Updated: Dec 3, 2021
There’s a problem with true stories in a stand-up context. The long set-up followed by the quick payoff is often the form that anecdotes take; they have this in common with the ‘shaggy dog story’ type of joke. It’s like we learned in the playground at school, and the format is perhaps about two minutes of set-up, with the quick payoff at the end. In modern stand-up you can't often get away with this long a set-up. You need to keep those payoff moments coming repeatedly.
If you were doing a five-minute open-spot and had a couple of these two and a half minute stories with a solitary laugh at the end of each you'd only have two laughs! One laugh every 2.5 minutes does seem to be short-changing an audience even if they haven’t paid to get in. When you're looking to use a true story in stand-up, the first thing to do is edit, exaggerate and fictionalise. Firstly, I often say to acts: stand-up is not a documentary or a witness statement. You can exaggerate, edit and lie. For example, if someone said something embarrassing maybe you could change who said it. Perhaps instead of a random person it could be your mother who said it. It's based in something that's real, but you're going to changing elements of it to try and get more out of it. When I interviewed Mr Cee for my book, he agreed: ‘Yes, for me that's so important. You’re not a news reporter you’re a comedian."
As well as changing people and places in the true stories, you can also up the ante. This is where you exaggerate (or totally fabricate) the seriousness or significance of the situation, or the pressure you were under. If there is nothing at stake and you are under no pressure the funniness is reduced—or even absent. You can increase the funniness of any kind of situation by:
* Increasing the time pressure. Give the situation a deadline or exaggerate its imminence. If in real life this piece of work you messed up didn’t have to be in for two weeks, instead make out it had to be in the next day.
* Introducing a witness. Your awkwardness or embarrassment or struggle will always be worse (and so funnier) if it’s happening in front of someone. Their reactions will be a key part of the comedy.
* Making the context more significant. For example, if the story was about you saying something stupid down at the pub with your mates, how about changing it to being in a posh restaurant on a date?
Decrease your own skills or efficacy in the situation; play it dumb. As Logan Murray said to me again in an interview for my book: “Stand-up is not so much about the story. It's more about the idiot in the story.“
Then to get laughs all the way through the story, you need to find the set-up/ payoffs that keep the laughs coming as you build to the climactic payoff. This can be achieved by thinking in terms of Voice A and B, where you subvert your own Voice A comments by jumping in with Voice B ones. In this way, sometimes the comedian themselves unwittingly produces a set-up. Here's an Emo Philips joke that to illustrate the point. The set-up sounds like something factual that he would have innocently said many times, but at one point his mischievous comic Voice B saw the ambiguity and added the afterthought.
“When I was ten, my family moved to Downers Grove, Illinois. When I was twelve, I found them.”
This approach can produce a one-liner, as here, but you can apply the same thinking to how you build up your stories. Billy Connolly's stand-up is famously anecdotal and story driven, and yet set-up/payoff is operating within his work almost as much as in a more gag driven set. He is telling a story but the end product is organised (perhaps partly on the fly) as a sequence of set-up/payoffs. Here’s an anecdote from his time as a welder in a Scottish shipyard WITH THE PAYOFFS REMOVED! it still makes sense without the jokes. Doing this, we can see a more straight-forward telling of the story that builds to the one funny climactic reveal rather than having laughs throughout as the actual version does:
“So I joined the Territorial Army, I did, I did. It was the parachute regiment, and I got my red beret. Had my uniform, and I got my wings and everything. We did an exercise once, it was a complete and utter waste of time. We did an exercise... it's a dreadful waste of time and money. I swear, I mean we did an exercise on Cyprus. All us paratroopers and the Kyrenia Mountains - with my gun. And we chased… the parachute regiment chased the Green Howards through the mountains for ten days. There were thousands of us, armed to the teeth. And it was great. And we caught this poor bastard, and he worked in the same shipyard as me! He was a Territorial, too.”
That is the Voice A version, the long set-up with the funny finish. To find laughs along the way Voice B needs to jump in repeatedly jump in with its cheeky, undermining comments giving us the stand-up version below. Any anecdotes that you tell socially can be looked at in the same way. To turn it into stand-up you need to do what we will see Billy Connolly doing; repeatedly jump into the anecdote or routine with your Voice B afterthoughts. Here it is. This time I have indicated where the audience laugh to highlight where the (restored) payoffs are:
“So, I joined the Territorial Army, to make myself a bit more exotic. (laugh). I did, I did. It was the parachute regiment, and I got my red beret, and I looked like acne. (laugh) Had my uniform, and I got my wings and everything. We did an exercise once, it was a complete and utter waste of time, as the entire Territorial Army is. (laugh) We did an exercise... it's a dreadful waste of time and money. I swear, I mean we did an exercise on Cyprus. All us paratroopers and the Kyrenia Mountains - with my gun. And we chased… the parachute regiment chased the Green Howards through the mountains for ten days. And we caught one. There were thousands of us, armed to the teeth, bayonets down our trousers. (laugh) And it was great and I was posing. Everybody looked like Rambo. (laugh) And we caught this poor bastard, and he worked in the same shipyard as me! (laugh) He was a Territorial, too. It was great, I could have sneaked up behind him in the canteen and saved the country a fortune. (laugh)”
The final payoff here, incidentally, is a pleasing example of misapplied logic, or ‘internal logic’. The statement that Connolly could have captured his work colleague at work and saving them all from needing to engage in the military manoeuvre, while absurd, makes logical sense in its own terms.Billy Connolly would have told this story many times, and I imagine there would have been variation in the wording each time, but every time, as here, the anecdote would be structured as a sequence of set-ups and payoffs building to one big payoff at the end. This is not happening by accident. Billy Connolly knows exactly what he’s doing and where he wants the audience to laugh. It is just delivered with consummate naturalness, as if he is just chatting.
When you've got a true story you want to tell in stand-up, first of all adapt and punch it up using the checklist outlined above. Then you might record yourself telling a true story—this is Voice A—then leave it for a while. Later on, play it back and find the points where you can interrupt yourself and self-heckle: Voice B. You might imagine that it's a teacher saying the Voice A stuff and now you are Voice B, a cheeky school kid who is lobbing in subversive remarks. Now build these comments into the story.