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Lesson 9: Using social gags in stand-up

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

In 2007 I interviewed Richard Herring in a Caffe Nero in Hammersmith for the short-lived comedy magazine The Fix. I’d recently seen him perform and was struck by an extended dialogue he performed between an elderly couple consigned to a bonfire. (Yes really). This took the form of an act-out. An act-out is a solo stand-up performing a dialogue between two or more characters. Often just two voices, it sometimes features mime and movement too. We explore act-outs in a future blog.

In the interview, Herring remarked that his early comedy double-act with Stewart Lee had left him thinking comedically in terms of two voices. In the bonfire act-out he was literally performing two different voices but even when it was just him speaking he also felt that his stand-up was, in a sense, manifesting two voices. This intriguing idea stayed with me and many years later, with a touch of Duchamp, sparked off the model of stand-up comedy writing that I have discussed in these blogs, the idea of Voice A and Voice B and found set-ups.

It’s not uncommon for stand-up jokes to have emerged from conversation, where two voices were literally at play. Indeed it can be disconcerting to be chatting with a comic who is constantly reaching for a notepad to jot things down! Gags in social interactions commonly happen where one friend makes an innocent comment (Voice A, set-up) and another jumps in with an unexpected quip (Voice B, payoff).

Sometimes jokes are spontaneously ‘written’ by two people in a social context. It could be you and someone else. This is where the other person unwittingly provides you with the set-up and in the moment, you see the payoff and say it. Here's an example. I was approaching the lavatories in Gloucester Cathedral and arrived at the precise moment a man standing outside the loo said:

MAN: I haven't been for two years.

ME: You must be bursting.

He meant of course that he hadn't been to the cathedral for two years but hearing the phrase out of context there is an ambiguity which I highlighted with my quip. Note that the payoff implies that he hasn't been to the toilet for two years rather than saying it out right. Implication is so important to comedy writing. Said directly it is rather too clunky.

MAN: I haven't been for two years.

ME: It sounds like you are saying that you haven't used the lavatory for two years.

In this kind of interaction the other person unwittingly provides you with the set-up and in the moment you see the punch and articulate it. Here the two people become like a double-act, let's call them Voice A and Voice B. This kind of set-up/payoff commonly happens in school where the teacher says something (Voice A - the unwitting set-up) and then the class clown says something in response (Voice B - the unexpected payoff) that gets a laugh. For example, once in a stand-up class I unwittingly supplied a set-up and a student did the payoff.

ME—VOICE A: It’s good to get your gigs filmed so you can watch them back.

STUDENT—VOICE B: But you'll look like a dick if you do it yourself. (MIMES AN ACT-OUT OF DOING STAND-UP WHILE DOING SELFIE FILMING)

Many of these social gags will be entirely reliant on the context and situation; and the surprise is that a gag was introduced at all. Some of these gags though can be re-purposed for stand. Here, for instance, is that spontaneous classroom gag reworked as a stand-up line:

When I started in stand-up I got a film of every gig. I looked such a dick. (MIMES DOING STAND-UP WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY SELFIE FILMING)

The important thing here is that wording of the set-up implies that someone else was doing the filming without saying it outright. The audience make the obvious assumption and then have to shift perspective when they hear the payoff. We have therefore arrived at a misdirection joke. And real life has supplied us with it.

This idea of a Voice A being on a particular path and then your Voice B diverting it is explored in an exercise I do on this very stand-up course above a pub in Soho, London. In the first session of my course I do an exercise where five people work together, like a multi-headed comedian, to build a ‘routine.'

The group of five come to the front, line up in and a sixth person sits in front of them. This sixth person is the 'pointer'. It is their job to determine who of the five is speaking at any given moment. When someone is being pointed at, they speak. As soon as the pointer switches to someone else the original speaker has to stop and the new person picks it up; and continues the routine as if one person is speaking.

The charm of it comes in the unexpected turns the routine takes. These twists tend to come as it switches from one person to another. The original speaker (voice A), let's say, is on one train of thought. Then, when it switches to the next person (voice B), they take it off on a tangent that we the audience (not to mention the previous speaker) weren't expecting. Recall that here it is set up as one-person speaking. This kind of thing happens:

Voice A: I was in such a hurry to get out of the house that I pulled on my shirt and jacket and rushed out of the door. Voice B: Then I realised I wasn't wearing any trousers.

This exercise replicates the kind of in-the-flow gag that could come up socially and can be converted to stand-up. In the game we're imagining it's one person speaking. In stand-up these kinds of switches in perspective really are produced by the one person who is speaking. In your stand-up set you are in effect both Voice A and Voice B. You have these two voices inside of you. You'd then say:

I was in such a hurry to get out of the house that I pulled on my shirt and jacket and rushed out of the door. Then I realised I wasn't wearing any trousers.


If you haven’t done so already, switch on that bit of your brain that is monitoring everything for potential stand-up material. Look out for these kinds of conversational quips and – if you did the payoff – make a note of it. (If your friend did the payoff you’ll probably want to ask if you can use it…) Yes, this will turn you into that annoying person doing stand-up who gets their notebook out every five minutes to note something down, but so be it. Also of course you might not think of the gag until an hour later. Socially it'd be bizarre and annoying to then ring your friend and tell them what you've just thought. But later on in stand-up you can do the set-up and the pay-off yourself.

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