8 Ways to Update Your Setlist

Last month I went and saw my favorite band, Modest Mouse, perform in Springfield, MO (yes, I like them that much).  It’s the 7th time I’ve seen them, but the first time that I felt a little letdown by the performance.  I think they’re going through the same thing I went through this weekend while I headlined five shows in three nights.  Like me, they’re tired of most of their setlist.

Somehow I’ve become that older comic who the younger ones probably all mock because of how aged some of my jokes are. I have one joke about my brother’s birthday that debuted when he was 25.  He turns 38 next month. I have two jokes that could legally vote. They’ve worked and that’s why I’ve kept them, but I feel like my performances have become stale, especially at the club where I’ve performed them most often.  So I’m calling myself out here.  I need to rewrite as much of my act as I can.

Before I continue my pity party, I’ll make the excuse that it isn’t only because of laziness.  As a teacher I have to come up with 15 lesson plans a week, and over the last few years I’ve written several books. It’s not that I’m not writing, I’m just not writing enough material. I’ve coasted through the last few years of comedy relying on experience rather than creativity. I need to make writing new material a higher priority. I still try new jokes almost every week at open mic, but that isn’t cutting it.

So if you’ve found this to be the case for yourself, here are some ideas I’ve come up with to freshen up the act. They aren’t breakthrough ideas that no one’s thought of before–I guess this blog is more for me than anyone else.

  1. Carry around a notebook at all times.  The notes in the phone aren’t effective for me for some reason. I need paper and a pen and then I can expand on that little idea. It’s especially important to have one by the bedside at night because I never remember my “genius” premise the next morning.
  2. Don’t be afraid to bomb at open mic.  My friend Nathan Orton said this to me last night as I was whining about this whole realization.  At this point in my career, jokes that fail at open mic aren’t going to kill my career.
  3. Expand on “keepers.”  There are a few bits that I’ve added in the last 6 months.  I believe I can expand on them much more.
  4. Permanently cut the bits you aren’t proud of. I’ve done a so-so job of this over the years, but as I thought about some of my coworkers who attended my show last night…yeah, there’s stuff I could go without saying. I’m 41 and it’s not 2005 anymore.  Culture and values have changed.
  5. Update the style.  My set’s always been pretty “silly-punchliney” which isn’t the most modern type of comedy anymore.  In music, yes electric guitars are still used, but everyone needs to evolve their art. That doesn’t mean I need to by Johnny Storyteller, but that seems to be the direction people are going.  I think “story” is a strong word though.
  6. Find different topics.  My main shtick is teacher jokes because that’s what I do most of the year.  Everyone has attended high school so they get’em.  I’m tired of it, and it’s ridiculous how dis-proportionate my set is with teacher jokes.
  7. Look back in old notebooks.  Comics become better joke writers every year. There are bits that previously never made it into the main set that I’ve recycled from years ago because now I know how to make them funnier.
  8. Freewrite on a premise.  If you have a premise and even one punchline for it, force yourself to write 3 pages on the topic.  Something else should come out of there.

That’s what I have for now.  I know that I’ll get out of this funk and get some new material out there soon.  It usually happens in chunks. Thank you for everyone who’s sat through my act so many times (especially my wife). I think with new material I’ll have a new energy to bring and performing will be as fun as ever.  In the meantime, I need to get to work.

Oh, and here’s my blog’s merch table.  Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage is available on Amazon, iTunes, Kindle, etc.  for anyone looking to make money in stand-up.