We tend to think of stand-up comedians as fearless extroverts, unafraid to grab the mic and spill their guts for our entertainment. But make no mistake, good comics are calculating creatures, well studied in the art of amusement. They labor for months to craft tight, proven sets made up of jokes that they know will make us laugh and make them look good. And then they agree to do Set List, and must stand by and watch as Troy Conrad, the show’s sadistic creator and host, lights all their best material on fire and tells them to start over--in front of a live audience.
Easier in premise than in practice, Set List finds familiar comics being fed a series of never-before-seen topics that they’re forced to make funny without any time to prepare. And since the topics are actually projected onto the wall beside them as they step on stage, we in the crowd get to watch their faces rise in excitement--or occasionally sink in horror--as they register the assignment that is about to guide the course of their set. There are no real rules beyond the hitherto not-knowing, so part of the pleasure of Set List is watching the approach each comedian takes at playing their cards they’re dealt.
Opener Rick Overton took a biographical-narrative approach, culling ridiculous stories from his own life for “first narcoleptic,” which was accompanied by a short on-stage nap, and “women who boil rabbits,” a (hopefully) fictional account of a past lover sending a gruesome message. His silly energy belied his inexperience with these particular punchlines, and he never allowed himself to hesitate or stop and think too hard. Jonah Ray showed similar sureness, hitting a homerun with his confessed devotion to the cult of “Peniscientology” and his online run-ins with the “Youtube comments of a kindergartener.” He seemed quite at home pulling jokes out of thin air on this occasion, though that might have a little something to do with his ongoing job hosting his own weekly show, The Meltdown, on this very stage at the Nerdist Theatre.
Paul Scheer took a more observational approach, letting his topics guide him into a hilarious analysis on the recent bath salts/zombie epidemic and the apathetic service we’ve all grown to expect from Target employees. His first time performing at a Set List show, it appeared as though his background as an improviser would make quick work of Conrad’s unpredictable creation. That is, until the topic “Sudden Idea Death Syndrome” flashed onto the screen and threatened to manifest into an actual condition right then and there. “Oh man,” said Scheer, as he held his head. “Man, oh man, man, man.” But wouldn’t you know it, that got the audience laughing, too. He quickly bounced back, and by the end of the set had weaved three of his topics together for a closer that appeared to had been fine tuned for weeks, not minutes.
A long way from his home turf of Australia, comedian and long-time talk show host Rove McManus refused to be contained by the topics he received. Instead, he used “shirts vs. skins vs. Nazis” as a comedy-weapon to bludgeon an uncouth audience member who had the misfortune of getting a mid-show call from mom. His time turned into an interview, where he answered and put her in the most awkward position of the night. “Hey Susan,” he said politely. “What’s your take on The Jews?” (alternate: “Do you like Mel Gibson?”)
Set List doesn’t just succeed through the brilliance of its original topics or the flawless performance of its line-up, though some comics do flourish under the format. It’s also an incredible tool for stripping away the artifice of rehearsed comedy acts and letting audiences in on the process, which itself is a lot of fun. The result this time was a room alternately filled with genuine guffaws and the good natured I’m with you-laughter that you might get out of seeing a little leaguer lose the bat on a big swing.
Sure, there’s a bit of schadenfreude to be had, some of which comes through in the absurd topics that make their way to the screen. (You try and make a joke about “human sacrifice upside,” as Greg Fitzsimmons had to.) But, thanks entirely to the high calibre of comedians that Conrad and his crew have been able to bring together, which on Saturday also included Jimmy Dore, Jake Johannsen, and Blaine Capatch, there is always an angle to take that will lead to something worth laughing at for the right reason.
Set List has upcoming gigs in Los Angeles at the Nerdist and UCB Theatres, as well as at Electric Brixton in London. They will also be a part of Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival in July, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, and LA’s Riot Comedy Festival in September. Find out more at the official Set List website.