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Truth, Filth, and Tightrope Walking: Lessons From 'Set List' Masterminds Paul Provenza and Troy Conrad

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"Funny is funny" as the adage goes, but the format continues to evolve. Since its inception, however, the actual format of standup really hasn't changed. Sure, there's tight tens, longform, and one-man shows, but it has always been one performer, working out their story in front of an audience.

In September of 2010, Troy Conrad launched a new format of stand up: unscripted and on a topic that the performer sees at the same time as the audience. It is (quite aptly) billed as "Stand-up Without a Net." For performers, there is great risk and potentially great reward. For audiences, it's a non-stop tightrope spectacle that's never the same two nights in a row.

I recently spoke to creator Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza about Set List, and the changing business of comedy.

Karen: Why mess with success? Why create a new format for an already beloved art?

Troy: I think of it like this: If I'm putting up a show, putting on great comics, what are they getting that they can't get elsewhere? And, if you look at all the projects Paul has worked on, they all have that factor as well: give the comics something different. A lot of shows approach it from the other side: "How can we rake in the people?"

I think not enough shows embrace realness. There's only one thing the audience knows when they come to see Set List. They know it's going to be real.

Karen: What was the initial reaction to Set List when you first launched it?

Troy: It was instant feedback of "Oh, this is so much fun." But comics also said to us, "this is not what I thought improv was." The biggest thing we've been told is "this is really real."

Paul: It was clear to me the first time I did [Set List], that something really interesting was going on. I was having an experience that I had never had before as a stand-up. The audience was having a completely different reaction to it too, they were literally on the edge of their seats.

Karen: Big names in comedy have done Set List. Do you think part of the attraction for them is that they can let the audience in to their creative process?

Paul: Comedians generally remember the shows that are out of the ordinary. The nights when something unusual happens are the nights you have another story to tell, so, there's that attraction. There's the opportunity for an epiphany. There's the opportunity for an idea you never thought of before about a subject you could not have imagined.

Karen: Is that a more visceral reaction, because you can't overthink it?

Troy: We have so many comics tell us after the show "I have no idea what I just said. I'm shaking, and I'm full of adrenaline, and it feels like I just got into a fight!"

Paul: It's actually really a Zen thing. You have to get to that place as a performer, which is complete un self-conscious self-awareness. You have to let go of outcome, and be in the moment.

Troy: If you try to "game" the show, the audience is aware of it right away. They can sense it.

Karen: Is there a Gladiatorial aspect to this, where the audience cheers for the performer, while simultaneously waiting for them to fail?

Tony: I don't think that. I think the audience is always attracted to what's real. When comics are working something out in their head, or grabbing for words, that's just really interesting.

Paul: The analogy that I use sometimes is that of a tightrope walker. The audience pretty much knows that he's not going to fall, but there's that possibility that it might happen. There's a sense of danger. There is always the possibility with Set List that someone could just draw a blank, and that makes it doubly exciting for the audience, because they know the performer is being fearless. Because everyone sees the topic at the same time, the audience is in on it from the get-go. This is the only time in stand-up that the audience and the comedian are at the same place. The comedian usually has control.

Karen: Does Set List succeed because we live in an environment where you can watch comedians on any given day work out material though social media?

Paul: I think in general, the relationship between comedians and their audiences is changing. Audiences are relating to comedians with much more context. You hear them on countless podcasts, you can see them on Vine clips, you can see comics goofing around with each other on YouTube, and audiences enjoy that, because in some ways, it's like running away with the circus.

Troy: In martial arts, there's something called the Kata. You incorporate all the moves you've learned in class into one routine. It's like standup, because it's often very perfect, and you know what you're getting. Set List is like being in a cage, and having to engage in a real fight.

Karen: A lot has been written about what jokes are "appropriate." Do your suggestions push "good taste" right to the limit?

Paul: When a comic gets a suggestion that cross some lines, or raise some very unpleasant ideas, the audience knows that they have to do something here, so they give them a pass because they know the comedian didn't write it themselves, and they have to run with it. It actually puts the audience on the side of the comic. I love seeing a comedian being pushed to the limits on subject matter.

Troy: I've seen clean comedians cross lines, because in that environment, they knew it was OK.

Karen: How do you formulate the suggestions?

Paul: There's a lot of dancing around on the head of a pin, and we can spend hours honing and crafting a suggestion to make it have enough for the comic to work with.

Karen: What has been your favourite suggestion?

Paul: Matt Kirschen once got "suicidal optimist." He looked at it, turned to the audience, and said, "my jar of cyanide is half full." That, to me, is perfection!

Troy: There's one topic that we use with comedians when we know it's their first time, and it's a great one because it has to do with racism. It's so funny to see them address it. I could watch every comic do this suggestion. I never get tired of it.

Paul: We've even given comics suggestions in Russian or Chinese. Sometimes we give them weird acronyms. Those are all great because it's pure heavy lifting on the part of the comedian. They have to create the world around the suggestions.

Karen: What do you two think is the future of comedy?

Troy: Realness. New levels of realness, and higher stakes.

Paul: Authenticity, definitely. It's funny, people are turning out in droves for the most mundane, heavily marketed stuff, but at the same time, people are turning up for the stuff that's more authentic and real. You can now become a fan of a comic in Sweden. I think there's going to be more of everything.