There are instances at stand-up shows where something happens in the audience, or a comic reacts to something a fellow performer said earlier, or there’s just something weighing on his or her mind that needs to come out. Tig Notaro revealing her cancer diagnosis onstage at Largo, for instance, or Bill Burr suggesting the Philadelphia crowd at Opie and Anthony’s 1996 Traveling Virus tour fuck the fuck off. The jokes riffed have a different feel than painstakingly written, honed and polished material. We in the seats recognize it—sense those somethings in the air—and sit up a little straighter.
Where is this going? Will the payoff be sufficient when it arrives? How am I going to remember all the details I’ll want to recount after? Anything can happen, and whatever does never will again. Those of us present share a singular, binding moment in time: We witnessed it together.
Moments like these are what comprise Set List: Stand-Up Without a Net, an entire show built around the certainty that anything can happen when humor in its purest form is channeled directly from a comic’s subconscious. It’s just a mic, a series of never-seen and often bawdy topics (“Non-Sexual Moustache Ride,” ABBAbortion,” “Circumcision Pranks,” “Post-Coital Crayon,” “Masturbaking”) projected on a screen or wall, and a comedic mind left to its own devices.
Given the set up, it’s never evident who’s going to do well and who’s going to crack under the pressure. I’ve witnessed Roseanne start out timid before shifting into high gear at L.A.’s NerdMelt Showroom, Mike Birbiglia struggle at SXSW, a purple puppet completely destroy in a Scottish cave and Gilbert Gottfried unleash some serious spite over his firing as the Aflac duck at The Stand in New York City. And of the dozens of Set Lists I’ve attended, I’ve never had anything but a fantastic time.
For comics, the thrill is utilizing all the mental tools, natural talent and years of experience in their arsenal as each new topic appears. Wondering 1) “How am I going to get there?” 2) “How am I going to be funny?” and 3) “How and I going to be unexpected and unique?” some start with a reflexive response and move onward, some build up to hitting the phrase as a definitive punchline, some choose to circle around and around, teasing and testing from different angles. It’s intimidating yet compelling, and it’s also unifying. Only comics who have participated—boldfacers Fred Willard, Drew Carey, Eddie Izzard, Robin Williams, Bob Odenkirk, even Mort Sahl among them—understand the specific fear it generates. And when they succeed, they’re further united by the common thrill of creating humor under these specific circumstances. Among the comic brotherhood, Set List is like staring down from the high dive; afterward the bravest kids huddle amongst themselves, camaraderie bound by that feeling of taking the plunge.
Those of us in the crowd are won over by self-deprecation and a rare glimpse of seeing the wheels turn as much as on-the-spot blossoming of something funny. It’s not about “Pathetic clown, I challenge thee to make me laugh,” like shows occasionally feel. We can’t help but collectively root for comics like they’re the home team. Though audience members aren’t the ones in the spotlight, we’re physically willing those onstage to succeed, caught up in the suspense, and want to urge him or her on to victory more than anything. Set List generates at least two to three times more applause breaks, bare minimum, than any show I’ve ever attended. Because in this particular venue, and in this particular moment, we’re all in this thing together.