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The Structure of Stand-Up Comedy (pudding.cool)
444 points by nniroclax on Aug 7, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 93 comments

I started to appreciate stand-up comedy a lot more after realizing just how much effort goes into delivery. It's almost uncanny to watch a comedian perform the same routine twice, because their timing is so consistent.

Here's a good breakdown of a Louis CK joke: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufdvYrTeTuU

Jerry Seinfeld also gave an interview with the NYT about the process — I think Jerry is a good example because so much of his comedy depends on the delivery.


It's interesting watching comedians in cars getting coffee as obviously they're always telling each other jokes and he'll often pick out bits of the other comedian's joke that he thinks really makes the joke, and it's not always what you'd first think.

It was one of those episodes that made it click for me. I can't remember which episode it was but Jerry and the other guy were discussing what it was like on stage and Jerry mentioned during the periods the audience is laughing he isn't thinking about the laughter or the crowd. Instead he's thinking about how he's going to continue the joke or transition to another one. I have found the whole series to be really insightful into the lives of comedians. I think it was one of the earlier episodes in the latest season.

Check out Pete Holmes' You Made It Weird podcast for more comedians talking about comedy academically

I recall that episode and believe it's the one with Tracy Morgan.

Without requiring analysis, the Bob Einstein episodes are the purest representation of fundamental comedic concepts in the whole series.

Can you give an example?

He talks to Norm Macdonald about his germany bit. Norm has done that bit a lot. IIRC Jerry just talks about how good it is, more appreciation than dissection

It's more the small jokes to each other as they're chatting, he'll point out the bridge or something like that as the bit of the joke that makes it really work.

Can't remember a specific example now, but the two of them often generally discuss how comedy works, etc.

He's a bit OTT about how it can't be taught and it seems a bit contradictory as they'll discuss how they learnt the craft and often find they did the same thing.

In the beforetimes of podcasts, there was a series of CDs under the "...On Comedy" umbrella that were extended interviews about the mechanics of comedy, and they did one with Jerry: https://www.amazon.com/Jerry-Seinfeld-Comedy/dp/B00005LN3K

If you have a serious interest in stand-up, I would highly recommend Stuart Goldsmith's podcast The Comedian's Comedian. He interviews a broad range of (mainly British) comedians, taking a deep dive into their writing process and stagecraft. The interviews with Jimmy Carr and Gary Delaney stand out as highlights for me, providing some absolutely revelatory insights into the art of making something funny. It can be a bit inside baseball at times, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.




I was hoping there'd a be a Dylan Moran one... No luck there. Thanks for the link though, this is getting added to my regular podcast rotation.

Moran is famously press-shy. He's been on Marc Maron and Scroobius Pip's distraction pieces and is excellent in both, so I'd recommend listening to those.

I've read/watched quite a few breakdowns of his acts, but haven't been able to find anything by/with him discussing his act, so I'll definitely look into those.

Now that you mention it all of the preroll interviews in his recorded acts do seem really forced... I could never tell if that was me reading him wrong, or if he was keeping up the "I don't care" character.

kill tony is another good comedy podcast that gets into the details of stand up sometimes

Well done to the authors! This is a really compelling analysis, fun to "read". It's a great use of the medium, pretty much the picture my imagination painted when (one of the whens) "multimedia books" were a thing of the future.

On stand-up comedy... I've heard more about the "making of" in recent years too, as comedians invaded podcasting. It's very interesting, how a joke or set evolves in the telling. I guess certain jokes and bits don't make the cut, but moreso, they are refined for timing, cadence and the stuff this article points out (kreshendo?).

A curious paralel is (perhaps) speech-making. There is someone on stage, live audience. They do the same talk/set over and over, to different crowds. Each time, the punches are fuunnier. The misdirections get more subtle. The impacts are better. The crowd cohesion grows.

Orration is ancient, and I suspect that stand up comedians have a lot in common with orators of the past, before mass media existed.

If you listen to (for example) a recorded malcolm X speech (I think he was exceptionally talented), you are probably listening to the 100th delivery of the speech. It didn't just pop out of his mouth with that much impact on day 1.

I'm a storyteller, and yes the techniques are more or less the same. By telling the same story over and over again, you gain insight of when people are going to laugh, when they are going to keep quiet (you can even feel the tension sometimes), and the story gets better and better with time, and is more and more fixed in its delivery.

You can work as hard as you want beforehand, your work on a story is not done until you told it dozen of times to a real, live audience.

Still impressed by standup comedians, as they have a way smaller error margin than us.

This is kind of a dumb question, what's the comedy club equivalent for oral storytelling?

Does this get billed as one man show theatre?

I'm in France, so my answer might not apply to where you live, but we typically have yearly festivals, monthly open mics in theaters, plus the occasional one-shot in theaters (where a famous storyteller is invited for his new/famous set of stories).

We are considered as actors/comedian and are paid accordingly (or not at all, for open mics, obviously).

We are considered as actors/comedian and are paid accordingly

Maybe you should bill yourself as "speakers." They get paid better.


My experience with oral storytelling has been through festivals dedicated to it. This[1] is a list of storytelling festivals around the US and some other countries.

[1] http://www.sostoryfest.com/festivals.html

A local group does oral storytelling, and it is promoted as such.


I've noticed the similarity between speech writing/delivery and comedy as well, and find it quite fascinating.

The really compelling bit for me is watching a skilled comedian get a feel for the crowd. It's easier to spot with a comic you've seen more than once, but you can see this with others as well once you know to look - you'll see them go into a routine, and for some reason the jokes just aren't hitting with the expected force (the crowd seems into it from my perspective, but what do I know?). They'll then almost seamlessly pivot into another completely different bit, and NOW it almost audibly clicks, and the audience just swells and starts laughing with their whole being. It's difficult to describe, considering that much of it is a feeling in the air. An off-the-top example...a comic is doing political material, and it's not being totally received, so they'll segue into sex material, and it pops with this crowd, so they'll continue from there. Considering that even within the same town, an 8:00 crowd and an 11:00 crowd may differ wildly in their tastes, to the point where the 8 crowd wants politics, and the 11 crowd wants sex. Geography plays a factor, too. It's an incredibly complex skill to master, and generally takes several years of road work to get down. Some of the hardcore touring comics are on the road for 250 - 300 days a year, which is insane to me.

It's easier to get a feel for these moments if you watch a lot of amateur comedy (not open mic beginners, though, as that's another beast), where the comedians are working on material or honing their chops - they're not as skilled as the headliners, usually, in mastering the pivot, so you see them successfully feel out the crowd dynamic, but not necessarily execute completely, so the struggle is much more obvious.

It's incredibly difficult work. Weeks of writing and 20 pages of notes might lead to 3 minutes of actual, usable material (likely less), if you're lucky. All respect to these professionals.

(it's "crescendo", an Italian word I believe)

Yep, it literally means "growing". Very similar to the Spanish "creciendo".

Yes, italian, and used a lot in classical music.

For good 5 minutes I was wondering whether I should swipe or will it need dragging up/left. Tapping onto the pages did the trick on mobile.

"When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all" - fake sky demon

This was nicely done. And since it's Hacker News let me immedy shift focus to tech ... this was fantastically usable on my mobile phone. It was laid out perfectly and very responsive. I've seen plain text articles jump and stutter so I wasn't expecting this to work. Good job to the dev team.

How does one even render a page like this? I have minimal HTML and CSS knowledge and this as far as I can tell is magic

The site, pudding.cool has a how to section


I'm very curious about this as well. What JavaScript framework(s) enable this? How does it integrate with certain CSS frameworks or HTML templating languages?

This uses D3.js [1], and waud [2] for audio. The Pudding have their own library for scrollytelling (Scrollama.js [3]), but I don't think it's used in this project.

[1]: https://d3js.org/

[2]: http://www.waudjs.com/

[3]: https://pudding.cool/process/introducing-scrollama/

I don't know about this website, but you can take look at reveal.js [1]. It's a pretty powerful open source tool for making similar kind of presentations.

[1] https://github.com/hakimel/reveal.js/

From my quick inspect of the source, it seems like it's powered by D3, which is precisely what you imagine it to be: a framework for making visualizations based on Data Driven Documents (hence the D3): https://d3js.org/

My only fault with it was that a certain segment of the page when clicked goes back through the slideshow - that was quite confusing, I thought they were getting a bit excessive with using the same slides... nope, going backwards through the presentation

I liked the format but I think it could be improved a lot by (1) a way to disable the auto-forwarding to the next page, (2) an indication of the overall length of the piece and my position in it and (3) a unique URL for each page, so that I can I use other browser features like bookmarking, backward/forward buttons, etc. In fact I hit the back button because I expected this and then had to start over from the beginning because my progress was lost.

I was just pleasantly surprised it didn't ruin my back button functionality.

I've been to see a few comedians playing small theatres whilst they are developing their acts. Sometimes you get big names who are polishing their show for an imminent TV appearance, sometime they've not been on stage for a few years and are just starting to get back into it for a tour the following year. They will often play with stories, making notes how the audience react as perhaps they've gone too far or just missed the point.

I think I prefer seeing them working in the small venues like this when their act is quite raw and not just seeing the highly polished finished routine. They are incredibly talented and getting an insight into their thoughts is wonderful.

Dave Chappelle tells a story somewhere about his all-time favorite comedy being an old tape of Richard Pryor bombing terribly, early in his career. Apparently Pryor goes on for 30-40 minutes, doing a bunch of different bizarre routines, none of them working at all. Then Chappelle's punch line is that when you watch this tape knowing Pryor's later material, you can see how every bit is the raw initial form of what would eventually become his best, most famous routines.

Astute observation. I saw Paul Reiser at his peak fame doing one of these shows, and I laughed so hard that my sides hurt, uncomfortably so. He watched the audience at least as carefully as they watched him. I got the feeling he mistrusted their reactions because he was afraid they were responding to his celebrity instead of his writing.

Referencing previous material like this is commonly called a callback (just like programming :-). It's extremely common to end with at least one call back.. if not multiple.


That was a great analysis. If anyone is interesting on this topic, I highly recommend Talking Funny. Four comedic greats talk about comedy - of course there's lots of laughing but it's just fascinating.

Full video on youtube, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrqkP1JpBRY

I got lost and ended up at the opening page 5 slides in. Also the 'tap to continue' was half off the screen in iPhone X. This feels like a new version of those scroll jacking sites from 2010.

It works on so many other devices, though!

It's crazy how complicated design is since there are so many form factors to get right. Miss one, and you lose part of your audience.

I have so much respect for front end engineers and designers, because this stuff is not easy.

A shame that having plain paragraphs and pictures does not work (Android dropped support since N).

Commenting on the design, as a slow reader and non-native English speaker I felt annoyed at having to read against the clock ticking away for each slide (or alternatively, having to click 'pause' again for each slide individually). I hope whatever package this page is based on changes their default settings in future releases.

I'd be interesting in seeing something like this breakdown for someone like Mitch Hedberg, who is generally considered to be one of the greatest stand-ups of all time (especially among other stand-up comedians. You'll often hear other comedians include his name in lists with Carlin, Pryor and other all-time greats.) Hedberg's style is definitely not narrative, not explicitly. It's about as far to the one-liner one-joke-after-another end of the spectrum as you can get.

Mitch Hedberg is much more similar to programmer/hacker humor IMO. Puns, jargon, word play, grammatical structure, lots of modification to simple statements for comedy. That creates a different kind of overarching structural complexity. I find that much more funny than traditional comedy, because it's my flavor of clever. Many elements of Shakespeare minus the explicit narrative.

Stephen Wright is kinda like that also.

Henny Youngman was one of the firsts.

Jimmy Carr too.

Jimmy Carr himself would probably disagree with you and instead cite Harry Hill, as would most UK comedians.

The site is great, the tools of analysis and presentation are amazing but the title is a bit grandiose.

Imagine writing an article titled "The Structure of Software" and using code from one application to define the structure of all software.

I once watched 100 videos of top 100 comedians of the decade. I realized that no two comedians were alike.

I like to think that comedy is a place of anti-logic or no logic or beyond logic with room for non-sequitur and absurdism and hence no structure.

Actually, not quite so. There's structure, otherwise it would be incomprehensible and people would not resonate so much with it.

William James said that philosophy “sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar.” The same is true of standup comedy. Simon Critchley has written that both ask us to “look at things as if you had just landed from another planet”. [1]

[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/

"strange as if it were familiar"

Don't you see the paradox you have introduced. What came first the strangeness or the familiarity?

We are all very good at meaning/structure making post hoc.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel explores the the development of a "set" in the first season. It isn't a big part, but in the context of the overall story it is well done.


While we're dissecting humour, this reminds me of Dennett's book about it - the core idea seems to be that we find things funny because we're trying to 'debug' them:

The main thesis of “Inside Jokes” is that humor is an evolved adaptation used by humans to “debug” mental representations, i.e. find tacit incongruities and contradictions within representations and bring them to light.


I really want to read this but the design of the site is unbearable. Hoping for a plain ascii version.

Sorry but a plain ascii version wouldn't have conveyed the same story.

You could reduce the content to a couple of short paragraphs and not lose anything essential.

The animations are decorative, not informative. Run through the piece again and you'll see they convey no independent actionable or memorable content that isn't already conveyed in the text, and/or couldn't be illustrated just as effectively with static diagrams.

This is an absolute monster load of development work for what's really just a one page magazine article.

And if you know a little about dramatic form, you'll note that it doesn't explain the design of the structure in any detail - certainly not any kind of detail you could repurpose if you were interested in writing or stand-up.

It's just "Stand-up has structure" - which you could get across in a single sentence, and which is probably a thought a lot of readers will already have had.

The graphics are clearly critical - a plain ascii version wouldn’t convey the information as successfully.

Personally, the animations drew me in. Basically all things can be reduced to a single sentence explanation, but that doesn’t mean a single sentence has all the impact of the original.

I honestly think the graphical gizmos implemented for this piece do not support the message AT ALL. In fact, I didn't find any message. There is form in an hour long stand-up routine? That's not news.

Crazy beautiful website.

A few thoughts on comedy:

- In "Step by Step to Stand-up Comedy" (great book about doing standup), the author describes the process of writing a standup routine. Basically, first you write a lot of jokes on random topics, and tag them by categories (like "driving", "postal service", "marriage", etc). Once you have a few dozen jokes, you organize the ones that can belong to a similar topic together, and then figure out how to string them together into a coherent routine, where one joke leads to another. So routines are written "bottom-up" from jokes, first you have jokes, then you find a way to put them together in a way that makes sense, but doesn't need much meaning or structure beyond that.

- Movies or sictcoms, on the other hand, are written "top-down". First you have a story structure, which can, but doesn't have to be that funny(laws for comedy and drama are the same), and then you brainstorm jokes using your scenes as topics. If you came up with some good jokes or scenes separately, that don't necessarily fit, you can find a way to "shoehorn" them into the script, nothing wrong with that, but generally it goes structure first, jokes second.

- Jokes are "absurd associations". Our brain thinks in patterns. When you put together two patterns(ideas) that don't belong together, it creates the feeling of absurdity, the less patterns belong together, the less they fit together, the more absurd they will feel. ("A man on a bicycle" is not absurd, "a man on a unicycle" is a little bit absurd, "Hitler riding a unicycle" is very absurd, "Hitler riding a unicycle while wearing a white dress and juggling fish" is absurd as fuck). Comedy is the art of finding connections between patterns. You "connect the dots" between two ideas, find an overlap(an association) between two patterns that are far apart, and you put them together. The more absurd(less compatible) the two ideas are, and the stronger the connection(the more it makes sense), the funnier the joke will be.

Somebody who was fantastic at picking exactly the right word for a joke was the British comedienne Victoria Wood.

"During a stand-up routine from 1996, Victoria says the word "bollocks" then comments on the scandal inherent in this. "It will be in the paper on Monday. ‘Woman says bollocks near Cheadle'.’’ As Rebecca Front states in the documentary: “Cheadle being the absolute perfect near-Manchester town. It just falls in the right way.” Victoria could have said "Sale" or "Hyde" or "Droylsden", but they wouldn’t have been as funny as "Cheadle". She had an unerring instinct for the mot juste."

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/bbbRrf2hng7ddQ7HVH6...

For those downvoting this, why do you disagree with parent?

I upvoted you.

Thanks! I'm guessing I didn't explain the third point well enough, I've been thinking about this stuff for quite awhile, and it's hard to convey what I mean in one paragraph.

I wrote a post [1] once talking about this in more detail, but it's pretty old and my thoughts have changed a bit since then. I'll try to write an article explains it better once I have the time and energy.

[1] https://medium.com/@rayalez/comedy-theory-fd142076657e

Very nice presentation. The analysis is just complete overanalysis with them working backwards from their biased preconcieved conclusion trying to back it up through argument rather than doing actual analysis and dissecting the subject matter. But the presentation is nice. Great visualizations and effective at arguing their hypothesis even though they don’t actual do any critical evaluation of it.

I’d propose she repeat the show but leave out the physical comedy that goes along with the specific point they are obsessed with and if their hypothesis holds the laughs will be just as big, since they postulate that it’s the structure of the preceding jokes tying in it that causes the laughs and not the joke itself.

Cool presentation.

This reminded me of Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette" because, like Ali Wong's show, it has a strong narrative arc, and because, like this presentation itself, it analyzes the structure of comedy.

It reminded me of that too, especially since Nanette goes in-depth about how tension and release are tapped into to shape humour.

If you are interested in the craft of comedy then you might like British comedian Stewart Lee, he's liberal/socialist and gets pretty political but he clearly revels in the craft and is quite meta about it. He "explains" to the audience when and why they should laugh, and appears to revel in getting laughs out of stuff that just shouldn't be at all funny -- murdered babies for example. When I was younger I find him boring ("this isn't comedy, where are the jokes").

Latest tour "Content Provider" -- https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bdcnwq/stewart-lee-c...

Stewart Lee is phenomenal - he very much straddles the line between comedy and avant-garde theater, but he does things no other comic can.

Relevant to the article, he also wrote a book that deconstructs some of his routines. There are a few brilliant youtube clips somewhere, where someone has taken video of those routines and added annotations of what he said about each joke, as the joke comes up. I'd link them but I can't find the damn things.

A great example (but unannotated) of his off-beat delivery is this segment of one of his shows https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngGdtqd71d0

TJ Miller "One Crazy Night - This is not happening" is a great example of this type of structure.

Louis CK is master of story telling. Ali Wong is to d but I don't think her jokes are smart funny.

This would be more interesting if it was about something that was more of a quality comedy.

I don't understand why jokes about vaginas, being fat, being gross or sex are funny to so many people.

Something is ultimately funny cause it is unexpected and true in a certain perspective.

My guess is that people think it is unexpected that people talk about these things and that is why they laugh and think it is funny. To me the concept of using such a simple idiotic picture of what a human is, is cringe. It is sort of embarrassing that people find it funny.

Define quality?

IMO, comedy is a great vehicle to help people realize taboo topics should not be taboo. Are Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy not quality comics? Do you also have an issue with cussing? George Carlins famous bit showed how absurd it is to ban words from TV.

Quality can't be defined.

But in this specific case it is about the amount of quality work that went in to the material.

The taboos of polite society when talked about openly create a sort of mix of intimacy, unexpectedness, mild revulsion that stimulates laughter.

Trying to find consistent logical reasons in comedy is a pretty futile game.

This is stupid and only means that the editor knows what they are doing. Like most comedy specials this was filmed twice and sweetened in editing



I understand the point to be that a standup routine is generally a crafted product, designed to create a 'laugh climax'; that editing would be used to support this structure for the video seems to only reinforce the argument in the article.

> that editing would be used to support this structure for the video seems to only reinforce the argument in the article

The article measures the time between big laughs. That timing is not what happened in the auditorium. It's not worth measuring. The data was edited and cannot tell you anything about precise timing. Why doesn't the author of the article acknowledge this?

A standup comedy routine is not made in the edit. Shooting multiple nights and editing them together allows them to get the best camera angles and shots (not always easy when the comedian moves around freely) as well as takes some of the pressure off the comedian. If they flub the timing on an important part of the act it doesn't live on forever, they can just use an alternate take.

> If they flub the timing on an important part of the act it doesn't live on forever, they can just use an alternate take.

I brought up the topic of multiple filming and editing. I am also aware of the reasons for it, thanks. It is what makes the article so dumb because it says "Oh, look at the precise timing of laughs in this pristine routine."

The editing brought out the best for the home viewer, the people at the show were probably still laughing however, which naturally does not have the editing

As a side note when you're calling something stupid you come off as not thinking it through https://sivers.org/ss

> The editing brought out the best for the home viewer, the people at the show were probably still laughing however, which naturally does not have the editing

Yes, that's why specials are almost always film the same routine twice with the space hair and makeup for each show. It's better after editing. Anfter editing you cannot talk about any big findings on timing of laughs in the routine because you are only talking about the timing of the editing.

> As a side note when you're calling something stupid you come off as not thinking it through https://sivers.org/ss

Derek Sivers is an actual idiot. He didn't know you could write a macro to control a desktop UI and also write a mock WAV file to CD-ROM driver for Mac OS. The guy is lucky, not smart https://sivers.org/itunes

He also hates paying taxes so he can fuck right off

Ali Wong is at best mediocre, but the website is nice.

I downvoted you because you replied to aa carefully argued, reasoned statement with a single-sentence opinion phrased as though it were an expression of fact. Of two facts.

Feels odd why they would not pick one of the really great comedians but some niche personality with not even 500k Google results.

I think we all know exactly why this comedian was chosen, and it has nothing to do with popularity or talent.

Perhaps for some people, but I don't think that sort of sentiment about Ali Wong is universally true.

I genuinely enjoyed the material and found it very fresh, especially as someone that didn't really think standup comedy was for me before that.

my guess is it has something to do with copyrights

Out of habit I skipped straight into reader mode and got to read the monologue.

... the delivery better do some magic 'cause I was depressed after couple of sentences and not in a mood for laughs at all...

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