The next addition to the ImprovDr “Game Library” is connected to this week’s concept of Accusations. I first encountered this talk-show inspired game called Point/Counterpoint during my time at Walt Disney World’s Comedy Warehouse.
This game features three players. One assumes the role of the host and adjudicator, while the other two are pundits appearing on the show. Prior to the scene, the host (or perhaps your emcee or another company member) gathers a list of five random objects or topics – the more benign and less overtly political the better. The host then introduces the scene and their two guests, each taking a moment to quickly identify themselves and establish a general point of view or leaning on the political scale. One at a time, the host introduces the audience-elicited topics, and the pundits each take a turn at strongly arguing their “pro” or “con” stance. This typically continues until all five ask-fors have been utilized and the show is wrapped up.
Host: “And welcome back to Point/Counterpoint where we take on the hot button issues that are on everyone’s mind. I’m excited to have two very special guests joining me on the show tonight. Please take a moment to introduce yourselves.”
Player A: “It’s my pleasure to be here again! I’m Hank Rightman, author of Looking for the Rightman for the Job, and amateur dog-walker.”
Player B: “Thanks for having me on the show. I’m Dr. Connie Spiracy, and I haven’t drank out of a plastic bottle since I was eight.”
Host: “So glad to have you both here. Let’s get right to the issues of the day… (reading from the audience list of suggestions) Cucumbers. Everybody is talking about them.”
Player A: “Oooh, don’t get me started on Cucumbers. They are clearly a waste of space better used for development. So few calories, so little taste, and yet I’m sure your other guest will insist they need a slice for their water.”
Player B: “Look, I’m clearly pro-cucumber and have made my stance abundantly clear. We need to stop chasing ‘new’ foods that leave huge carbon footprints and, instead, embrace the great foods that are local – after all, nothing is cooler than a cucumber. And yes, I’d love a slice of cucumber for my water if you’re offering…”
I’ve partnered this game with the concept of Accusations as playful attacks between the guests over trivial content is much of the fun of the game and intensifies the underlying satire. Strong points of view on the parts of the guests are critical as they provide a frame through which the various random subjects can be filtered appropriately. The host serves essentially as a referee, although they should strive to heighten the energy rather than quell it. This role is certainly a great place to explore character too, but remember that attention should primarily reside on the two competing guests.
Traps and Tips
1.) Trivial topics help. The political frame of the piece is deliberate and dynamic, but the game can quickly start to feel icky or too “on the nose” if truly divisive issues are offered up. The sillier the prompts, the better. To this end, it can be helpful for the host or player facilitating the elicitation of these ask-fors to request items for benign categories, such as articles of clothing, childhood toys, states or pastimes. It may be advisable to elicit this list before even defining the pending game for the audience so as to keep the field of possible topics as open as possible. It’s also helpful for the host to quickly “rank” the answers, leaving the item with the most comedic or dynamic payoff for the final topic of conversation.
2.) Assume a clear “pro” or “con” stance. The guests need not always speak in the same order (it’s typically better to allow whoever has an angle brewing to go first) but it is generally helpful for players to clearly establish whether they are “pro” or “con” the subject. Often the game may evolve so that the same guest always falls on the same side regardless of the issue, but you can also change it up if that’s where the most promising material resides. As is the case with all patterns, there can be great joy in strategically breaking the routine, and I’ve seen the game successfully end with the guests unexpectedly finding consensus, usually for the last item. Just let the arc develop organically.
3.) Characterization is a great gateway to content. This format can tend to privilege quick wit and word play which may not be your innate strength as a player. Having a strong energy and point of view as a guest goes a long way to help in this regard as you can always lean on your character if a clever angle isn’t quickly coming to mind. Some good-natured sparring between guests can help build energy as well. And if the muse isn’t visiting either guest, the host can elect to quickly move over an item: there’s no need for each topic to receive equal treatment and it’s fine not to get to all five topics if you’re finding fun fireworks with just a handful.
4.) Embrace the style and satire. This game is a great vehicle for satirizing the echo chamber of talk shows and pundits who can and will disagree on anything. Typically, the guests will take on positions that clearly reflect exaggerated “right” and “left” personalities. It may take a while to find the right tone in rehearsals as the game can feel a bit mean-spirited if it becomes one-sided or tackles current issues in unnuanced ways. It seems to play best when improvisers fully embrace the tropes of political discourse while keeping their content firmly in the land of the trivial, allowing the audience to make their own connections and judgments.
This game requires a little practice and finesse and can feel a little like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool as an improviser if it’s a new addition to your repertory. An attentive and generous host goes a long way to help steer the debate from topic to topic in a timely fashion, and I’d reiterate my advice to unapologetically discard any topics that might not set the guests up for playfulness. There’s enough ugly politicking in the world without us needlessly recreating it on the stage.
Connected Concept: Accusation