Before we get stuck into set structure I’d like to lay down a 'lil wisdom from the great Tommy Dean:
“Don’t think of it as trying to make the audience laugh, more as simply sharing what you find funny”.
Sharing what YOU find funny. Indeed TD, indeed.
Knowing this, what’ll really help your cause is the audience getting to know you as quickly as possible… It’s why I always suggest starting a set with some character establishment:
5 to 10 relatively quick jabs about yourself, your background (ethnic or not), where you grew up, socio-economic factors, acknowledging oddities in your physical appearance or juxtapositions of look to the sound of your voice perhaps.
Answer questions the audience may have about you, of which they have many. The second you set foot on stage they’re judging the living shit out of you at around the speed of light… welcome to the suck.
So, answer those questions. What are the various things that made you into this heaving pile of shit we’re laying eyes upon for the first time? Employ self-deprecation at every opportunity, denigrate yourself and your character at will. Forget what Gadsby said in Nanette, listen to your sensei and verbally self-harm.
Be open, be scathing, be yourself. Let the lols be the balm.
Once you’ve dropped your character establishing lol-bombs, you should now throw down one for two 60 to 90-second second bits. A witty hot take on something topical and an observation you’ve had about a relatable thing, like say 'catching public transport', you maverick.
You’ll be tempted to go straight from Character Establishment into a longish story with only one major punchline/payoff right at the end. Don’t. You’re new and you’ve only got 5 mins to shine…
They'll hear your 90-second ball of pure bus/train/ferry fire after a good 2 mins of character establishment and the gravitas/lols will be Palpable, maybe even Palpatine-able… The audience feels like they know you, and will have a better understanding of why you’d have this particular angle or gripe…
This set structure isn’t set in stone btw, you can easily flip the switch and open with a bit and follow it up with some character establishment straight after, and then close on another bit.
Here’s an example:
“Thought I’d start with some observational material… you guys ever notice how small my dick is…”
Then a few more jabs about it, maybe a comparison of how small it is…
“It’s so thin you could floss with it… But you know what they say “Once you go Jacques, there’s no more plaque”
point to a woman in the crowd “This guy gets it”
wait for applause break to die down
Now commence the Character Establishment segment.
“So I’m single”…
An opening bit and then some character establishment will still work, but just make sure you do CE in the first half…
So, now that you’re roughly around the 4-minute mark of your game-changing set, I’d suggest closing with another bit that has a clearly defined punchline at the end. Something that’s worked consistently before. Just remember, if you leave on a laugh they’ll forgive every dog shit thing you may have done prior…
For argument's sake though, tonight is different, you got a 7-minute spot instead of the usual 5. The headliner is tryna score blow, bang a waitress, park their Ferrari… whatever my excuse is on the night, I’m running late and you have to pad out.. You've got 3 whole minutes left so I reckon it might be story time.
This doesn’t have to be a true story, so long as it’s funny and sounds like something you’d do.
When it comes to telling stories always remember the 80:20 ratio:
Only 80 percent of it needs to be funny if the other 20 percent is also funny.
It’d wanna have a hefty sprinklin' of punchlines throughout or you’re in danger of just being someone on stage who’s simply talking.
So pepper it with fun turns of phrase, quirky insights, voices for the other characters, fill up the time with as much funny as possible and cut every single word that doesn’t serve the story or create lols.
Drop the final punchline of the story and bask in the ambience of a crowd laughing because they know you… “Oh that’s classic Robbo” they’ll say… (You’re Robbo obviously)
Quick recap: Off the top you establish your character by jabbing about your shitty childhood and how it’s all your mother’s fault or whatever… Next up do that bit about how you’re a piece of garbage who gets public transport. -Now close out with either another bit or if you have time, that story bout how you stole money from your mother’s mattress and spent it on Pogs. Audiences will already knows you’re a piece of shit and that it’s your mother’s fault, so the story will really pop… Final line: “So I’m single”
Audience be all like “Oh that’s Classic Robbo!!!” and you sleep with several of them, all because you structured your set so well.