Long Set-ups Are A Common Issue With New Comedians

13 Aug

long jokeHave you ever been in a conversation when someone began to tell a joke and it just seems to go on and on with set-up information?

Then when they finally get to the punchline of the joke, it becomes immediately apparent that it simply didn’t have the impact to justify having to endure the long set-up leading to the punchline.

The exact same problem exists in stand-up comedy. New comedians will spend far too much time setting up for the punchlines in their stand-up comedy material.

Here’s why this is an important issue to overcome:

A comedian is not going to make much progress until they can generate an average of 4-6+ laughs per performing minute (optimally producing 18+ seconds of audience laughter each performing minute which is headline level).

Note: You can verify this by simply reviewing established headliner comedian videos on YouTube.

There are only 60 seconds in a minute. The more time a comedian spends talking before getting to a punchline, the fewer the punchlines they will be able to deliver in any given minute.

One of the factors that contribute to this issue actually involves “writing” stand-up comedy material in a manner similar to trying to write an article or a short story.

The reason I say that is because tradition “writing” the way that we are taught only involves the use of words and doesn’t account for the other communication mechanisms we use when we communicate verbally that decrease the number of words needed.

In other words, far more words are needed when words are the only consideration when producing stand-up comedy material.

There are a number of factors that have an impact on the length of the set-up for any stand-up comedy joke like:

  • Knowing what a punchline is relative to an individual’s sense of humor
  • Punchline frequency relative to the stand-up comedy material being delivered
  • Applying natural body language to reduce the number of words needed to get to the punchline

This is by no means an all-inclusive list.

What is important to understand is that being able to develop and deliver stand-up comedy material that gets noteworthy laughs involves multiple aspects that work together effectively.

And it doesn’t matter if a comedian delivers stand-up comedy material in the old school “string of individual jokes” way or delivers topic based material.

There are still only 60 seconds in a minute and a comedian needs to be able to generate an average of 4-6+ laughs each performing minute.

That includes the set-up lines and the punchlines.

Needless to say that it is important for comedians to know how develop AND structure their stand-up comedy material in a way that will get them the laughter frequency they need to get ahead.


Posted by on August 13, 2013 in How To Do Comedy


Tags: , , , , , ,

13 responses to “Long Set-ups Are A Common Issue With New Comedians

  1. Azevedo

    May 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Yeah, but in this case there’s just ambiguity in the terms, so there’s no harm done 🙂

    • topcomedyguru

      May 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm

      And that ambiguity comes from the difference between observing stand-up comedy as an audience member and actually developing and delivering a stand-up comedy act for the stage.

      It’s the difference between watching a doctor perform surgery on TV and standing in front of a patient with a scalpel in hand.

      Interestingly enough, most people don’t see the differences until they hit the stage.

      Like I said, your comments are great because it allows me to differentiate between the two (to the extent I can and not sound like a goober).

      • Azevedo

        May 23, 2013 at 4:38 pm

        I’m sure I couldn’t perform stand-up on stage but that does not mean my understanding of comedy theory is in any way inferior because of that. A film theoretic understands more about film than most filmmakers. The ambiguity certainly doesn’t come from there.
        You define punchline as the moment an audience laugh and other people don’t. The term is ambiguous. Other people see it as the ending of the joke, where there’s the intention of getting that final laugh. A lot of times people will laugh at unexpected places and a comic will use those laughs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are punchlines, because that implies an emphasis, a punch..
        Set-up is also ambiguous. If a joke needs ten minutes to get to the final laughter it is a a set-up nonetheless. There’s nothing wrong with that long set-up.
        The thing is, I agree with everything you said, and the ambiguity was just that. Ambiguity that was clarified. I don’t understand the need to underline the differences of point of view from a stand-up artist from its audience, because here they don’t come into place. If you told me I don’t understand the jitters before stage, or the feeling of going on stage and doing great or bombing, I’d agree with you. But again, what you said come down to excellent information that compiled things I already knew from watching countless hours of stand-up, reading about it, watching interviews, etc.
        That said, I’m already a follower and I’m looking forward more of the same.

      • topcomedyguru

        May 23, 2013 at 5:53 pm

        Tell you what…

        My focus is NOT on getting into what is referred to where I come from as “trying to pick the fly shit out of the pepper”, whether you mean to or not.

        Pontification, speculation or “theory” is meaningless when you are actually on stage trying to entertain an audience and get laughs as a comedian.

        My point is (hopefully without coming across as seeming rude) that there is a structure, a rhythm, a methodology that is consistent with stand-up comedy regardless of “style” or content.

        I should also mention that there is also a significant difference between the experience of “live” stand-up comedy and watching video stand-up comedy on an individual viewership basis (see this article for details).

        And again, please forgive me if what I have presented sounds rude. Not my intent. But there is a HUGE difference between understanding “doing” stand-up comedy and consuming stand-up comedy as an audience member.

        I’ll tell you what would be interesting and that is…

        See if you can find a local stand-up comedy open mic and sit through it. Then talk about what you observed as an audience member.

        Thank you for your comments. They are meaningful and provide me a means to expand upon the info I am providing.

      • Azevedo

        May 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm

        I really appreciate your insight, since it’s nothing I can come by easily. I live in Portugal, where stand-up is not a tradition, and good stand-up doesn’t exist as to my knowledge. But the fact is, you started giving your advices from an apparent position of superiority and correcting me, while I was never wrong. We just disagreed on semantics, and you proceeded to correct me while, again, I was never wrong.
        As to the difference between video and live performance, in part I agree with you and the article. It’s different, they’re different experience, but not that different. A good bit is a good bit, live or recorded. With some audiences they’ll get no laughs, medium laughs or great laughs. It varies, and in that sense your immunization to other people’s laughter gives you a clear view of what is a good bit. And even that is only partially true. Did you see Trump’s roast? The Situation was there, and had pretty good material and average delivery, but the fact that the audience was hating it influenced me, while in the comfort of my own chair.
        And the structure that you refer to would probably be analysed by a theoretician who could never make a single person laugh, like I’m sure you can, and still come to the same conclusions you came to.
        I’m just a fan of comedy, and stand-up happens to be its purest form. You may know more about performing stand-up, but not necessarily more about comedy. My point of view as an audience member would be similar to yours, with the difference of individual taste. A film director knows what where the lights were put and how the shot was framed, the critic can infer that, and even without that knowledge both would make similar analysis if they shared similar tastes.
        Pardon me for my cinema analysis. I want to work in film theory, as well as in comedy writing 😉

      • topcomedyguru

        May 23, 2013 at 7:09 pm

        Let me conclude this discussion with this:

        If whatever you believe, know, or theorize about comedy works to produce the results that you want in any genre or avenue, then you are good to go.

      • Azevedo

        May 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm

        Well, sure. Thanks!

  2. Azevedo

    May 23, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Isn’t the flaw in making the set-up dull, and not long? Because a lot of great comedians have long set-ups. Woody Allen has jokes who run up to 10 minutes, but their set-ups are brilliant and they have mini punch-lines before the final one. This expectation even adds to the final product. For instance, his “Moose” bit has the simplest punch-line, but the delay to get there makes it work wonders!

    • topcomedyguru

      May 23, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      Nope, it’s not about the set-ups being dull, it’s about punchline frequency. Look at what you wrote. Punchlines are punchlines, whether they produce 1-2 seconds laughs or 3+ second laughs.

      A comedian simply cannot go minute after minute without generating laughs. That’s called bombing.

      The one comedian that I can think of with long set-ups is Bob Newhart, who could take 30-45 seconds to set up a scenario. But after that, he would deliver 6-8+ punchlines each minute after.

      Stand-up comedy is NOT like a street joke with a single punchline at the end per se. Ideally, it involves a series of punchlines that tend to generate larger and longer laughs throughout a bit with the biggest laughs happening towards the end of a bit.

      Again, go to YouTube, find any established comedian video then count the number of laughs generated in any given performing minute. That’s the easiest way to “see” what I am referring to in this article.

      • Azevedo

        May 23, 2013 at 2:05 pm

        Well, we basically said the same thing, with a difference in semantics. I thought only the final punch-line would be called punch-line. Apparently not 🙂
        About the set-up, if you start a story and end it ten minutes later with one punch-line, even if there are 50 punch-lines in the middle, don’t those ten minutes qualify as the set-up?

      • topcomedyguru

        May 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm

        Stand-up comedy on a professional level cannot be dependent on a single punchline at the end of a bit. I say that because too many comedians over decades have already “set the standard” for what high level stand-up comedy is (regardless of “delivery style”).

        But I see where you are coming from. And you are right, it’s semantics.

        However when it comes to producing and delivering stand-up comedy material on a professional level, a comedian should be aware of ALL punchlines (and the frequency of such) otherwise they won’t be able to generate the laughter frequency needed to attract the attention of talent pros.

        I hope that makes sense. I tend to produce content that is targeted for those who want to do stand-up comedy on a pro level as opposed to those who enjoy stand-up on a personal level.

        So please forgive if what I have to say seems confusing. 🙂

      • Azevedo

        May 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm

        Not confusing at all. I’m situated in exactly the middle of those two groups: I want to enjoy stand-up professionally!
        And I got what you said the first time, our differences were purely semantics. I just commented because I’m a fan of long set-ups, punctuated by punch-lines, of course! 🙂

      • topcomedyguru

        May 23, 2013 at 3:02 pm

        Well, your comments are much appreciated and here’s why:

        Semantics DO matter and can greatly influence how a person perceives anything. Inaccurate perceptions can lead to less than favorable results (which is what matters when standing in front of an audience, putting one’s sense of humor on the line to be judged favorably or otherwise).

        So trying to clarify semantics is HUGE and may be able to help others in their understanding should they make the decision to tackle stand-up comedy. 🙂


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