In Your Real, Nonvirtual Face
Bughouse! offers live topical debates for fun and (hopefully) enlightenment
In a time when public discourse usually takes place through social media shouting matches, a new local show is instead encouraging people to engage each other onstage, before a live audience. Bughouse!, an interactive show that blends comic, dialectic discussion with storytelling elements, debuted in April at the Bunkhouse Saloon, where it now runs once a month.
Co-founders Don Hall and David Himmel conceived the show in Chicago in 2017, under the banner of their digital magazine Literate Ape after concluding that people too often base their arguments on emotion rather than logic.
“We kind of hit on the idea that nobody knows how to argue anymore, everybody wants to just scream at each other,” Hall says. “There’s no persuasion going on.” The show also derives inspiration from Chicago’s Washington Square Park — better known as Bughouse Square — a popular free-speech zone for more than a century. Hall, a longtime figure in Chicago’s live literature scene and former host of the city’s Moth Story Slam, brought Bughouse! with him when he moved to Las Vegas earlier this year. (Himmel maintains the show in Chicago.)
Bughouse! features three pairs of contestants, typically local writers, comedians, and musicians. Each pair is assigned a topic from one of three categories (which Hall describes as political, cultural, and dumb), with one taking the pro, the other the con — regardless of whether they agree with the argument they’ve been given. Contestants have three weeks to research and refine their arguments; onstage they have seven minutes to make their case. Hall chooses a judge from the audience to decide who has the best argument for each round and walks away with a free drink or cash. Every 75-minute show is recorded and uploaded to the magazine’s website as a podcast.
It’s more than just arguing, Hall says. Performers also interweave their personal stories into their presentations. “What I discovered in Chicago is what I want (for) Las Vegas citizens,” Hall says. “That their stories matter.”
“It’s not like the town is short on entertainment,” says Himmel, who used to live and work in Vegas as an oldies radio deejay and freelance writer, “but here’s some entertainment that requires some participation and requires us to think.”
For the debut, participants argued over whether political correctness is regressive or progressive, whether tattoos are trash or art, and whether social media has made people more narcissistic. Michael Berson, a friend of Hall’s and Las Vegas resident of five years, argued that political correctness is regressive, although he personally disagrees with that view. “I think a show like this makes you think,” Berson, 49, says. “It makes you question things you’ve never thought about.”
Besides encouraging people to be more open-minded, Hall believes that assigning participants opposing viewpoints can help them strengthen their own beliefs: “If you can argue the point of your enemy, then you can argue your point better.”
For those looking to participate in the show, Hall only requires that participants be able to write out their arguments, engage with the audience, and at least show a willingness to try. “Ultimately the thing about Bughouse! is, if you’re willing to do it, or at least you think you can do it ... you probably can.”