Escalating War

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"Of course you realize, this means war!"

"He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!"

Jim Malone, The Untouchables

In a sitcom, one character does something slightly bothersome to another. The other retaliates, but goes the first character one better; which the first character tries to top; and so on for the remainder of the episode. At some points it will enlarge with scary speed, in which Disproportionate Retribution is in effect.

Specific variant: Truth-Telling Session. Compare to Zany Scheme Chicken. Cycle of Revenge is the noncomedic and often bloody version of this trope. Not to be confused with Lensman Arms Race.

Examples of Escalating War include:

Anime and Manga

  • The box war episode of Rozen Maiden.
  • In Maison Ikkoku, new tenant Nikaido says insulting things about the other tenants, leading to a prank war between him and Yotsuya.
  • In Patlabor, The Seven Days of Fire, a civil war between the labor mechanics at Special Vehicles section 2.

Comic Books

  • In the comic book and various adaptations thereof, Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm of The Fantastic Four are involved in an ongoing escalating prank war with each other.
  • Ditto with the Human Torch and Spider-Man. Johnny usually ends up the worse of the pair in these confrontations, thanks to Pete's Spider Sense.
  • Occasionally happens in Donald Duck comics, between Donald and his neighbour.


  • Donald Duck and Daffy Duck's (attempted) duet in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
  • A common occurrence in Laurel and Hardy films. "Big Business", for example, is an Escalating War between Stan and Ollie on the one hand, and James Finlayson on the other. There are also variants in which more and more people get dragged in as the conflict escalates, such as the rice fight at the end of "The Hoose-Gow".
  • The entire point of Changing Lanes until the Conflict Killer rears his head.
  • Octopussy: Orlov's plan to invade Western Europe is villified by the Politburo. Gogol and another official state that the Soviet military is for defending the Motherland.
  • The entire plot of Penn and Teller Get Killed revolves around Penn & Teller subjecting each other to a series of escalating practical jokes which eventually causes Teller to shoot Penn and himself.
  • The plot of the movie Tin Men revolves around this after two aluminum siding salesman have a fender bender, and subsequently escalates to taking bats to each other's cars, seducing the other guy's wife, and breaking into his house.
  • Bride Wars had the two friends sabotage each others weddings from sabotaging a dye job until it escalates into having a embarrassing slide show done on the wedding day.
  • Neighbours, Norman McLaren's Oscar-winning short film for the National Film Board of Canada, takes this to a disturbing (and not at all humorous) level, which combines with a bizarre type of Stop Motion using live actors. Watch it here.
  • This is the main plotline of the short film Nemesis. The film's protagonist actually specifically requested someone to be his rival.


  • In Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures book series, an escalating prank war that began when Garkin (Skeeve's first master) left Aahz with the check at a restaurant resulted in Aahz losing his powers when Garkin used joke powder on him and was killed before he was able to provide an antidote.
  • Not really done to each other, but in More Information Than You Require, the cities of Richmond, VA and Milwaukee, WI are consistently one-upping each other for the title of "Strange Rain Capital of the United States". It's that kind of book.
  • Happens in Aaron Allston's Wraith Squadron books. Wes Janson has the talent and inclination... Wedge Antilles has the resources.
  • In Fleet of the Damned, Sten and the other cadets get into an escalating water war.
  • The first half of Roald Dahl's The Twits revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Twit doing this.

Live-Action TV

  • The Vegas episode of Friends, where Ross and Rachel try to humiliate one another.
    • Or the episode in which Rachel tries to get revenge on Chandler for accidentally seeing her naked after having stepped out of the shower...and accidentally walks in the wrong target. Come to think of it, Friends does this a lot.
  • The episode of Malcolm in the Middle which followed a chain of events that started with Malcolm stealing a single blueberry off Reese's plate, and ended with them putting each other in full-body casts.
    • While it was only one scene, the incident where a woman hit Lois' car when opening her own car door went from Lois slamming her own door into the woman's car and apologizing (to show the woman how to react when caught doing something like that) to the two women destroying both cars in an impromptu demolition derby may serve as a sort of miniature version.
  • The episode of Just Shoot Me where Jack, Finch and Eliot make bets about one another is a rare example of a three-way war.
  • Escalating prank wars were occasionally seen on M*A*S*H.
  • Cheers had an ongoing prank war with Gary's Olde Towne Tavern that spanned six seasons.
    • Gary even went so far as to hire the whole city of Boston including everyone at Cheers to convince Sam that he had killed Gary.
  • Bayside High of Saved by the Bell engaged in a prank war with Valley High.
  • A 3rd Rock from the Sun episode that starts with an annoyed Albright stabbing Dick's Mr. Potato Head doll with pencils. By the time the smoke clears, her car has been tricked out with an expensive subwoofer and lowriders, and Dick is epoxied to his desk.
  • On House, it's usually House and Wilson usually engage in a war of verbal one-upsmanship every episode.
    • In the S2 episode "Safe", however, they battle in an ongoing prank war like a couple of overgrown frat boys. House tricks Wilson into doing the dishes House had promised to do, locks him out of their apartment for hours, and puts Wilson's hand in warm water to make him pee himself. Wilson gets the last word by sawing halfway through House's cane, so that it dumps House on his ass in the middle of a crowded hallway - and even House can't help but laugh (in large part because he was mostly trying to get Wilson to snap out of his funk over a third divorce).
    • In "Resignation", House and Wilson dose each other with medication: Wilson slips anti-depressants into House's coffee to cheer him up; House (to test if Wilson's also on meds) slips amphetamine into Wilson's coffee. Honestly, this one is worth watching if only for Robert Sean Leonard's hysterical delivery of "I'm not on anti-depressants, I'm on SPEEED".
    • And in S4's "Alone", Wilson holds House's guitar hostage until he agrees to hire some new fellows. House shows his displeasure by erasing Wilson's TiVo and moving one of Wilson's cancer patients without telling him. While Wilson is terrible at keeping his identity as the guitar-napper secret (he sends House ransom notes, but leaves the cut-up newspaper on his desk, where he knows House will look..and tries to read it while House is in the room), House does eventually interview for a new team. Of course, Wilson wanted House to know he took the guitar. The faking it was only for his own amusement.
  • An episode of Scrubs saw Dr. Cox and Turk both trying to get rid of an annoying hypochondriac with fake arm pain. There is a montage of each of them writing down increasingly rare diagnoses on the patient's chart as he is turfed from surgery to medical and back again, until Dr. Cox finally writes down a disease that can only be fixed by surgery. Dr. Cox believes he's won the war... until he's told that Turk actually gave the patient unnecessary surgery. Of course the surgery was faked as Turk's final strike in the war.
  • Boy Meets World's final season had a two-parter in which a prank-off escalated into an all-out knock-down drag-out fight. Feelings were hurt, sides were taken, there was even a bear involved. It took the pure-hearted wisdom of childlike ditz Eric Matthews to put a stop to the madness.
  • An episode of Night Court focused almost entirely on a prank war between Harry and a younger judge who was every bit the prankster he was. Some of the highlights included Dan Fielding being chased down the hall by a giant 8-ball, Harry's bench being unwittingly shattered by his gavel (after an entire night of cases had finished) and the rival prankster's robe being rigged with a giant inflatable balloon trapping him. The episode ended with Harry about to puncture said balloon.
  • In an episode of The West Wing, Charlie informed C.J. that she would have to sign out a copy of the President's daily schedule as it had been leaked with increasing regularity. In response to his slightly pompous way of informing her, C.J. mischievously incorrectly filed the report away in the wrong cabinet. The resulting prank war ended with Charlie loosening all the bolts on C.J.'s desk.
  • The Adventures of Pete & Pete had an episode entitled, "Apocalypse Pete", which starts over a race...between Petes' dad and a neighbor using an R/C car. The height of the war sees both sides using technology that neither one of them could conceivably afford...or get a hold of.
    • Mr. Wrigley had all of Little Pete's resources at his disposal, not to mention Artie; it's only Mr. Hickle's side that's confusing.
  • In both versions of The Office, the annoying behavior of Gareth/Dwight leads to Tim/Jim playing pranks on them.
  • In Supernatural, Dean and Sam have a prank war as the B plot of the episode "Hell House." At the end, they both pull (rather vicious) independent pranks on a pair of arrogant teens that had been bugging them for the episode, and calling their truce with each other. For the next 100 miles, at least.
  • In an episode of NCIS, Ziva pulls the classic marker on the binoculars gag on Tony. He assures her that he won't be escalating anything. She spends the rest of the episode getting increasingly paranoid over what he might do, while he pays no attention to it. In the final scene, after she has accepted that nothing is going to happen, her chair collapses when she tries to sit down.
  • The modus operandi for any fight between Serena and Blair on Gossip Girl.
    • Could also apply for Blair and Chuck, and their half-a-season long fight over who should be the first to say "I love you". Continues even after they've decided to just let it be for now, since they then start to argue over who really knows the other best...
    • And the fight between Jenny and Blair. And the fight between Blair and the teacher who gave her a B. Let's face it, this is Blair's modus operandi - you'd think people would just figure out that pissing her off is a bad idea unless you want to take it that far.
  • Several Deadliest Catch captains (most notably the Hilstrand brothers) pull successively elaborate pranks using the boats' fishing lines. If I recall correctly, it went: tying bags of flour to the line to bomb the crew; tying a porta-potty to the line; the grand finale was tying a truck onto the line. Even the victim was impressed by that.
    • The sequel was Northwestern Jake stealing one of the Hilstrand's beloved USA jacket, then being dumb enough to brag about it on camera so the Time Bandit crew hung and later burned him in effigy (they claimed they burned it just to get rid of the effigy's Northwestern sweatshirt, which they felt was jinxing them).
    • Most recently the captain and crew of one of the newer boats on the show graffitied the crane on the Time Bandit. How did the Hilstrands retaliate? By buying over 1,000 eggs, calling in reinforcements from the Northwestern and another boat, and then egging the ever-loving hell out of the culprit's boat.
    • The same season as the graffiti/egging incident, the Hilstrands released over 20 Chinese lanterns upwind of the Northwestern, turning off their ship's lights and GPS so the Northwestern wouldn't see the Time Bandit. When Captain Sig saw the lights, he freaked out, because he couldn't figure out what was going on. It wasn't until the Hilstrands called the Northwestern up and turned their lights back on that Sig realized he'd been pranked. During the following opilio crab season, Sig plotted his revenge on the brothers by stocking a bunch of fireworks on board the ship. At the end of the season, he intercepted the Time Bandit, and the crew of the Northwestern unleashed a volley of rockets at the Hilstrands' ship. Of course, the Hilstrands (as always) had their own stock of fireworks aboard, and returned fire. The fireworks frenzy between the two ships continued, and much fun was had by all.
  • The Magnum, P.I. episode "Paper War" pushes the usual format of "Magnum solves a crime" into a B-plot to focus almost entirely on an increasingly petty prank war between Magnum and Higgins.
  • The Big Bang Theory has Sheldon and Raj engaging in this in "The Hot Troll Deviation" episode of season 4.
  • Jim and his brother-in-law Andy from According to Jim do this... over a grill. In two separate episodes, to boot.
  • Yeralash has an episode based on that. First, boys push each other. Then, one calls for his brother. Ends up with a nuclear war.
  • Community has Abed embarks on one of these after being messed with by Troy, acting as an alien. Subverted in that Troy isn't fooled by Abed's pranks, but is increasingly concerned by Abed's ridiculously elaborate attempts.
  • One Halloween Episode of Home Improvement had all the characters try to out-prank each other.
  • Morgan and Reid have a prank war in the Criminal Minds episode "Painless". Can be seen here. Remember children, Beware the Nice Ones.

Newspaper Comics

  • Defied in Beetle Bailey, eventually. When going out for a three-day holiday, Beetle slaps Sarge on the back just before leaving. He runs after him and whacks him with a chair. After a trashcan thrown from a roof and dynamite, when Beetle is pointing at Sarge with an enormous artillery piece of some sort, Sarge tells him to wait and points out that while what they're doing is fun and all, Beetle should perhaps consider what kind of shape he wants to be in for his holiday.
  • Calvin and Hobbes featured one of these with water fights. Calvin's use of a water pistol merits Hobbes dumping him in a water barrel. Just as Calvin is getting out the hose, Hobbes walks around the corner with a wading pool...

Video Games

  • One of Worms 2's introductory movies is an escalating war between two worms showing off ever deadlier weapons, starting with standard weaponry, then moving into missile tanks with more and more missiles on each one. Finally the second worm brings out a vehicle which casts a giant shadow and the first one screams. It turns out to be a tank-mounted hammer the size of the Eiffel Tower. Smoosh!
  • Team Fortress 2's Sniper and Spy were engaged in this (their updates were released at the same time, so most of the new gear is designed for fighting each other.) Brief synopsis: The Spy is always backstabbing the Sniper, so the Sniper taped a car battery to a tribal shield and electrocuted the Spy. Then, it turns out the Spy had a watch that caused him to cloak and feign death when he took damage. Then the Sniper's new weapon turned out to be... a jar of his own piss that shorts out cloaking devices.
  • In Kanon Makoto and Yuuichi have one of these going on... unfortunately, the term 'stealth' is apparently not part of her vocabulary, so whenever she tries something it always backfires. Makoto is essentially in an escalating war with herself.
  • In Mass Effect 2 Joker and EDI, an artificial intelligence, end up in one of these. First Joker mutes her until his thumb breaks, so she makes his chair spin, so he puts grease on her camera lenses, and so forth.

Web Comics

  • The Insecticomics routinely has one of these between the Insecticons and Vector Prime.
  • Rose Lalonde in Homestuck is engaged in an escalating war of passive aggression with her Mother (or so she thinks, anyway).
    • This was the original intention (at least, before the kids broke the game beyond repair) of the war inside Skaia. They share genetic engineering facilities used specifically to raise the stakes and add more pieces to the Battlefield, so that the players have some impetus to beat the game quickly.


    • This also happened among the trolls. To summarize, Tavros became crippled because of Vriska, so as revenge Aradia tormented Vriska with the ghosts of the people she'd killed. Vriska in response arranged for Aradia to be killed by Sollux, who, just to rub salt in the wound, she had a crush on. Terezi then set up Vriska to lose her arm and eye when her 8 ball exploded in her face, and in retaliation Vriska had Terezi blinded. Terezi and Vriska finally agreed to a truce to settle this, but then Aradia came back as a robot and kills Vriska, though Death Is Cheap so it doesn't really stick and Vriska ascends to God Tier and kills Tavros, and then Terezi and Vriska have their final confrontation, wherein Terezi kills Vriska for good. Whew.
  • The campus whiteboard war in Mac Hall. Unfortunately, the only one we see involved someone picking a fight with Drew. The result wasn't pretty.
  • Tagger in Nip and Tuck tried to loosen up a new student. Hilarity Ensues.

Web Original

Western Animation

  • Some Tom and Jerry cartoons have this dynamic: one character will do something minor (sometimes even inadvertently) to irritate the other at the beginning, and then it's battle on.
  • A common feature of Donald Duck shorts, particularly those co-starring Chip 'n Dale.
  • This has been the basis of the relationship between Kyle and Cartman of South Park for over 15 years. As the seasons progress, what were verbal volley of insults has escalated to levels including Cartman infecting Kyle with his HIV virus to Kyle convincing Cartman to go to Somalia as certain death.
  • An episode of The Simpsons mentioned a feud with Shelbyville but only shows the final prank.

Lisa: What's so special about this game anyway? It's just another chapter in the pointless rivalry between Springfield and Shelbyville. They built a mini-mall, so we built a bigger mini-mall. They made the world's largest pizza, so we burnt down their city hall.
Homer: Heh heh heh. Yeah, they swore they'd get us back by spiking our water supply. But they didn't have the guts.
Marge (drinks a glass of water and then sees the walls start to run): Ooooh. The walls are melting again. (giggles)

    • An episode of Itchy & Scratchy features this trope with each character pulling out bigger and bigger handguns at each other. In the end the guns are the size of the Earth.
  • The Danny Phantom episode "Eye For An Eye" does a rather sinister take on this trope with the rivalry between Danny and Evil Counterpart Vlad. It starts with Danny tricking the local equivalent of The Men in Black to raid Vlad's mansion, continues to Vlad electing himself mayor, and ends with a brutal fight between the two that Danny barely manages to make a tie, with the revelation that Vlad's motives have shifted from borderline-sympathetic to outright-megalomaniacal.
  • The Venture Brothers. The guild of calamitous intent doesn't take kindly to murder. Dr. Girlfriend said it best: "Then the guild steps up their game. If you throw a rock, they throw a knife. You throw a knife, they come to your house when you're sleeping and murder your family."
  • Artha and Moordyrd do this in the Dragon Booster episode "Pride Of The Hero." It starts with them getting into a fight at the racetrack, this soon escalates to Artha talking Moordyrd into riding Beau, then their little feud gets out of control when Moordyrd uses a bonemark on Beau. The episode ends with both Artha and Moordyrd realizing their mistakes or as Artha puts it, "Think about that, I will".
  • Darkwing Duck and Negaduck do this almost accidentally in the episode "Disguise the Limit," when Darkwing is momentarily transformed into a duplicate of Negaduck (I know, it makes my head hurt too) and the two of them keep pulling larger and larger weapons on each other.
  • Lets not forget some of the Looney Tunes classics. For instance, Rabbit of Seville, where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd continually pull out bigger guns to point at each other. Or Daffy as Duck Dodgers, claiming Planet X for its supply of the shaving cream atom, and getting into an escalating war over it with Marvin the Martian. Let's just say the results were not pretty, and widely considered something of a parody of the unwinnable nature of nuclear war, something of a worry at the time.
  • Family Guy: The Peter/Chicken fights were over an expired coupon.
    • In the Back to The Future parody episode "Meet the Quagmires", we see that it may have started even earlier, when Peter bumped into the Chicken at the dance.
  • In Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation, Buster Bunny starts a water fight with Babs. By the end, Babs opens a dam, then Buster triggers a massive tsunami, and Acme Acres ends up underwater.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, "Fall Weather Friends. Applejack and Rainbow Dash get overly competitive going into the annual Running of the Leaves. When Rainbow Dash (wrongly) suspects Applejack of cheating, it triggers an escalating war of interference and misdirection that culminates in a Big Ball of Violence that carries them over the finish line, where the both of them end up coming jointly dead last.
  • Bobby and Luanne get in an escalating prank war in an episode of King of the Hill, which eventually leads to Luanne convincing Bobby that he got her pregnant. Hank and his friends assist Luanne by arranging a fake Shotgun Wedding . . . then turn the prank back on Luanne by telling her the wedding was real.
  • Dan's feud with the Lemonade Stand Gang in Dan Vs., Dan Vs The Lemonade Stand Gang. It starts with the Lemonade Stand Gang stealing Dan's parking space, strong-arming him and Chris into buying overpriced lemonade, and throwing a lemon with a threat written on it through Dan's window. Dan responds by making Chris dress up as a monster and break into the ringleader's house -- it goes horribly wrong of course. The Gang goes on to outright mug Chris and Dan for their wallets. Dan and Chris wreck their bicycles with an axe. The Gang wrecks Chris' car. At this point Elise is prepared to ship the Gang to a Korean weapons factory where they would never be heard from again. Chris puts a stop to this insanity and they defeat the gang by showing their parents proof of their crimes.

Real Life

  • There was a news story about a prank war between two brothers-in-law who kept exchanging the same old ratty pair of pants between them for Christmas. The methods they used for "wrapping" the pants became more and more outrageous over the years—to the point where the pants were being embedded within hundreds of kilograms of welded-together copper piping one year and then placed in a car that was filled with cement the next. Alas, the pants were destroyed when a packaging scheme went awry.
  • One more real-life example, though farcical: Firefly actors Nathan Fillion and Jewel Staite engaged in a "war of birds". Each came up with more and more creative ways to flip the other off. Some people believe Jewel won the contest at Comic-Con 2005, when she got the entire audience at the Serenity panel to flip Nathan off.
  • One could say the Cold War.
    • At least in the first half. The fact that it (fortunately) remained "cold" for the most part kinda puts a crimp on the "escalating" part.
    • How about the Space Race?
    • This is why the policy of massive retaliation was replaced by flexible response. By having options that avoided total war, the United States could combat the Soviet Union without a nuclear war.
  • Two members of the crew on College Humor have been having an escalating prank war going on for some time now[when?]. It started out innocently enough (innocent being a very relative term (not quite safe for work)), but at the time of writing, the latest prank involves guy A making guy B's girlfriend think that guy B was proposing to her. On the giant screen at a Yankees game. Said girlfriend was not pleased.
    • Not anymore. Streeter (Guy B) got back at Amir (Guy A) by making him think he'd won $500,000 by making a blindfolded half-court shot at a University of Maryland basketball game. He did this by having the crowd cheer as loudly as possible no matter how bad Amir's shot was. Amir's shot was wide left, the crowd screamed, he went crazy and then Streeter walked onto the court, in disguise, to give Amir his check. Then the disguise came off.
  • This famous series of car ads.
  • This rather amusing Church sign debate.
    • It's a prank made with the Church Sign Generator. Doesn't make it any less funny, though.
    • That was confusing, considering that it's official Catholic doctrine that animals do not have souls. Still pretty funny.
  • There was a story about four shops (or other kinds of service) located on the same street. One day, the first of them put up a sign declaring itself to have the best wares (or service) in the city. The second responded by declaring itself the best in the whole country. The third one soon followed by calling itself the best in the world. Then, the fourth one put up a sign saying it's the best on this street.