Spoiler alert! Stand-up comedy is as scripted as a movie. Which is probably why so many stand-up comedians have migrated into TV and movie roles. Just take Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Australia’s own Eric Bana and more recently Celia Pacquola. All performed on stage before they moved to screen.
And the similarity between stand-up and movies doesn’t end there.
Academy Awards go to those actors that don’t look like they are remembering lines. And the best comedians are also natural storytellers. Chris Franklin, Lehmo or Jeff Green might look like they’re shooting from the hip, but those lines that they are delivering have been delivered hundreds, if not thousands of times before; verbatim.
When is stand-up comedy unscripted?
Where stand-up comedy gets less predictable is when comedians interact with the audience. This is called ‘crowd work’ and should only be attempted by those experienced. Alas, a lot of newbies think interacting is a must, so much so that some open mic rooms have banned audience interaction. And you can understand why. Imagine being in the front row and having a stream of new comedians repeatedly ask you ‘where are you from?’ or ‘what do you do?’ throughout the night. It’s okay for the opening MC, but the other comedians following, it’s important to deliver jokes.
The only other time where stand-up comedians are unscripted is when there’s a heckler. But again, this is only for the experienced. Mishandling a heckler can absolutely destroy a set, or even get physical, as experienced by Jim Jefferies.
So in short, you can’t just jump up on stage and be funny. While it might look like riffing, that five, ten or one hour special has been carefully crafted. After all, most great comedians aren’t born funny. They have had to work hard to become a master.