Creating An All “A” Standup Comedy Set

You want strong laughs from the beginning to the end of your set. You want them to be consistently strong from one show to another. When you accomplish that with about twenty minutes of material, you will start getting booked into the clubs as a regular.
Accomplishing an all “A” set requires several things. First, you have to make up your mind that you will not settle for small laughs. I hear comics defend a joke by saying, “it gets a laugh.” That’s true. It gets a laugh. A laugh does not lead to a career. You headline when you rock the house from the beginning to the end of your set.

Second, you need to listen to your audience. They will tell you, through their response to your material, where the strength is in your act, what areas need work and what material you should toss. Your audience is your editor-in-chief. This is so important that I am going to repeat it to help you remember. Your audience is your editor-in-chief. Say it with me, “Your audience is your editor in chief.” Oh, you can do better than that. Let me hear you! “Your audience is your editor-in-chief!” Good. Now we can get on with the chapter.

Always audio record your set. Use your voice recorder and leave it in the back of the club. Don’t bring it up on stage with you. What you want to record is the audiences’ laughter. After the show, like the next day (I don’t want you doing what I’m about to tell you while you are up on stage. On stage your only focus should be on having a great time with your audience.) play back the recording and grade each laugh. Don’t try to grade your performance. That is much too subjective. Grade the laughs, their volume and length.

An “A” laugh is the big laugh. It’s what’s known in show business as a house laugh because the whole house is laughing. Material that works for you as an “A” laugh, 75 to 80% of the time; much more that half the time, is “A” material. Nights when the other comics are coming off the stage and saying the audience is dead, and you go up and get house laughs, that material is “A” material and should become the bedrock of your set.

Material that sometimes gets a big laugh and sometimes gets a smaller laugh is “B” material. What you want to do with “B” material is to move it up to an “A.” Usually, a joke that is good enough to get a “B” laugh, with work, can be brought up to an “A” laugh. In a future article, I will tell you how to accomplish this.

Sometimes a “B” laugh doesn’t budge. It clearly gets a laugh but it’s not consistently a big laugh. Here is what you do with “B” material. When you want to do your absolute best, use your best material, the “A” material. If there is someone in the audience from the entertainment industry-an agent, a manager, a producer, a casting director, you only want to perform your funniest and most original material. You want to do what comics call their “industry set.” However, if it’s a regular night and the only people in the audience are the good people who’ve come out to hear comedy, “B” material is okay to include in your set. If you need to include some “B” material in order to do the time the club is requiring you to do, do it – as long as it is getting a clear laugh, not a chuckle but a laugh.

You should not include “B” material in your industry set. Only use your “A” material.

Now that we know what to do with “A” and “B” material let’s look at “C” material. A “C” laugh is a chuckle or nothing. “C” material should not be in your set. Little tiny laughs get in the way of big laughs. Getting an “A” laugh is like blowing up a balloon until it explodes. The set up for an “A” laugh builds tension in the audience and the punch line explodes that tension into laughter. Little laughs just let the air out of the balloon. It makes it harder to get that explosive laughter.

If it’s a new joke and you love it and it gets a “C” laugh the first time out, do it again. You always want to give your material a chance to work. It’s possible that with practice and greater confidence you can make the joke work. But, if after a few tries on stage, the material is still getting a little laugh, toss it.

The Great comedian, Groucho Marx said that there are two things to look for in determining whether a comedian is going to really make it. One is that he or she knows how to edit their material. They know what to keep and what to throw out. By recording the audience at every one of your performances, and then grading the laughs, you will begin to get a clear picture of what to keep, what to work on, and what to throw out. You will be on your way to creating an all “A” set. I’ll tell you the second thing Groucho said to look for in an upcoming article.

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Copyright October 13, 2004

The Joke Bomb Checklist

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