Five things we learned at Set List

Even longtime comedians like Jim Norton get flustered during this improvisation-driven show that forces players to address bizarre topics

Jim Norton

Jim Norton Photograph: Josh Alder

The New York Comedy Festival edition of Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza’s touring, improvisational show—which asks comics to riff on strange topics they've never seen before that flash across a TV screen—encouraged performers to “Use your imagination, not your material.” And to the audience: “Don’t be dicks.”

Jonah Ray works best within a pop-culture context. The Meltdown cohost switched from stuttery and shouty to being in total control with the topic “Coma Fight Club.” “The first rule of Coma Fight Club is…please wake up!” he grinned. “The second rule of Coma Fight Club is…oh God, please wake up!”

Even while channeling his purest comedic essence, Jay Oakerson still can't help but sound like Dave Attell. The gruff vocal inflections. The unmistakable little giggles. The response to “The Doughnut Rule”: “I don’t know, don’t put your dick in the hole? Or do put your dick in the hole? I dunno!”

Eliza Skinner is a really fast thinker. While every Set List comedian must create original material in the moment, the Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell writer opted to rap her way through topics “The Future of Dogs,” “Suicide-Bomber Corporate Ladder,” “Why I’m Pro-Kardashian” and “My Elderly Policy,” including a brilliant callback concerning suicide-bombing old ladies creaking up subway stairs.

Sean Patton isn’t fazed by his screwups. His stand-up’s already some of the most passionately self-effacing around, yet even when Patton misread the projected “Crib Bat” as “Crab Bat” (and demonstrated knocking pubic lice aside with his penis), he laughed, paused and kept barreling straight ahead: “I’m from New Orleans, where we speak French Cajun. So to me, the proper pronunciation is “Criiiib…”

A seemingly fearless pro like Jim Norton still experiences performance anxiety. The first-time Set Lister dithered, “You guys basically just paid to see what we do at home in the mirror,” and chided himself for “Twenty-four years in stand-up and I come up with a potato/Irish joke…good improv, cocksucker.” But his rocky start self-corrected once he realized the best tactic is to give voice to one’s internal process; tackling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Suck It,” he wondered aloud, “Do I want it to be jokey, or do I want it to be true? Uh, I’ll try both…” “I really didn’t expect this to be fun at all,” he admitted following closer “Necrophiliac Makeup Kit,” “but it was quite a treat!”

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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