As an English person, my whole, entire, comedic-backbone is forged on conflict and argument (please refer to Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, Monty Python, Only fools and Horses, Absolutely Fabulous, Nighty Night, YOU NAME IT!). I have been told I have a “caustic” sense of humor.
I have always felt…
Angela, I agree that arguments are not in any way particular to English humor. In fact, most 101-301 students start with arguments, and the whole creation of “Yes, and” was in response to an argumentative reply (“If you had just said yes, here is the spare tire” or whatever it is mentioned in Truth in Comedy). We are all used to the classic “oh no there is a problem” style of comedy, and when it is two people speaking, the easiest problem to go to is often an argument or a negation. So improvisers often settle on an argument, do them badly, and then get told “don’t do that.”
Arguments are great in improv. However, they must be done in a very specific way: All improvisors must, while arguing, add information. It is surprisingly easy to lose track of that. What makes many of the argument scenes in Python or Fawlty Towers so great is that they never rest on one idea. Each line adds a new wrinkle to the argument.
Improvisors must argue, but never disagree.
We are weaned away from arguments as improvisors at first because it is hard enough to actually have your characters agree and add information at the same time. It is twice as hard to make them disagree and still add information.
(Related: See my previous post: Arguments are Stateless Conversations)
In other words, when you agree with someone, it is fairly clear when you are not adding information:
A: “I am going to make a cake.”
B: “Yes, you are.”
It’s fairly clear that there is no information, no “and,” to that response. In an argumentative reply, there are two possible problems that come up.
Problems with Arguments:
1) No “and”
A: ”I am going to make a cake.”
B: “Good luck with that.”
On the page, this is clearly not adding information. However, imagine yourself saying B’s response. It would be easy to feel that this is adding something, right? Maybe you’d say it with a certain tone of voice, or as a certain character, and you may get a response from the audience. But you are adding nothing, and A will have to do what you failed to: add information.
This calls back to the idea of arguments as stateless conversations. In an argument, the impulse is to respond to the previous thing said. In an improv scene, this is death. You are destroying everything you built earlier for the sake of the last piece laid.
A: “I am going to make a cake.”
B: “Your cakes suck.”
Think about how A would likely respond here. The impulse for A is, no doubt, to say “No, they don’t.” Now A is no longer adding information, but instead both negating what B said (do his cakes suck?) and abandoning what he said earlier (it is unlikely that A will get around to making that cake.). B’s response will be purely in response to A’s “No, they don’t,” et cetera.
These are shitty arguments.
Good arguments a) add information with every line and b) agree about the base reality. In this case, with the cake argument, each line should further specify a) how the cakes suck (“Your cakes try too hard to be gourmet. The last one had salmon in it.”) or, even better, get at why A is bad at making cakes (“You don’t have enough patience to make cakes. You normally take them out before they’re even done cooking.”) and b) both players should know whether A is actually bad at making cakes. If they don’t agree on that base reality, they won’t know what to add to. (If A is actually bad at making cakes, A & B’s lines should emphasize how bad A is: even A’s defense of his baking will add information about A’s inability to bake good cakes. If A is NOT actually bad at making cakes, then lines should emphasize B’s problem [overly critical, whatever]. But if A & B don’t agree, they’re going to go in both directions at once, and never meet.)
So, arguments: Not bad. Just slightly harder to do well. That doesn’t mean don’t do them. Tennis scenes are hard to do well also. (Seriously. Try one. You’re focusing on so much other stuff that you lose track of basic improv skills.) When a coach/teacher says “don’t argue,” what he/she actually means is “don’t argue without adding information and agreeing.” It’s easier, however, to just say “don’t argue.”
Now, back to your original statement, Angela, about arguments being basic to English humor. I don’t completely buy it. Think about Monty Python. Characters do argue in some Monty Python sketches, but most of the time they don’t. There will frequently will be a voice of reason/straight man, pointing out the insanity, but that character normally doesn’t argue with that insanity, instead wearily going along with it. In most Python sketches, everyone is on the same page. (In the lumberjack sketch, no one says “you shouldn’t be a barber or a lumberjack.” Palin just goes about his job, doing it badly, and Terry Jones reacts. The actual argument is 3 lines, in the middle, and is quickly squashed by Palin saying how he actually feels: he wants to be a lumberjack.) In Ab Fab, Eddy and Saffy (or Patty and Saffy) will insult each other, but never disagree with the insults (as would happen in a typical argument). If Saffron insults Patty on drinking too much and sleeping around, Patty insults Saffron for not drinking and sleeping around. She never disagrees with what Saffron says. (And, the arguing isn’t the big part of what makes Ab Fab great; rather the fun part is each character playing her character game to the utmost, not just the arguing.)
By the way, I love arguing in scenes. Especially with Ben Whitehouse, because I know he will react to whatever I say, heighten what my character is complaining about, and then gift me back something in the form of a complaint. (“Well, you didn’t need to write a review in the NYTimes about how bad my cake was!”)