From the comics I’ve talked to over the years, the general consensus for this answer depends on a few factors.
The first and most important factor is whether or not it’s a paying gig. If it’s a paying gig, it’s your job to be able to memorize your act. However, if it’s open mic and you want to make sure you try out all of the new jokes you wrote, having a setlist is more acceptable. Still, there are exceptions to this rule. If you’re a newer comic trying to get booked as an MC, you should put forth the effort to memorize that five minutes. In other words, if your set is being evaluated by someone in the business that night, memorize it. If you’re already a working comic who management isn’t auditioning, occasionally glancing at a setlist to make sure you try everything is okay. You’re basically auditioning the jokes, not yourself.
Years ago (2002?), Daniel Tosh was in town a day early, so he headlined our comedy contest in Columbus and brought up his notebook. He did nothing to hide it and even thumbed through a few pages. These were jokes he had most likely written in the last 24 hours, and it wasn’t officially part of his “week” at the club. It was amazing how he had them fine-tuned and perfected by the weekend. I’ve heard stories of Dave Attell going through pages and pages of new jokes at the Cellar years ago. When you write as much as these comics, it’s perfectly okay to need help remembering to try everything out.
On the opposite end, Richard Lewis had a giant sheet of paper on stage with him with every joke in his arsenal. I looked at it between shows when I was a doorman and could hardly make sense of it, but it fascinated me that he still needed a setlist. He’s able to pull it off because he’s Richard Lewis. One time he even showed it to the audience. Anyone else doing this would probably look bad.
A setlist on stage can become a crutch when used too often. So if you’re just starting out, don’t use one at all. If there’s something you absolutely cannot remember, I suggest a tiny note on your microphone thumb. Writing on the inside of your hand usually looks bad because it’s very noticeable, and you end up looking like a freshman cheating on a vocab quiz. When I use a setlist for open mic, I set a piece of paper on the stool. You can even put a drink next to it so you have an excuse to look down.
Do I use a setlist at open mic too often? Probably. My excuse is that comedy is not my main job (I teach high school), so I’ve limited my writing and memorizing time. Most comics have other jobs too. So if you’re openly using one, let the crowd know that you know that they can see it. If a new joke bombs, you can pretend to scratch it out on the list. If one works really well, you can acknowledge it on the list in a positive way. (Just one acknowledgment per set is enough.) The worst thing you can do when using a setlist is to pretend that the audience can’t see it when they clearly can. Some comics even incorporate jokes as an excuse to use one. St. Louis comedian Mike Stranz used to pull his setlist out towards the end of his time and say, “You seem like a really good crowd!” as if he was reading that from the paper. (Telling you about it doesn’t do it justice, you just have to see Mike.)
Still, there are purists who would never allow themselves to ever use a setlist on stage. Good! I’m envious. You’ve committed more time and effort than some of us. You’ll succeed at a better rate. Just be sure you’re trying plenty of new material too.
For more information on how to make money in stand-up comedy, read my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. It’s also available on Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Kobo, and many other e-book outlets.