by Matt Holmes
In an HBO comedy special called Talking Funny, Ricky Gervais welcomed Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. for a discussion. The topic of “premise” came up, and they cited its importance. They highlighted that Chris Rock will be blatant about it, even literally saying the premise and repeating it again and again to punctuate his point.
Rock says that if it’s not working, it’s not working because the audience doesn’t understand the premise. Perhaps the difference between a real pro and an amateur hack is the talent, time, effort, and finesse involved in crafting a clear premise.
You have to have some kind of premise to play. A good comedian will let everybody know what it is that we’re talking about. It could be acted out scenically with characters or told as a story through observations or monologues. It could be a topic explored from different angles. It could be a running gag. It could be another scenario that serves as another example.
In comedy, the premise answers the question, “What’s the point?” It’s what you “get.” It’s why I should pay attention. It’s what helps you do more on the joke, what helps your scene partners build on it, what helps you fine-tune it.
If it’s not clear (for you and for the people watching you), it’s going to be harder than it should be. It can be easy and fun, but you have to have some kind of premise to play.
Problems for Those with No Premise
There’s a difference between having facts and having a premise. You might need more than just a scenario or characters or a story or a joke.
Improvisers can sometimes focus too much on details: names, relationships, settings, explanations of what’s being mimed, or justification of what’s happening. This leads to scenes with lots of facts that we know about but don’t really care about.
Stand-ups can sometimes deliver lots of little insights and witticisms that don’t add up to much. They have facts that don’t follow, punchlines with no punch, and pieces that don’t connect or build to anything.
Sketch comedians can sometimes worry so much about lines, entrances, costumes, props, filming, direction, and other aspects of production that the basic idea being presented can become an afterthought.
It doesn’t matter what kind of comedy you’re doing, you have to have some kind of premise to play.
How You Give What They Get
Think of the premise as a method of delivery for information. Comedians convey the gist via a premise that they play.
- If your information is uneven, like a chunky soup, and you empty it out slowly and sloppily, like from a bucket, the audience receives all the pieces but doesn’t like how they’re getting it and might lose interest.
- If your method of delivery is light and flexible, like a balloon, and you empty it out fast and furious, like letting the air out, the audience pays attention but doesn’t get what you’re giving and might lose track.
A good premise is like a gun: a complex mechanism designed to do one thing with precision and power (and all the bullets have to match each other and fit the piece). Maybe the image is a bit gruesome, but anybody who’s been on stage while it’s “just not working” should know what it feels like to wish for something to say and a way to say it.
How Do You Know?
If you’re looking for a litmus test for if your comedy is good (whether you’re about to go on stage, or film something scripted, or if you’re in the middle of improvising), ask yourself if you have a good premise.
It’s more important than asking if it’s funny or smart or relevant or bold or snappy or visually interesting or the right style. Ask yourself if it’s clear.
Communication is the responsibility of the one communicating. Make sure you’re getting your point across (and make sure you have a point!). The audience wants to get something, and they want the performer to succeed.
Improvisers might find themselves on stage, discovering something interesting and deciding to repeat and heighten it. Those writing comedy might come up with something interesting and craft it. The point is to have something and to play with it, to make it clear. You have to have some kind of premise to play.
It might seem like a gimmick sometimes. It doesn’t have to be just about that premise, like beating a dead horse. It does, however, have to be something. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of random stuff.
Random can be funny, but it’s never going to be as fulfilling, fun, rewarding, and creative as crafting material into something that says something well. That’s called creating a premise. It’s making yourself a road map or a rule book or a bible that lets you know what you’re supposed to do.
Your bit, deal, game, motif, trigger, your thing that you’re doing, that’s your premise. Even a show that’s just all kinds of random things is playing that as a premise, repeating that nothing’s going to repeat. We all want more and bigger of whatever; it might not even .
You have to have some kind of premise to play.
Now Play With It!
When you have a premise, do something with it. Use it. A lot of comedians will get something and then let it drop. You can always squeeze more out of it if you want. You can always come back to it later. You can always connect it to something else.
I think those can be the biggest laughs and most compelling stories. When a comedian brings something back from before or finds something new to do with it, that’s both a familiar memory that we’ve invested in (something old) and a surprise (something new).
But if you want to connect things, go back to things, fully utilize things, you have to have some kind of premise to play.
Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf” –The Apiary, “Philly’s homegrown ‘enfants terrible’” –Inquirer, “Seven Thumbs Up” –Phil, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).
Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on January 1st.
Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.