Stand-Up Theory. (yikes)

Had a great discussion with the aforementioned psycho Jordan Nevins yesterday. He's a smart cookie. A crazy, crazy, intelligent cookie.

I wanted to get his opinion of an idea I had re: the structure of most stand-up. It seems to me that most of every modern (!) stand up act can be broken down into different proportions of the following three crafts/skills/structures, with a bonus fourth I'll talk about in a second.

1) Jokes
2) Debate
3) Cartoonism

Here's what I mean by each of those three, because I'm using the terms fairly specifically.

1) Jokes
A joke, as I talked about in an earlier blog-post, is a discrete verbally or physically expressed broken expectation. If you've heard of Henny Youngman before, he was an old sexist who popularized stand-up as a joke-based form. His most famous line is,

"Take my wife - please!"

That's not a funny joke anymore, but it illustrates a point. In the first part of the line, he leads you to believe "Take my wife" as in "For example, my wife." In the second part of the line, he breaks that expectation/interpretation of the first part, so that you now know he wants you to acquire, steal, or otherwise get rid of his wife for him. Two meanings and a broken expectation. At it's core, I believe that's what a "joke" is. 

Here's a stupid joke I wrote recently while warming up, 
"I lost my wallet last week - to cancer."
Do we see? Djes? Good.

2) Debate
This is something I lifted pretty directly from Hannibal Buress (I think from a GQ article?), who did some debate growing up. He basically asserted that stand-up is structured, at least on the outside, like debate. You suggest a thesis - some kind of belief, opinion, or fact about yourself - and you then give one or more proofs for that thesis.

Another great example of this is Chris Rock. For example, here's a premise of his:
"Men are only as unfaithful as their options."
That's a thesis. You could argue it. You could argue against it. Chris, Hannibal, and Seinfeld are great examples of this structure.

3) Cartoonism
You might hear comedians refer to this in a specific bit as an "act-out." This is an idea I lifted from the Let's Talk About  Sets podcast, and who they in-turn lifted from Brian Reagan. It's this notion that the more you can get the audience to see the cartoon you're creating instead of a person onstage, the more they're going to laugh.

When Dane Cook talks about the BK Lounge, you see him dealing with the loud customer, and the weird pickles-cheese person. In 2017, his most recent special on Netflix, Louis does an awesome act-out of a dog on heroin. It's a cartoon. It's hilarious to see him be this cartoon of a dog.

In a lot of ways, this is related to what comedy genius/goddess Anne Libera would call "Lizard Brain" humor. Although it can be used for a high-brow purpose, sometimes it's just a stupid, lizard-brain reaction to see something so recognizable, silly, or outrageous.

Bonus 4) Storytelling
I think storytelling is kind of it's own beast. It is it's own craft that is also a close relative to stand-up. As it relates to our discussion here, I think in many stand-up acts you'll see a jokes, debates, and cartoonism interspersed throughout a story, using the narrative as a throughline. That's some advanced shit though. Or maybe not.

Look forward to my next blog "62 Days Again, in which Jon learns that he also should have been practicing storytelling this whole time"


See you tomorrow!



  1. Just been getting caught up with the blog, its interesting thought provoking and inspiring :)


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