Why agreeing in improv is so much better than arguing

I have an improv confession: I’m an arguer.

I have a bad, albeit common, habit of reacting to offers by protesting, taking an opposite point of view of someone in the scene, or otherwise introducing conflict.

Arguing is different from — and maybe more insidious than — straight-up denial, which is usually called out quickly. You can be an arguer for much longer than a denier because arguing doesn’t seem like a violation of “the rules;” because it’s often an honest reaction to an offer; and because conflict can lead to great scenes (given the right context and improvisers).

But I want to stop arguing, or at least learn to argue less. After a bunch of recent arguing scenes and a workshop with Michael McFarland that focused on agreement, I finally get why agreement opens so many more possibilities than argument* — and turns your scene partner’s offer into a gift of an endowment.

Consider a scene I was in this week. My scene partner handed me a putter and a mini golf ball. Told me to go ahead and putt.

Then he put a gun to my head.

My character freaked out — and boy did I commit to freaking out! I even remembered to establish a relationship (“Uncle Tim, this is NOT why I came to visit you!”).

Then not much else happened.

How did we go from such a brilliant offer — the kind of inspired, so-random-he-couldn’t-have-planned-it choice that makes improv scenes so great — to such a not-great (if not-terrible) scene? I didn’t do anything “wrong.” I reacted in an honest way (wouldn’t you freak out at a gun to the head?); I established a relationship; I didn’t deny (no “Uncle Tim, why are you pointing a banana at me?”).

The problem with arguing is it usually represents a normal, average, rational person’s normal, average, rational reaction. But the average person is boring! So taking the average person’s perspective in an improv scene greatly increases the chance that the scene will be boring.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore characters for whom the irrational (to us average folks) is the normal reaction?

The key is to expand our notion of what “reacting honestly” means. In the mini golf scene, I was reacting honestly as someone who would get freaked out when a gun is pointed at them at a mini golf game — i.e., as an average person. But what if I reacted honestly as someone who doesn’t get freaked out by this? Think of the kind of characters that agreement would have opened up:

  • Danger-seeking golfer trying out a new motivational strategy
  • Dad so bored of suburban life that he gets his kicks from taking life-threatening risks at children’s activities
  • Colleagues at some job that holds life-threatening activities at  orientation/retreats

The details would have emerged organically. I could have even accepted reluctantly (golfer whose career is on the skids and will try anything to get back on top, even if he’s wary). But at that point, the details are ancillary — the character is already established and emphatically not-boring, simply by accepting the offer!

In other words, agreeing with an offer that your first instinct is to argue with is like getting an endowment for free.

Meantime, arguing instead of agreeing is like an anti-endowment, an anti-deal. The deal of a character who argues “I oppose a gun to my head”  is simply “I don’t want to die.” But that kind of deal — or common argumentative-reaction deals like “I’m unhappy that you cheated on me,” “I AM good at X,” “I don’t want to be fired,” etc. – is often a dead end because it’s a basic, inherent deal of every rational person on the planet. Common, everyday human deals are boring and don’t define characters.

Arguing also leads to:

  • Standoff scenes that are like watching bulls butt heads, as McFarland put it (possibly quoting someone else?).
  • Scenes that get stuck on plot details because one character argues against doing something that the other character suggests.
    • I think of these as tip-the-cow scenes: Another recent scene I was in featured a character inviting her grandson’s fiancee to tip a cow as a family initiation, and the grandson and fiancee resisting. To which Mikael Johnson, who was coaching that practice, said: “Just tip the cow!!!” The scene would have been much better if the grandson and fiancee accepted the offer because people who happily participate in cow-tipping family rituals are bound to be more interesting than those who think such rituals are odd.

As with everything in improv, understanding something is much different than successfully and routinely doing it. But I hope I can start to be more of an agree-er and less of an arguer.

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