Friday, December 7, 2007

Stand Up Comedy 101 - The Set Up

We had our first comedy meet-up on Wednesday night -- a great start! Five committed soon to be comics were there, and we reviewed some of the basics. I had summarized some of the key segments from Judy Carter's The Comedy Bible, which we're using as our guide. Everyone is ordering a copy, and we'll get together weekly to review our work. Our next meet-up is on Wednesday, December 12 at Marianas Eye Institute at 7:30 PM. We will be performing our material to get feedback from one another.

Here is the first part of the material I summarized. It's all taken from The Comedy Bible, which I highly recommend.


Humor is about insight, seeing something in a unique way. Developing as a comedian is about finding your perspective and your voice.

Any comedic material has two parts

  1. The Set Up
  2. The Funny

The Set Up

The Set Up is the serious part of the joke. It’s just an observation or an insight about something, expressed with a certain attitude. In fact, the set up consists of three elements

1. The topic. This is simply what the joke is about – babies, money, lint, baldness, whatever.

2. The attitude. The energy that drives a joke is the attitude of the comic regarding the topic. There are dozens of attitudes, but for the beginning comic, there are four that work the best: something is either weird, hard, scary or stupid. Ingrain these four attitudes in your mind. You have to feel this attitude while setting up the joke, and the best way to invoke the attitude is to start the joke by simply saying:

  • You know what’s really weird about __________? (babies, money, lint, etc.)
  • You know what’s really hard about ___________?
  • You know what’s really scary about ___________?
  • You know what’s really stupid about ___________?

Seasoned comics may not use these specific words, but they invoke the attitudes and imply the words. When Jay Leno says, “What’s the deal with the President?” he’s really saying “You know what’s really stupid about the President?”

3. The Premise. This is the answer to the “attitude” question. Here you are going to share your insight or observation about what’s weird, hard, scary or stupid about the topic in a very specific way. The premise is not about you. It’s a statement that your audience can relate to. A good premise is insightful and original. It’s where you get to express your unique view about something. But remember, it’s not supposed to be funny. It’s a serious observation about the world. It shouldn’t have the words, me, my, or I in it. After the audience is interested in your global observation, you can make it more specific to yourself, but it has to start broad.

Here is an example of a set up, used by Robin Williams. He doesn’t start with the question, but he is implicitly asking, “You know what’s hard about having kids?”

“When you have a baby, you have to clean up your act.”

There is nothing at all funny about that. It’s a serious observation that he has made about parenthood, about having a baby.

When you develop comedy, you start by making observations about the world. The comedic mind is alert during the mundane acts of life. Some things may strike you as weird, or hard, or scary or stupid. Just write them down. This is the soil from which the joke will grow. You don’t have to see it as funny. You just have to realize you’ve made an observation about something.

Judy Carter, in her book, the Comedy Bible, takes a topic, “Body Piercing,” and gives examples of premises on that topic. Here is what good set-ups look like:

  1. Piercing is stupid. It’s painful enough just to be in a relationship. There is no need to add to it.
  2. It’s hard being pierced when you go through metal detectors at the airport.
  3. It’s weird to see older people with nose rings.
  4. It’s scary that nose rings are now an acceptable business accessory, like cuff links or a tie clip.

Notice, again, there are just observations, statements of her opinions, her view of the facts.

Judy gives a whole checklist of making sure your premise is good, and gives examples of “hack” premises, and how to fix them.

In my next post, I'll discuss "The Funny."

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