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 conflicted (pun not intended…) about not being “allowed” to argue in improv scenes, and wonder if we’re missing an opportunity to expand the medium when we enforce the rule “No arguing!” Rather than finding a way to help me and my scene partners make these arguments WORK - giving us an eloquent vocabulary to enrich them - we are stopped/noted and told how we should have done the scene without the conflict.
I can’t help but feel like my specific brand of comedy may have been inhibited by some of those more elementary rules in my training. I’m not saying that I haven’t had some exquisite training overall, I have worked with some of the best comedians in the city - perhaps in the country - and for that I am so deeply grateful. But, I do wonder to myself if we’re missing something here.
Now, this may very well be a cultural conundrum. And on one hand I should probably leave it at that… EXCEPT that, on my Tumblr feed, over and over, I see students struggling with the question of arguing in scenes and I can’t help but feel like there is a subsequent black-comedy hole in our system.
So, what to do? What if, rather than encouraging students to avoid arguing in scenes and noting them negatively when they do, we try something different. What if we push them deeper into it? Force them into arguing scenes, deconstructing them to understand the anatomy of the comedic fight?
I’ve always found it interesting that American audience loves English comedy. So much so that they frequently remake them for American network television. The irony is, however, that in the process of translation the vein of the sado-masochistic battle (an integral part to all British humor), along with it’s usually unlikeable lead characters, is ultimately watered down in an attempt to be more “appealing” to audiences. Which seems to me to mirror the problem in improv.
I wonder if students aren’t only leaning on argument out of inexperience but also out of mimicry - afterall, if my favorite kind of comedy is dark and nasty won’t I be more inclined to repeat that in my own scenes?
As a sidebar, conflict in comedy is not actually a purely anglo theme. Think about some of the classic American comedies and comedians: Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, George Carlin, Tweetie and Sylvester, or Tom and Jerry… Even a few current American comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Party Down [EDIT: ANNNDDD as downrightupright was right to remind me Curb Your Enthusiasm!] - the characters in those shows are all gross and unlikeable AND EXTREMELY FUNNY.
I totally get that for the beginner improviser there have to be some basic guidelines. Afterall, Picasso and Monet most definitely started out doing charcoal skethes of spheres and cubes before they went on to create their masterpieces. But, my concern, having been through the improv system a wee bit, is that there’s a huge wing of comedy getting passed over and it’d be great - if even selfishly - if we could find a way to make arguing acceptable.
But, that’s just me. I like to argue. I like to watch people argue. And my all-time favorite comedic characters are Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers) and the highly foul Jill Tyrell (Nighty Night) who do nothing BUT argue. So. Please feel free to argue with me on this point. I’ll probably get a great big, caustic, and twisted kick out of it.
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- khealywu said: However, I am told not to argue regularly, and I really like English comedic sensibilities. In general, I think arguing well in improv scenes is a skill that needs to be learned.
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