvisers clawing their way to the top who are the snotty assholes who won't talk to newbies. The experienced players—the ones you go there to watch or study with—are the kindest, most gracious ones.
It's kind of funny to watch improvisers thrown into Hollywood. Watch Tina Fey or Steve Carell or Jack McBrayer on an awards or talk show. The only time they show any ego is when they're in character.
Look at the leaders in our own community and you'll see the same thing. They're holding themselves to the highest standard—and they're their own harshest and most vocal critics when they don't reach it. They're modest to a fault—getting them to promote their own shows is like pulling teeth, because they hate the idea of bugging people to come watch them. Civilians are surprised to hear that the funniest improvisers are typically introverts—in both the usual understanding of the word (shy and self-conscious) and by the Myers-Briggs definition (being around others, especially as the center of attention, exhausts them).
Why do I find this so crazily appealing, or feel the need to write about it?
Maybe it's realizing the folks I have the most fun with are the ones who still, after all these years, are the most excited about learning new things. Or because I was lucky enough to spend the night hanging out with the ladies of Olive Juice at the Roving Imp—where generosity of spirit oozes out of the walls. Maybe it's because of my Christian upbringing (pride is one of the big sins). Or coming of age in the modest, self-deprecating Midwest.
Or maybe it's because I struggle with ego. You have to be confident enough to get on stage—but not so confident you irritate the fuck out of everyone around you. Bold enough to ask people to come see you—but not cocky enough that you take it for granted. Self-aware enough to know you have some talent—and to be realistic about how much (or how little).
It's a fine line, and not an easy one to walk.