The Structure Of A Comedy Set & The Applications For Public Speaking

Have you ever analysed a comedy set? 

Probably not. Unless you've pursued the art of comedy, there's no real reason to do so. 

It's far more satisfying to simply enjoy, what feels like an ad-libbed ramble of observations or a rolling set of one liners.

That said, you've probably sub consciously been impressed by the ability to refer back to earlier comments,'ve probably laughed at the running gag that the comedian revisits throughout the show,

...and you've unknowingly appreciated the story being told as the comedian performs. 

Today, I want to explore three of these intentional structures and consider how you might use them in your next presentation.


The Call Back

You'll have observed Comedians refer back to a joke or comment they made earlier on in the show. If a joke gets a particularly big laugh, it's not uncommon for the Comedian to have other opportunities built into their set, referring back to that initial joke. Just as the audience forgets it, the comedian comes back with another hilarious reference. This strengthens the gag, impresses the audience and builds upon the flow of laughter / engagement. 

Application for public speaking;  If you've got a story or illustration that works. Come back to it throughout your presentation. Make multiple references, draw multiple points from it and hook your audience throughout your talk. 

The Top It 

I've had the privilege to spend a bit of time, learning from the brilliant one liner comic, Milton Jones. One of his encouragements to me was to maximise the gags that already get big laughs, by seeking to find a 'top up' line, thus extending and building upon the laugh. This isn't as easy as it might sound, but it's brilliant when it works. 

For example;  One of my favourite gags is to show a picture of two children, saying, 'This is Sarah and Jonathan'...(The audience responds 'Awww') to which I then say, 'Their not my kids, but thanks'. 

This gets a big laugh. To 'top it', I might add, 'Just £1.49 from google' - Or, 'One day the mum of these kids will be in the audience'.' etc 

Application for public speaking;  Keep building upon the points that resonate with your audience. Don't move on so quickly with another point or another example. Instead, build upon what has already clicked with the audience. 


The Running Gag 

Very similar to the points above, but much more intentional. Whereas a call back might feature once or twice, and top it gags come in their groupings, a running gag is a reference that is made throughout the show. After once or twice, the audience expects to hear a running gag referenced again. Whilst not so much a 'joke', my use of the phrase 'Oh My Days' shouted by the audience, is an example of a running gag. The audience knows that I'll be expecting that response at various points throughout the show, to the point at which I'm often heckled with the phrase, even when not prompted. 

Application for public speaking;  Engage your audience with the equivalent of a running gag. It might be a one liner, a recurring prop or a question to the audience that you keep asking, within a different context. 


The Story Arc   (*Spoiler Alert) 

Finally, the story arc. I've only just started building this into my show and it's so very satisfying to do so. I've really enjoyed the creative thinking behind this, despite it being a challenge to get right. 

The premise of the story arc is that the end of the show, compliments and satisfies, the unfinished narrative, laid out at the beginning. 

For example, my current show starts with the premise that I'm a magician, because I always wanted to be a superhero, by whom people would be impressed, exclaiming 'Oh My Days' all of the time.

This becomes a running gag and a call back, eventually leading to a finale in which I appear in full superman costume. 

The story arc is as follows;

I wanted to be superman, I tried becoming like superman, I was superman. 

Application for public speaking;  Consider how you can create a story arc in your presentation? How can you take your listeners 'full circle' - Coming back to the unfinished narrative that you set out in the introduction of your talk. 



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