Set List, the improvised stand-up show, scores TV deal with Sky Atlantic

After a solid year-plus of experimentation on both sides of the pond, the improvised stand-up show, Set List: Comedy Without a Net, is getting a chance to wow TV viewers with a 14-episode order from Britain’s Sky Atlantic HD. The series begins taping July 4 in London, with additional tapings on the 5th, 10th and 12th there (if you’re in London then, you can get free tickets to attend the tapings). It’ll also tape episodes July 17-18 near San Francisco at the Throckmorton Theatre, head to Montreal for a run at the Just For Laughs comedy festival July 23-28, and then tape again this fall in Los Angeles.

The concept is simple.

Comedians walk onstage without a prepared set. Instead, they’re asked to improvise a stand-up performance based on premises presented to them while onstage.

Get a sense of what that looks like by watching this reel “Set List” put together last winter. Roll it.

Comedians taking part in the first season of Set List for Sky Atlantic HD include Robin Williams, Tim Minchin, Drew Carey, Rich Hall, Frank Skinner, Tony Law, Rick Overton, Eddie Pepitone, Josie Long, Reggie Watts, JB Smoove, Andrew Maxwell, Russell Kane, Judah Friedlander, Dana Gould, Paul Foot, Ross Noble and Dara O’Briain.

Philip Edgar-Jones, Sky’s Head of Entertainment called it “a uniquely terrifying approach to stand-up comedy. I love it because we have no idea what we’ll get. It’s like a bizarre compulsion to some of the biggest names in stand-up who are addicted to the freedom it brings them to take their comedy anywhere and everywhere.”

Co-creator Troy Conrad developed the format with Paul Provenza first at the Comedy Central Stage in Los Angeles.

Conrad tells The Comic’s Comic: “He got what this show was right away — a place for comics to play with and hone their instincts onstage, in an environment where technically they can do no wrong in the audience’s eyes, because they’re getting really challenging topics in the moment.”

How did you wind up getting the attention of Sky Atlantic? 

“After a great run at last year’s Montreal JFL, Edinburgh, and a regular run at the Soho Theatre in London, the attention the show was getting was steadily increasing. Big UK comics were hanging out in the back to see this. Then the company that we’re partnered with for the TV show came in, Princess Productions.  They brought some people from Sky Atlantic, and there was interest in a pilot, then 10 episodes, then finally they commissioned us for 14 episodes.”

Have any U.S. networks shown any interest in Set List? 

“We had some interest from Comedy Central, but right now our home is Sky and for good reason — they’re giving us complete creative and language freedom and letting us push the envelope like we do in the live shows. This is the opposite of the shiny floor stand-up shows on TV. This is part stand-up, part documentary, and Sky is behind it all the way. I didn’t know a network could even BE this supportive of a stand-up show this outside the box.”

Is there a chance of selling it to them via Sky? 

“We have already had interest in distribution for a number of countries which would include the U.S., Australia, and more, but nothing is inked yet. Since the show itself is based on using international comics, it would be great for this to be available around the world for what it would do for comedy. Audiences say they want this show, and comics say they need this show.”

And how will the format change, if at all, to accommodate a TV audience vs. the typical live shows?

“The format is almost exactly the same, we really kept the integrity of the show. The TV show will be different in that it gets more in-depth with the comics talking about the adrenaline and experience of doing the show. Lots of comics say it feels like doing stand-up for the first time, but with a supportive audience.”

Reggie Watts at a Set List show at the UCB Theatre

“The comics really love this. The best comics in the world can feel like their stuff is stagnant. Even when I was doing more club dates, no matter how much new stuff I did, I couldn’t shake the feeling of feeling like it was all so safe. I always had an extra closer I could pull out of my pocket, or a way to work the crowd, or some other thing to guarantee things would go well. I love not having that anymore, being able to go onstage with practically nothing, and I think most of the comics who have done this show feel the same way. I am really inspired by how vulnerable they are and they keep coming back no matter what. UK comic Phill Jupitus called Set List ‘Catnip for comedians.'”

You’ll be able to see why soon enough. If you’re in London, San Francisco, Montreal or Los Angeles, then even sooner.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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