School was fun. You get to meet new friends, socialize, participate in sports, and maybe even get a date for Saturday night. Going to school was fantastic. The problem was homework. Nobody likes homework. It’s boring, difficult, and turns an otherwise fun experience into work. And most personalities give their audience homework nearly every day. The problem is, they won’t do it because you can’t make them.

Okay, follow along. Step outside the radio bubble, and it’s easy to see that listeners don’t pay much attention. They push a button and expect to be entertained. They won’t work to figure out what they’re listening to. The top two complaints that send them rushing for the scan button are commercials and songs they don’t like. But the #3 problem is confusion.

This is not just a radio thing. The same rules apply to all forms of entertainment. When you’re looking for a movie or TV show to stream, you make instant decisions based on the title and description. If that passes the test, you make it to the trailer. But if you are confused, you move on. There are plenty of other things to watch.

Nobody will do homework unless they have to. And your audience doesn’t have to.

A Strong Setup Means No Homework

Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a glimpse into the creative process of popular comics. In the Dana Carvey episode (2018-episode 6), Carvey asks Jerry to help with a joke he was struggling with. Dana ran through the setup but said he wasn’t happy with the outcome. The problem is he couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

The joke is about how humans age. Carvey’s punchline is a pivot to how a cat experiences the aging process:

A cat would say, I used to get 17 hours of sleep. Now if I don’t get 19, I’m a total wreck.

Carvey quickly critiques his joke:

It’s not bad. But was 19 the right number? Would something else have been funnier?

Seinfeld responds with a brilliant observation. He liked the payoff and later explained that jokes are funny because of the setup, not the punchline. He says:

It’s way too long a setup. And when you talk about consciousness, I’m already confused.

In other words, why are you talking about this? How did we get here? The payoff doesn’t matter without context because the storyline is not established.

Carvey immediately understands the point. He says,

  Oh wow. That’s it. I gave the audience homework.

Here’s Seinfeld’s advice to reconfigure the setup:

You need an in. What’s the funniest way to bring this up? Like this: What I like about having a cat is the amount of time we spend just staring at each other. That gets a little laugh there. You’ve now set the scene of me and the cat. Now we’re there.

Here’s the audio of the conversation:


Mastering The Setup

Entertainers must make it easy for the audience to understand because they won’t do the homework to figure it out. That applies to contests, games, promotions, and stories.

Alan Burns once told me that everything should be designed as if it were being explained to a third-grader who knows nothing about your subject and is not interested in it. It has to be clear, tight, and straightforward.

Like most simple concepts, it is hard to master. Fortunately, there is help. I’ve developed an easy-to-follow three-step system called Mastering The Set Up that shows you how to do it. For more information, go here or watch the seminar here.


Think about the Seinfeld/Carvey example and its meaning for your show.

Simplify the topic with a relevant observation based on the audience’s interest and/or experience. Add perspective and a hot take to capture attention and hijack the topic. That builds a bridge to a unique performance and makes your Payoff memorable. Master The Setup builds on that premise and shows you how to apply this concept the way Jerry Seinfeld helped Dana Carvey.

Simplicity is a difficult skill to master. It’s easier to assign homework by making your content more complicated with additional words, thoughts, and ideas. But this isn’t school and your audience doesn’t have to do their homework.

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