The comic divide
There are two types of comedian in the world, those brave enough to take on the Set List, and those who flee. Creator Paul Provenza explains the rules to
ROBIN WILLIAMS has done it all and seen it all in stand-up comedy. He's a world-class performer with genius improvisational skills and can cope with anything that is thrown at him. But before a recent show in Los Angeles, he was reduced to a quaking, hyperventilating nervous wreck.
The reason: he was about to do Set List - a new and horrendous twist on the stand-up format which is soon to be a major TV show and is coming to Galway for the Bulmers Pear Comedy Festival.
Usually, a comic will have single words scribbled down on their hand or on a small piece of paper with them as they perform. This is their "set list" - reminder words for routines that are well-polished and well-rehearsed. With Set List though, they must work with new and arbitrary words and themes. They have no idea what this new set list will consist of, and must try to fashion comedy gold out of what they are given.
Dreamt up by US comics Paul Provenza and Troy Conrad, Set List is the new Whose Line Is It Anyway? But by doing away with the team aspect of improv and putting one single act through the ringer, they have found a new form of torture/viewing pleasure. "It's a very simple premise," says Provenza. "When the comic arrives on stage, a word or a phrase is flashed up on a screen so that he/she and the audience are seeing it for the first time. The comic then has to fashion material based on that word/phrase, and throughout the performance a series of different words are thrown at him/her. It's absolutely terrifying for a stand-up."
Set List is notable for just how much it can petrify the act before they go on.
"Tim Minchin turned to me before he did it and said, in all seriousness, 'I am actually shitting myself at the moment'," says Provenza. "And I couldn't believe how nervous Robin Williams was before he went on. I was kind of saying, if it makes you like this, just don't do it, but he was going 'I have to do this. If I don't, I'd be branded a pussy'. I can't emphasise enough what happens to these people when you suddenly take away the safety rope. They really sweat over this."
The dual attraction here is that while the comic has never had this experience before, neither has the audience. "To show how difficult it is, at some of the shows we get some random audience members up to try it," says Provenza. "We'll flash up a phrase such as 'Holy Communion Faux-Pas' and give them 30 seconds. That gives the audience some sense of what the comic is going through in having to do a whole set this way."
Provenza delights in making things even harder for the act by coming up with words/phrases he knows a comic will struggle with. "We don't just flash up neutral phrases; all the topics we give them are well crafted and written from a comedy perspective, so that there is material available - but you really have to dig deep to find it," he says. "And different topics can call upon different skills. Terms I've used in the past include 'Crucifixion after-party', or I've just put up an assemblage of letters. Acronyms with no meaning always work well. Other times it could just be something like '2pm - Laundry'. You have to keep everyone surprised."