It’s raw, it’s panic-inducing and for those about to take the stage, Set List’s “Stand-Up Without A Net” can feel like the comedic equivalent of stepping into the ring against Muhammad Ali. It’s been described by several comedians as the most difficult gig they’ve ever done. They also can’t stop talking about it.
Co-produced by Los Angeles comedians Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza, the format forces comedians to take the stage without any pre-written material. Their set will instead stem from three to four irreverent subjects displayed alternately on a screen behind them. For example: “Introverted Dictator,” or “A Misogynistic Serenade,” or even “Bestiality Glory Hole Roulette.” The comic is exposed to the off-beat topics at the same time as the audience, and they’re not allowed to use any material they’ve performed before. They get booed if they do. Conrad and Provenza describe “Stand-Up Without a Net” as “asking a magician to perform real magic.”
“It’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Let’s try it.”
This is how Conrad remembers Provenza’s reaction to Conrad’s initial idea to combine stand-up and improv. Most comedians feel the same way, but at the same time look forward to the opportunity because it gives them a chance to be spontaneously funny and learn how to improvise during their other sets. Part of the draw, Conrad says, is that they have no control over the direction the performance will veer.
“When you’re doing Set List, you’re not in control in anyway,” he says. “You know you’re not in control and yet you step into the arena. The best way I can explain why comics are addicted to it is the same [reason] people like being in mixed martial arts or like being in the UFC.”
“Somebody put it really well last night after the show,” Conrad continues. “They said it’s kind of like watching the hamster inside the wheel inside the head of the comedian. Sometimes the hamster isn’t always pretty, but most of the time [it] does something amazing.”
So far more than 200 big- and small-name comedians from around the world have braved the stage, including Reggie Watts, Eddie Izzard, Bob Odenkirk, Drew Carey and Robin Williams. There are currently over 50 sets available to stream on Nerdist’s YouTube channel, and a deal was recently booked to broadcast shows in the U.K. on Sky Atlantic. The first episode is set to air Dec. 2.
Veteran comedian Kira Soltanovich craves the spontaneity of Set List, and notes how each Set List performance is a totally new experience you can never really prepare for. “I’ve done Set List tons of times now but it doesn’t matter because every time it’s like I’m a virgin on prom night,” she says.
Soltanovich’s is known for engaging with the audience and making her material personal, traits that she believes allow her to feel more comfortable than other comics working within Set List’s daunting format. “I tend to do the same kind of persona because I’m doing me,” she says. “I’m a little bit angry and a little bit sarcastic, and I love to talk about my personal stuff so I try to weave my personal life into my Set List, which is the same with any stand-up show. Whatever is going on in my life is my stand-up and maybe that’s why it seems like I’m not nervous when I do it.”
Getting on stage with no material in front of a crowd of people expecting you to make them laugh is an unnerving prospect for anyone, though, and after Soltanovich finishes a successful Set List, she equates the feeling to getting away with something illegal.
“You feel a little dirty, you know, if you do a Set List that you did really well at,” she says. “You think, ‘How did I get away with that?’ If you didn’t squirm you think, ‘I just got away with a crime and nobody saw me feel that.’”
Set List also shows a vulnerable side of comedians audiences hadn’t previously been privy to (if going up on stage with material isn’t vulnerable enough). It separates the funny people from the funny comedians, and few would deny there’s a marked difference between the two.
“In conversation sometimes you know when you come up with stuff that’s really funny?” says Iliza Shlesinger, winner of NBC’s Last Comic Standing and whose new special, War Paint, spent time atop iTunes’ comedy charts. ”[Set List] is just that in a condensed, stressful version which is even more rewarding becasue you know the thoughts that come out of your head unfiltered are genuinely funny. That instant gratification is worth its weight in gold, in my opinion.”
And for comics who got their start in improv like Shlesinger, Set List is a chance to return to their comedic roots. “I rarely get to work those muscles anymore so I love it,” she says. “You’re venturing into the unknown and hoping the words come out in a funny way.”
But while labeling Set List as a combination of stand-up and improv is apt, Set list is, in fact, oftentimes even more spontaneous and difficult to prepare for because of how unique and disturbing the topics comics are given are, most of which are written by Conrad himself. “I’m asking the comics to bring the shit and make [the material] grow into something, so it’s really doing stand-up backward and somehow that works,” he says. “Then I wanted to make the rule that the topics up there are things that have never been on any comedian’s set list before.”
Lately, Conrad says he’s started to look at it from a broader perspective, viewing Set List not simply as a way to strip away the protection of memorized material, but as a way to give audiences access to the philosophies of different comedians, whose opinion and worldview he sees as supremely valuable, on a deeper, more instinctual level.
”[Comedians] are philosophers and they’re music makers and dreamers of dreams,” he says. “They’re the ones putting out really interesting ideas. They’re not getting the credit they deserve. Giving them Set List is another way to make them create this philosophy based on their own voice.”
Whether it’s through Robin Williams’ take on a Crucifixion after party or Bob Odenkirk’s views on how porn is evolving, it’s hard to say it isn’t working.