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Stand-Up Comedy Glossary

October 1, 2010


Let’s get definitive!

You don’t know the power of a dope vocabulary.

It occurred to me that even though this blog is primarily aimed at stand-up comics, people who don’t practice the art form might be interested in what we discuss as well.  For this reason, I’ve dedicated this Friday’s resource topic to a stand-up glossary, which will help you navigate some of the specialized terms thrown around in this blog.

Thanks to Greg Dean’s glossary, which I used as a reference, although I ended up re-writing the definitions. However, if any of mine confuse you, feel free to check out his comprehensive list.

Act Out: Taking on a character’s point of view and behaving as if you were them during a stand-up routine.  For example: “My boss is so SELFISH!  Last week he goes, (gruff voice) “I’m gonna need you to come in on the weekend so I can go play golf and eat hamburgers.”

Act Outs are an excellent way to increase laughs through the use of silliness (see previous theory post on this topic)

A-Material: A stand-up set that contains what the comic considers to be his or her best and funniest jokes.

Bit: A series of jokes on a single topic.  Can include just one, or several punchlines, although traditionally just one premise.  For example: “I’m going to do my bit on the moon landing tonight, then finish off with that water-skiing bit.”

Blue material: Edgy jokes that involve sexual topics, swearing, and/or graphic content.

Bomb: A comedy performance which generates little to no laughter.   See this related theory post on bombing.

Callback: A joke which references a joke that occurred earlier in a set. Often elicits a strong laughter response and brings a sense of closure to a set.

Catchphrase: A sentence or phrase repeated by the performer which becomes a joke in and of itself.  (See  previous theory post on this topic).

Closer: The last joke a comic tells as part of their set.  Often contains a callback, but not always.  In almost all cases, the closer should be one of the funnier bits of the set.

Comedian/Comic: These are two different things, though there is wide disagreement as to their definitions.  The best comparison I’ve found is:  A comic says funny things or makes funny observations, whereas a comedian is a funny person. So for example, someone like George Burns is a comedian (he plays a character onstage) and someone like Lenny Bruce is a comic (he is just himself onstage, talking about how he views the world).   At the end of the day, you’re best to err on the side of using “comic” rather than comedian, although I doubt someone would punch you in the nose if you got it wrong.

Door Prize Show: A competitive performance whose outcome is decided by the votes of a paid audience.  The winning performer keeps the revenue generated from these paid audience members.

Gig: A stand-up comedy performance.  Usually the word gig implies a paid performance.

Hack: A premise, topic, or joke that is well-explored and contains very few surprises.  It is not desirable to be considered hack.  See this resource for examples of hack topics.

Headliner: The final performer of a paid show.  They are the highest paid, and often the most seasoned or popular of the performers.  It is worth noting that at an unpaid gig, calling yourself the headliner because you happened to be placed last is misusing the term and a breach of etiquette.

Heckler: Any audience member who interrupts a comic’s routine.  It is important to note that many hecklers mean well, and actually think they are “helping” make the show better.  Because of the illusion of spontenaity that stand-up comedy generates, this misunderstanding about the importance of allowing a comic to perform uninterrupted causes a lot of conflict.  See this related theory post on heckling

Joke: A series of words strung together that elicit a humorous response by establishing a premise, then creating a surprise or turn to modify the premise in some way, using a punchline.

Kill: A comedy performance that generates an extremely enthusiastic response from the audience.

Laughs Per Minute (LPM): A simple system to measure the success of a stand-up comedy performance.  The total number of laughs are counted, then divided by the number of minutes the set lasted.  A score of 5 LPM (1 laugh per 12 seconds) or higher is considered to be approaching a professional level. It should be noted that this system is crude at best, as it does not account for quality or length of the laugh. For example, a comic like Bill Cosby who takes his time setting up a premise might have a lower LPM than Carrot Top, but he is clearly the funnier performer.

Line-up: A group of two or more comics who will be performing in a show. 

M.C.: Stands for Master of Ceremonies, essentially the host of a show.  They are responsible for opening and closing the show, as well as introducing comics, making announcements, and maintaining order in the room.

Middle: Any comic who is performing in a stand-up show and is neither the opening act or the Headliner.  Paid and given more time than the opening act, but less than the headliner.

One-liner: A short joke in which the premise and punchline are delivered within a single sentence.

Open Mic/Mike: A show where anyone, regardless of skill, can perform onstage.  Often poorly attended and no payment is received by performers. Open mikes are considered an acceptable venue to test new material.  See this related theory post on open mike etiquette.

Opener: In a professional gig, the comic who performs first.  Paid less and given less time than the middle or headliner.

Premise: When forming a joke, the premise is the initial situation or understanding to which the punchline adds humour.  The premise in and of itself is not the funny part of the joke.  For example: ”I was walking down the street the other day and I saw a mom walking her kid on a leash…”

Punchline: The part of a joke that alters the premise in a way that creates humour, often through surprise or misdirection.  Continuing from the example of a premise above: ”…Why don’t you just buy that kid a shirt that says “Dear Child Services: my days are numbered, where the Hell are you?!”

Riffing: Improvised interaction with the audience.  Often used by MCs to warm up a crowd, or for comics performing longer sets to modify the energy level of the room. It is also worth noting that riffing creates a strong humorous reaction by using current events, see this previous post on the topic.

Rip: Making fun of a member of the audience, another comic, or the venue.  Often occurs when a heckler becomes aggressive toward the comic.  For Example: “Gary really ripped into that drunk guy who told him not to quit his day job.”

Routine: The cumulative jokes involved in a single performance.  For example: “Tonight, since we’re performing for seniors, I’ll do one of my clean routines.”

Segue: (pronounced Seg-way) The flow of one stand-up comedy bit into another.  The segue is important because it maintains the illusion that a comic is thinking up their bits on the spot.

Set: A series of jokes told in one performance by a comic.  Can vary from minutes to hours depending on the nature of the show.

Sh*t Sandwich: The practice of a comic placing new, untested material in between two stronger bits in order to give it a better chance of making an audience laugh.

Showcase: A stand-up comedy show designed to present comics to industry scouts who are interested in finding new talent. 

Tag: A secondary punchline which is added to a joke without adding a new premise.  This is a popular technique because it more efficiently uses a premise to generate laughs.  See this related theory post

Topical Jokes: Jokes that reference a current event.  These can be as intimate as something happening in the room, or something happening overseas.  The critical aspect is that the event happened recently.

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