Every stand-up comedian wants to have the perfect set
So what constitutes a perfect set?
While the definition of “the perfect set” can be a bit vague, the general rule comedy experts follow is four to six laughs per minute with 20-30 “jokes” (punchlines) throughout. This is relative to a five-minute set and takes writing, practice, and any other preparations.
Personally, I find that logic to be a bit limiting. All comics are different; not only do they vary in topics discussed, but the style in which they perform. Not everyone is going to exemplify the classic “set up, punchline” style this formula follows. Some of us are storytellers, anecdotal, etc.
In my time as a stand-up comedian, one thing has proven to be the deciding factor for having an impactful set versus just another set: emotion.
Emotion makes you perform differently.
I’ve been in comedy for about five years and there is a clear difference from how I perform now compared to the years prior.
I’m by no means a comedy expert, but I can assess my own performance which was considerably reserved for my taste. In fact, I hated how I came off because it didn’t match my normal personality at all. I was somewhat robotic, low energy, and it looked like I was being careful. Now, I’m considerably high energy, much more intense, and willing to risk a lot more with performance.
The change happened when I started becoming more aware of the emotion I felt in the joke. In the first years of comedy, there were really only a few instances where I really committed to the emotion, not knowing I had done that.
When I write a joke, my most common emotions felt are rage, confusion, frustration, arrogance, and occasionally pain. To be happy with my set, I really have to immerse myself into the emotional side of it before going up on stage. For a bit that covers breakups, I had to tap into the pain I felt, for a bad sexual experience, it was all about confusion and frustration. The list goes on.
Those jokes may have been written a while ago, but there is a definite difference in how they were performed then versus now. What I thought was “killing” on stage previously really was just me not tapping into the honest emotion and settling.
Emotion connects you to the audience.
When it boils down to it, you’re performing for the audience. Whether it’s ten, eighty, or two hundred people, the audience needs to feel connected to you and emotion bridges that gap.
For a bit to go well, it’s not necessarily about the story being true, it’s about you believing in it so much that the audience believes it too. This is where emotion comes into play. If you're feeling frustrated in the bit, you want the audience to feel that for you. Emotion allows you to better paint that picture of what happened, who you’re mad at, why you’re mad, etc. If you hate Tracey from accounting, then it’s your job to make them hate Tracey too.
When an audience feels a genuine emotion, they can connect to a bit more easily. Believe me, there have been dark bits I’ve done and it really was telling how audiences changed to accept a joke when it tapped into the emotion versus just saying it.
Are you tapping into the emotional side of your performance? It’s not easy to master (I still need to work on making it a skill), but it really will change how you perform and see yourself as a stand-up. Sometimes we don’t want to keep revisiting the emotion, and that’s understandable, but if you want to be a successful performer, that’s what it takes. Holding back emotionally is not an option.
Got questions or something to add? Comment below and tell us your thoughts!