Lesson 7: Set-up/ Payoff

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Now we've explored the wider context — the writing process and, starting the gig itself — let’s get stuck into the nitty-gritty, starting with the basic comic rhythm: set-up/payoff. Set-up/ payoff is the basic comic rhythm. I was a huge fan of Not the Nine O’ Clock News and (like everyone else) remember the simple, physical Rowan Atkinson sketch where Atkinson's character is pleased he is on TV, waving at the camera and mouthing 'hello mum'... then he hits a tree. The set-up is him walking along, waving at the camera. The payoff is hitting the tree.

The follow-up sketch has him avoiding a lamp post and then falling down an open manhole in the pavement. (The is a false dawn ending - it seems like everything is okay - then it isn't.) Notice how much work the set-up does. If he was minding his own business before he hit the tree it wouldn't be as funny. And in the second one the fact that he looks pleased with himself at avoiding the lamp post adds to the funniness of him falling down the manhole.

Similarly, with the old slapstick slipping on a banana skin gag, a neutral person slipping may have some amusement value. But what if he were a banker on his phone bragging about a deal and then he slips? I have started our discussion of set-up/payoff with visual examples as there is something classic, even primal, about this pre-verbal kind of joke. Whilst stand-up is very verbal, there is can be a strong visual dimension too.

I used to avidly watch the BBC2 Stand-up Show and was struck by a strongly visual start to one of the acts. In a 1997 appearance the burly East End stand-up comic and actor Ricky Grover starts his set coming on dramatically wearing an alarming mask of a tragically damaged, horrific face to the emotional and powerful music of Carmina Burana (set-up). This is all punctured - and the first laugh comes - when the music suddenly stops and he says in his gruff, blokey voice “I tell you something...” (payoff 1).

Note that it suddenly stops. It’s all about the sudden change. A gradual change would not get the laugh. He then goes on: “That Clearasil is shit” (payoff 2). For readers of this blog unfamiliar with the product (his audience knew it of course) that’s acne treatment. He gets another laugh later on with a visual set-up and punch when he pulls off the mask (set-up) and when he does so there is an identical one underneath (payoff). Here he whips off the first one so that the reveal of the second mask is sudden. It wouldn’t get the same kind of laugh if he slowly peeled it off, revealing bit by bit that there was another mask underneath.

A big part of the funniness here is the inept way in which Grover is trying to be powerful and dramatic of course. There is a natural funniness in someone trying to do something that is beyond their abilities. This is low-status comedy. Here, however, we are stripping back these higher character and situational aspects of the comedy to focus on the underlying rhythm. Visual or spoken, set-up/ payoff is the fundamental comic rhythm. Every time you say or do something that triggers a laugh that's the payoff. Whatever preceded it was the set-up. It's impossible to have a laugh that wasn't in some way set up.

Turning to verbal material, set-up/ payoff is most obviously seen with one-liner comics like Steven Wright, Milton Jones or Jimmy Carr. Here’s a gag from Jimmy Carr where he has taken a real statement as a set-up and come in with his own payoff that flips our assumption:

“British scientists have demonstrated that cigarettes can harm your children. Fair enough. Use an ashtray.”

The set-up to this joke sounds rather like it comes from a news headline. It's got that condensed quality: British scientists demonstrate cigarettes can harm children. The original headline would have meant that the parents are harming the children with passive smoke and that is our natural assumption when we hear the statement. The wording though is (unintentionally) ambiguous and Carr adds a payoff that reveals a darker meaning to those words. Stand-up coach Logan Murray has a helpful word for capturing what is going on here. He calls it an ‘afterthought’. As he says in Teach Yourself Stand-up book:

“Afterthoughts are everywhere. Every time you are offering a qualification or commenting on something you or someone else has said, or any time you add a sarcastic comment to something particularly stupid someone else has said, then you are exercising your afterthought ability. This is often precisely what a comedian is doing when they make an audience laugh.”

As well as adding an afterthought, you can also interrupt a phrase and change how it ends. Here’s a gag, this time from Steven Wright, that is based on a phrase from the world which is interrupted and sent in another direction. It’s also rule-of-three, a topic we’ll explore in Lesson 17:

“Join the Army, meet interesting people, kill them”.

The first two phrases: “Join the Army, meet interesting people....” are clearly in the context of an army recruitment advert and would lead you to expect something like, “see the world”. Here though Steven Wright has interrupted the recruitment ad and jumped in with his own comment which abruptly shifts us to the reality of soldiering.

This set-up/payoff rhythm is not only deployed in one-liners, it's also seen in a more disguised way in routines, rants and stories. For example, Billy Connolly is well known for his autobiographical storytelling style and yet within his stories he skilfully deploys set-up/ payoff. Let’s focus for now on one line from a story about Glasgow. The basic idea is this: Glasgow will look exactly the same afterwards if there is a nuclear attack. Once you have the idea you can then consciously think about how to deliver it effectively, and that is when you use set-up/ payoff thinking. Here’s how Billy Connolly delivered this idea:

“The great thing about Glasgow is that if there's a nuclear attack it'll look exactly the same afterwards.”

It might have tumbled out of his mind perfectly formed or perhaps he tweaked it. Even an apparently simple line like this is carefully constructed. We can see that it is less effective when the key phrase is in the middle of the sentence: The great about Glasgow is it'll look exactly the same afterwards if there’s a nuclear attack. The problem here is that the payoff information “it'll look exactly the same afterwards” is presented too soon. You can just as easily express the idea this way, and people will even get it, but it just won’t work as well in terms of getting a laugh. The thing that triggers the laugh, ideally, needs to be the last thing we hear. The last word if possible or, if non-verbal, the gesture, look or action comes at the end.

As well as the structure, the phrasing is optimised too. The words in the set-up “The great thing about Glasgow is…” introduces the idea that we are going to hear something straightforwardly positive about the city. Our surprise when we hear where it goes maximises the funniness. It might more naturally (and less amusingly) be set-up with “The awful thing about Glasgow is…” If we imagine the first version of the gag was this one, it would be a good example of how paying attention to the set-up is important. (And, of course, a big part of the funniness is Connolly presenting this as a plus.)

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