That’s Why They Call it a Set Up!

by Jerry Corley, Founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic

I was watching a very talented comedian friend of mine perform some of her new material the other night. She performed a new joke she was particularly proud of and the result wasn’t what she expected. Yep, you guessed it—crickets! It’s the sound most comedians loathe, sometimes fear. The joke didn’t work.

She was frustrated and after her set she asked me if I knew why the joke didn’t work. I told her that she didn’t set it up properly, so the audience didn’t know what she was talking about. In this particular scenario, she was talking about how her father showed up to visit her wearing nothing but bubble wrap. So as he was walking you could hear, POP, POP, POP.

The idea of that happening is funny, but the audience couldn’t figure out why her Dad would show up to a visit wearing bubble wrap. It just seemed too absurd. I suggested to her that the audience needs more information. She said, “I’m not going to spoon feed them!” As comedians and humorists we walk a fine line. We know we need to keep it short in comedy (as Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”), while at the same time we must give the audience enough information so they understand where we are going. In other words we have to have a clear set up so we can really PUNCH IT. Johnny Carson, who was the king of late night for 30 years always made sure that the setups in his jokes were crystal clear, so when he got to the punch line the audience knew exactly what he was talking about. In the scenario above the girl’s Dad was a paranoid schizophrenic.

If she delivered a solid set up to the audience by saying something like, “My father is a paranoid schizophrenic. Whenever he visits me, I never know what to expect, sometimes he’ll show up as a pirate, sometimes as Sherlock Holmes. He must’ve run out of ideas cuz’ last week he just showed up wearing nothing but bubble wrap. Maybe he still thought it was in the pirate theme since bubble wrap is essential in shipping…He was literally walking up my steps going, POP, POP, POP.”

In other words, the audience needs to know WHAT you are talking about before you can expect the punch line to connect with them. A friend of mine put it in a very succinct analogy, he said it’s like you have a hundred piece puzzle of a sailboat and you only put down the pieces that show the sky. There’s no way your audience is going to be able to tell it’s a sailboat because you didn’t show us enough pieces. It’s better to over do the set up and then cut back than to not give the audience enough information to make sense of it in the first place.

A good way to help yourself to make sure you’re giving the audience what they need is to do the “in a nutshell” test. Simply ask yourself, “In a nutshell, what am I trying to say?” This will get your head out of the story or the joke and help you to just say what it is you want to say and that’s when you can punch it!

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