Learn from the Film Industry and Create an Amazing Stand-Up Comedy Set

Apr 24 / Alfie Noakes


Prior to my life in live comedy I enjoyed a long career in TV, print and radio. I specialised in cinema programming. In many ways I was a walking, talking humanoid IMDB, total film buff.

I confess, that to some in the broadcast industry, I was known as a "Predator".

Indeed, it was while making a documentary at MTV that I was described as such, by my colleagues. You see, I served simultaneously as Producer, Editor and Director (Pr-Edi-Tor, geddit?)

As a result of that former career, having worked with so many great movie makers, studied their methods, hung out and chatted with them… I learned many valuable lessons.

Many movie-generating methods and techniques can be most beneficial when applied by stand-ups. Various approaches can be powerfully helpful in selecting and generating material, manufacturing images and mightily promote the performer and their output.

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The overlap between creating and performing stand-up and cinema is immense.

There is no escaping the fact that joke-writers are creatives who initiate projects (jokes/sets/specials).

Comedians and film makers share the journey of writing, pondering, crafting, editing and rehearsing. Polishing and agonising over every nuanced aspect of their production.

Film makers and comedians ultimately put the results of their labour out for public consumption. Universally thrilled when the production is positively received.

"As the Marines say, “Pain is just weakness leaving 
your body”. Now, my revered stand-up practitioner, replace “body” with “set”

However, film making is such a team effort that it is hard to parse the different creative elements and how they apply to stand-up comedy.

This stated, I will be doing just that with a significant upcoming comedy project, to be announced very soon. In this writing, I will touch upon just a few elements.

If we are to believe in anything resembling the auteur theory, let's focus on the film director (and let's be absolutely clear-eyed about this, any stand-up who writes and performs their own material, which is most, certainly meets the standards of being an "auteur").

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The director may, or may not, be the writer of the film.

Regardless, they take the original concept and with their remarkable imagination and considerable skills, generate an ultimate vision.

The overlap between storytelling in film, and stand-up in general, is considerable. I’ll save many observations and examples on this matter for the upcoming project, but in extreme summary it’s worth noting…

  • Film directors know how to set an early "hook" into an audience and sustain their attention
  • Film directors manipulate audience with emotive imagery and language and lead them on a unique journey
  • Film directors understand the core of their story and add compelling visuals
  • Film directors understand the components of story and play with creative ways of telling that tale
  • Film directors use genre to help them plan their production and then seek to create their own original angle on the genre to avoid cliche
  • Film directors understand that a goal of story is to keep developing the main character, and so the feelings of the audience, with a litany of creative tools
  • Film directors know that everything seen and heard serves purpose. Nothing is by accident
  • Film directors are aware that the audience will "try and get ahead of them" and then strive to subvert those expectations
  • Film directors thrive on coming up with original angles (literal and metaphorical)
  • Film directors strive to package complex notions into lucid, appealing images and emotions
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With directors, a films’ specific style is often what the film maker is known for. Sometimes that is visual, other times it is in the precise way that they tell a story. 

Fortunately for the film makers, their work often has posters, trailers and other marketing materials. These allow the audience to gain a sense of what they are signing up for.

Here is an example of where it is different for a stand-up.
When it comes to comedians, personal image is almost all the audience can go on. Their face is the most recognisable thing about them. Well, there may be rare exceptions in which the voice stands out the most, such as Alan Carr or the dearly departed Gilbert Gottfried.

"If the output becomes insincere and pandering, then any chances of success will likely drift away from the artist, rather than towards"

When a regular person learns what a film maker does for a living, they often follow up along the lines of, "What kind of films do you make?"

I am not sure I have ever seen a non-comedian ask a stand-up, "What kind of comedy do you perform?" (Usually, it's the entirely silly, "You're a comedian? Tell me a joke".)

As a good comic, and if you are reading to learn how to get better then you are already on the path to becoming a solid comic, you will know how important developing your own style is.

It strikes me that many stand-ups never get around to asking themselves what kind of comedy they perform.

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(Here's a link to a free taster video from the online "Stepping into Stand-Up Comedy" online course especially designed for newer comedians. More edited video samples are available on this YouTube playlist for fresh comedians)

When encountering film makers, the lay person is often very interested in genre. Naturally, some genres are more popular and profitable than others. This is worth contemplating.

Should a film maker answers the “What type of…?” enquiry with “Horror”, then the questioner can swiftly reckon on if they know any of the output and perhaps assess just how much immediate interest remains.

There are many fans of horror. Yet, there are many more who are not.

We all understand that there is a vast array of categories within cinema. I believe that there are a not entirely dis-similar number of stand-up genres.

To name but a few… One-liner. Observational. Storyteller. Absurdist. Clown. Social critic. Edge lord. Musical. Character. Political. Satirical. Insult. Alternative. Etc.

Naturally, there can be delightful cocktails, such as a clowning character act who is also political, etc. Whatever one personally thinks of "Horror", any person who can make a career out of creating within a specific classification is evidently incredibly skilled. This is a hugely competitive sphere, after all.

The likelihood is that those artists have recognition from that specific community within their industry. Perhaps, along with the accompanying fan base. Moving on with their careers, the director may take their genre by the scruff-of-the-neck and raise the bar with bigger and more adventurous fare. James Cameron and George Lucas, raise your hands.

"Savvy acts can identify best practises and forge a potentially more rewarding path"

Further, there is an epic tradition of an artist "breaking through" in one genre and then stepping outside their venue of success and creating in a new sphere. I would suggest that Danny Boyle and Ang Lee are among the most diverse film directors ever. Barely one of their films looks, or is thematically similar, to any other of their output.

An emerging comedic talent may similarly “pick a lane” and then as they grow as a person/artist, make an informed shift.

Or “go big”. If the audience wants more of the same… perhaps it’s better/profitable to give them just that. With sprinkles.

Being mindful of the genre in which one is operating, understanding rules that apply, and the opportunities to bend said “rules” is a recipe for significant improvement, even mastery.

The “business” people in “show business”, most certainly within the mainstream film industry, are distinctly aware of “The 4 Quadrants”.

This is part of their decision-making process when it comes time to decide whether to “greenlight” a movie.

From a purely business point-of-view, cinematic success is based on box office. Ticket sales are a key metric. Just as in the comedy industry.

Whether a film cost $10 million or $100 million, the principle way of clawing back to profit is more ticket sales. "The 4 Quadrants" are an early consideration for assessing probable market appeal and in film will influence the script, cast and all that follows.

The 4 Quadrants are:

  • Young
  • Old (For Hollywood marketeers, this means 25 years+)
  • Male
  • Female

Most films cannot cover the 4 Quadrants. This can only be achieved by the broadest fare such as a Star Wars or an Avengers. This is on account of their long and culturally ingrained histories, mega-status and diverse casts. Such a range characters can offer some appeal to most audience groups based on attractiveness, ethnicity, gender, dynamism, humour etc.

A Transformers film will cover 2 Quadrants. Young and male. It's not absolute. There may be older females who buy tickets. Yet this demographic really is not the target market upon which the producers based their budgetary and creative decisions.

Can a comedian consider their act, audience and future ambitions by assessing “The 4 Quadrants”?

I’ll leave that for you, dear joke-teller, to ponder and decide.

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I know one hugely successful British comedian who broke through in recent years. He specifically avoided a wildly influential agency as they would have made him wear a smart suit. He’s not “a suit” kind of an act.

I put it to you, emerging comic talent that you are, that it is much better if an act is already well versed and satisfied with the core tenets of their image, tone and target audience.

If you are reading this, then I imagine for you, these are the earlier years of your comedy journey. Take this time to have fun and experiment, surprise and challenge prior to settling on, well, everything.

In order to start to mould yourself, before the agents and producers get involved, these questions might help you out.

  • Where is the culture going?
  • What kind of comedian am I?
  • What kind of comedian do I want to be?
  • What kind of comedian could I be?
  • What kind of comedy can I experiment with?
  • Who do I appeal to?
  • Who are my audience?
  • Who could be my audience?

Comedians can address some of these questions in order to develop improved focus, performances and audiences.

Savvy acts can identify best practises and forge a potentially more rewarding path.

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I have often seen a new act arrive on one of my stages, convinced that, with practically no experience, they already know the approach they wish to take. They simply never re-consider that early choice. Options are immediately limited.

This is often because they have styled themselves on a personal comedy hero and decided they want to be like Stewart Lee or Doug Stanhope, or whoever.

Alas, it is regularly evident that their simple appearance, tone of voice and inescapable nature will make such an ambition somewhere between difficult and impossible.

As in life, what one initially wants to be may not actually be possible. However, becoming what you can be is liberating and possibly a refreshing faster pass to becoming really rather good indeed.

"Some options will prove terrible. They can then be confidently dismissed"

No matter how bad the gig may go in an open mike room, no venue allows a performer to be freer to challenge their own assumptions. Or that of their audience.

While an act may currently be a laugh-winning whimsical storyteller, perhaps this is in contrast to earnest personal concern with the state of the world. Maybe it’s time to change tracks and blend previously developed skills with a fresh style such as "social critic"?
Adequate time spent toying with the results of many on-stage and writing experiments will typically produce an act that drips with the all-essential authenticity.

The ultimate ambition and tastes of the artist/comedian will be a key influence in all such considerations.

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If fame, money and household name status is the goal, then considering who the most lucrative audiences are, might be worth more than a few hours contemplation.

One might say that would be to appeal to the lowest common denominators.

A wiser person would recognise that can be avoided by simply aiming themselves toward a suitably large, or dedicated, group. Be that "women aged over 35", "angry young men" or perhaps chase the "thousand true fans" base.

This all said, if the output becomes insincere and pandering, then any chances of success will likely drift away from the artist, rather than towards.

Comedians, I urge you to try on styles like one might experiment with sampling different foods or fashion. Some options will prove terrible. They can then be confidently dismissed.

However, some new tastes and treasures, that otherwise may never have been discovered, may reveal themselves in all their delightful glory.

Unlike the masses of cinematic overlap with our beloved art form, the early years stand-up does not suffer the surrounding pressure of the cast and cost of a large-scale production. Failure is an option. Painful failures are lessons.

As the Marines say, “Pain is just weakness leaving your body”. Now, my revered stand-up practitioner, replace the word “body” with “set”.

Test, challenge and experiment. Mess with your hair in one show, mess with the audience in the next… play broad, play narrow, play hard…

Then, quite possibly, over time, something comedically unique and wonderfully special may emerge.

You will then be best prepared for your overnight success. A success that was years in the making.


Please feel welcomed to Subscribe to the We Are Funny Project YouTube channel. There is a broad array of educational and plain weird and funny videos there. For you. All photos courtesy of Steve Best at https://www.stevebest.com/


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