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One of the most common problems that new comedians who are trying to figure out how to write stand-up comedy have is that their set-ups to the punchlines in their stand-up comedy material are simply way too long.
In this article I am going to cover this very important topic in three sections:
1. Basic performance and audience laughter dynamics
2. Factors that directly contribute to set-up lines that are too long
3. Article wrap up
With that said, let’s get down to business…
Basic Performance And Audience Laughter Dynamics
It is very simple to understand why long set-ups are a significant problem for comedians if you consider some basic observable facts.
1. There are just two primary events that occur when a comedian hits the stage to entertain an audience with laughter:
The comedian is talking or the audience is laughing or they are not.
This can be put another way:
If a comedian is talking the audience isn’t talking (they are listening).
If an audience laughing, the comedian is not talking.
2. While the length of time a comedian is tasked to perform can vary, every comedian is afforded the exact same 60 seconds in each minute to deliver their set-up lines and punchlines.
In other words it doesn’t matter if a comedian is performing for 3 minutes or 45 minutes, they get the same 60 seconds each performing minute to generate big and frequent laughs with their stand-up comedy routine.
3. Delivering stand-up comedy material consumes time during a performance. Likewise collective audience laughter caused by punchlines consumes time during a performance (if the audience is laughing).
Put another way, the more time a comedian spends talking in any given performing minute, the less time that an audience can spend laughing.
The more time an audience spends laughing, the less time a comedian spends talking.
This is a most important fact when you consider this:
4. The comedians who are afforded the MOST performing opportunities and open doorways to progress are those who are able to generate an average of 18+ seconds of laughter each performing minute.
With few exceptions, that headline level laughter generation is the result of 4-6+ audience laughs each performing minute.
Note: What I have just described can be easily verified by finding stand-up comedy performances of some “household name” or otherwise popular comedians on YouTube and simply counting the number of laughs they are able to generate each performing minute and measuring the amount of time (in seconds) that the audience spends laughing each performing minute.
5. The comedian who is generating 2 or less collective audience laughs each performing minute is bombing on stage.
Note: For all but the biggest audiences, the average length of collective audience laughter episodes for headline level stand-up comedy performances delivered by a pro comedian is 4 seconds (give or take a second).
Given that verifiable information, it is fairly easy to see why a comedian who can only generate 1-2 laughs per minute is bombing (or delivering a largely unfunny lecture).
6. The comedian who is generating 4-6+ laughs per minute is delivering 4-6+ punchlines each performing minute.
That becomes most significant when you consider that the set-up lines to those punchlines are also needed (and require performing time).
You can also think of it this way:
If a comedian is generating an average of 18 seconds of collective audience laughter for each performing minute that means…
They have an average of 42 seconds each minute to deliver BOTH the set-up lines and punchlines to generate 4-6+ laughs per minute.
So, given the simple and 100% verifiable information I have provided, let me ask you this:
Are having set-up lines that are too long a problem for comedians?
I submit to you that long set-up lines are severely crippling to the comedian who is trying to make ANY real progress in the world of stand-up comedy.
In my professional opinion as a comedian trainer I will say this with 100% certainty:
If a comedian doesn’t have or learn to develop the skill or ability to create, edit and structure their stand-up comedy material to generate an average of 4-6+ collective audience laughs per minute BEFORE they ever hit the stage with that material…
They are in for a potentially very long and frustrating experience as a comedian.
Now I want to cover a few primary reasons why new comedian set-up lines are way, way too long for them to make any real headway as a comedian.
1. Writing stand-up comedy material in the literary sense.
Individuals who “write” their stand-up comedy material (in the fashion they are taught to “write” information designed to be read) will use many more words and sentences in their set-up lines because they are only working with words.
It takes many more words to present material that is written to be read than to develop stand-up comedy material that incorporates the delivery aspects right from the start.
In others words…
Most new comedians are completely unaware that “writing” and “talking are two very separate and distinct methods of communication.
Note: A smart comedian knows how to use these differences to their advantage to put together the tightest stand-up comedy routine possible.
2. Over explaining information leading up to a punchline.
Many new comedians will make the false assumption that the audience won’t “get” what they are talking about and compensate by over explaining what it is they want to deliver to an audience.
Audiences are just as smart collectively, if not smarter than a comedian. If a comedian has their material developed properly, audiences will “get” what they are saying on stage in the fewest words possible.
3. No idea of how much time their comedy material represents on stage.
If a comedian doesn’t have at least a rough idea of how much material they will be delivering in any given minute of their stand-up comedy act, it becomes difficult at best to determine the punchline frequency they need to shoot for in any given minute of their stand-up comedy material.
4. No idea about what a punchline really is, their common structure or how they are produced in relation to set-up material.
Subsequently, punchlines end up being just statements or more set-up lines that simply don’t generate laughs.
Like I said, the more a comedian talks, the less an audience will laugh.
The Bottom Line
For those who have real comedy talent (which is most people who take a shot at stand-up comedy), it is very easy to develop the skill to create, edit, structure and deliver a high impact stand-up comedy act that gets big and frequent laughs.
I can also guarantee you this:
You won’t get even a fraction of the information you need to do this from popular books on how to develop a stand-up comedy act.
But again, don’t take my word on it — verify what I have revealed in this article for yourself.