Stop all the arguing (but if you do, make it loud)

By Aaron Mondry

Don't argue.

Along with "don't ask questions," this is one of the more common "rules" of improv. (I put rules in quotations because, as all improvisors eventually discover, these are more suggestions than directives -- rules of thumb that have proven successful in countless scenes and which newer improvisers are encouraged to master.)

Despite this adage, I've seen many hilarious scenes where people argue. There's energy, conflict, emotion -- things that often aid a scene. But arguing often comes from a place of fear or unease, an inability to accept gifts, and a combative attitude. Arguing can be a subtle form of denial that causes scenes to get bogged down in definitions, opinions, and things unrelated to the people themselves.

Let's look at an example of a scene that can easily stray into tedious argument.

A: "I can't believe you collect stamps. That's so lame."
B: "No it's not. Stamps are cool."

The most likely outcome from these two initial lines is an argument about whether or not stamps are cool. If it followed that track, they'd continually talk about stamps and never get to the meat of their relationship.

It's understandable that arguing happens so often in improv (and why I do it so often myself). When you get called lame in real life, you reflexively want to reject that description. It's human nature for people to defend themselves when their character is attacked, so it makes sense that they'd do the same as a character.

But it's not as funny. I'd much rather watch a scene that went like this:

A: "I can't believe you collect stamps. That's so lame."
B: "I know. I hope I never make any friends at this school. I don't even like stamps."

In this scenario, B chooses to accept A's gift and own an odd trait -- the desire to be lame. We can imagine countless funny ways this scene could go. B reveals he does his homework, kisses him mom when she drops him off, keeps a tiny vial of urine in his pocket so he can periodically make himself smell worse throughout the day. We find out A wants to be friends with B and gets rebuffed ("I'm sorry, I can't hang out with someone that wants to be my friend"). The whole school suddenly thinks stamp collecting is cool and B's plan backfires.

And it all arose from the instinct to agreement, even (especially) when our scene partner describes us in a way we'd normally recoil from. If, in a scene, someone describes you as cruel, promiscuous, boring, or greedy, don't argue with them -- OWN that trait. You'll have created an instant, original character.

A: "You're a monster."
B: "It's true, I like seeing others suffer."

There's a lot of potential humor in B's unrepentant, sadistic character (especially if you tend to go dark, like me).

Is it ever okay to argue in improv?

Yes, of course. Like I said in the intro, arguments can still be hilarious. Scenes can work even when people argue about the best action movie of the last decade or whether tacos are a sandwich. They just require a great deal of wit, which is not a skill everyone can access.

So if you find yourself in that situation, don't fret. I find arguments work most frequently when the improvisors make everything as important and emotionally impactful as possible. For example:

A: "You don't love me anymore."
B: "Yes I do! I'll do anything to prove it!"
A: "Okay. Clean the kitchen floor."
B: "Baby, be reasonable."

If you're in a troupe or class that finds itself arguing too much, a great way to break the habit is through the exercise "Goalie." One player stands across from line of improvisors fielding "shots." Each improvisor in the line steps forward, delivers an initiation line, and the goalie says one line back. In this version, the shooters accuse the goalie of something, and the goalie fully accepts it without shame.

Shooter: "You're going to the casino again? You have a gambling problem."
Goalie: "All the money I ever got was through luck and I'm not gonna stop now."

I'll sometimes give myself a single intention before shows, like "go to your environment" or "lead with an emotion." If you find yourself arguing a lot in scenes, tell yourself before going onstage that no matter what, you won't argue.

And if you do argue, it's no big deal.


Aaron Mondry is an improvisor, freelance writer, and managing editor of Model D.

Posted on March 2, 2017 .