Punch lines are only funny relative to the setup. If the setup is weak, it won’t matter how good the punch line is, it’ll fall flat. You may have noticed when watching comedy that many times you can tell just from a comedian’s setup that the entire joke is going to be funny.
So what IS a setup exactly? A setup is the factual part of a line that leads up to the joke. It is clear and concise. The meaning MUST be clear. The setup needs to be easily identifiable to the majority of the audience because it is the foundation of your joke. It gets everybody on the same page.
A setup contains all the information an audience member needs to get the joke: words, gestures, voice, context, expressions, POV, opinions, mood, etc. It’s very easy (and common) to think of a setup as just words. Many studies have been done on communication and they all come up with basically the same number. Only 7% of communication is VERBAL. All the rest of communication is through tone of voice and body language. If you only base your setup on words, you’re missing out on 93% of what you could be communicating.
Comedy works best when you are able to communicate your point-of-view (POV), emotions and opinions to the audience. Concepts like emotions are much easier to communicate non-verbally. Think about it. Is it more effective to explain to someone just how mad you are or throw a lamp across the room?
Make your setup lines sound as natural as possible. An unnatural setup tells the audience “He’s trying to make a joke.” When that happens the audience will adopt a “Let’s see if it’s funny” mindset. This is exactly what you don’t want. We’re shooting for natural, conversational humor.
Also, and this should go without saying, the setup isn’t funny. If you get a laugh on a setup, it’s probably a punch line that you didn’t realize or the audience is laughing in anticipation.
So let’s take a look at how to use a setup…
The main job of the setup is to introduce the topic you wish to talk about. It gets everybody on the same page. Your setups will be longer if you’re introducing a new bit. This gives the audience time to “shift gears” and understand what you’re talking about.
The second thing the setup does is create an intriguing story (for 1-liners the story is just a lot smaller). Most of the time the story falls through the cracks when writing. Go to an open mic and watch new comedians perform. You’ll notice that their setups usually aren’t any ‘fun’. They’re just connecting the dots between point A and point B. They’re missing out on a huge opportunity to engage the audience.
Now watch great comedians. The setups are entirely different. They DO engage the audience. The comedian’s setups are interesting to listen to in themselves. Great comedians don’t just use setups as space-fillers until they get to their punch line. They optimize every moment they have on stage, whether that moment is a setup or a punch line.
What you DON’T want to do is have setup lines as your goal. Once you tell yourself “I’m writing a setup for a punch line” you’re entire state of mind switches to an unnatural “I’m writing a joke” mindset. If you expressly try to write a setup then it will come out awkward.
It is VERY easy to slip into a “Comedian mind set” while writing. It will make you sound hack every single time. That’s because when we’re writing with a “Comedy mindset”, we make this unnatural mental switch to how we THINK a comedian SHOULD write. All of a sudden we put a filter over every idea. We don’t let anything get through the filter unless we think it sounds like a comedian. This means that EVERYTHING you write will sound like a generic comedian, and in comedy we call those people hacks. The “I’m a comedian” mental-filter will cause writer’s block every time. Nothing is ever good enough. So don’t worry about writing ‘setups’. In fact, don’t worry at all. Comedy is supposed to be fun.
The second reason why setups are so important is because when you perfect a setup, the punch line will come to you both more naturally and much more quickly. Most the time you’re having a conversation you won’t find any place to insert a joke. Even if you had enough time to think of a joke you probably couldn’t come up with one. If you did it’d probably seem unnatural and weird. This is because the setups just weren’t right. However, at some point in the conversation your friend might set you up perfectly for a quick punch line and you won’t even have to think about it. It will come quickly and naturally. This is not because your friend shifted to a ‘funnier topic’. It’s because he gave you a perfect setup. Whatever was said and the way it was said just ached for a funny reply. Stand-up is the same except we call what you’re friend said ‘setups’ and those setups have to come from you.