The Set-Up aims to break barriers, bring stand-up comedy to more students


Photo courtesy of The Set-Up

The Set-Up is Northwestern’s only comedy club dedicated specifically to stand-up comedy.

Luis Castañeda, Reporter

Communication junior Stephen Peng and Communication senior Will Mulder said there were no comedy clubs strictly dedicated to stand-up when they came to Northwestern. 

They now serve as co-presidents of NU’s only comedy group focused solely on stand-up comedy: The Set Up. Founded in 2021, the organization aims to create barrier-free stand-up comedy ― there are no auditions to join the group.

Comedy groups on campus commonly hold auditions in Fall Quarter. Peng said auditions can be jarring for new students trying out.  

“It (feels) like ‘Oh my god, nobody likes me’ if I got cut,” Peng said. 

Mulder said the high level of expertise surrounding existing comedy groups creates an environment where “doors slam in your face,” preventing people from having the opportunity to perform. He said this contrasts with Chicago venues, where it is possible to perform at open-mic clubs with no preparation. 

He said he wanted to let students who had never performed comedy before college to be able to give it a shot. 

“No trying out for a club, no anything,” Mulder said. “Let’s create a space where we can have a stage like (Chicago venues).”

The Set-Up hosts biweekly Thursday shows and weekly Monday workshops. During these workshops, student comedians can come in with their jokes and receive feedback from everyone in the room. 

Communication freshman Austin Kelly did not have any material when he went to his first workshop for The Set-Up but said he left inspired.

“I was like ‘Wow, these people are really funny. I can do this,’” Kelly said. 

Communication freshman Walter Todd said he appreciates how low-pressure and consistent The Set-Up is. The most important thing to developing a comedic style, he said, is to “experiment and figure out what works.”

Todd said he is inspired by Kevin Hart and Katt Williams, the Black stand-up comedians he grew up watching. He said their performances were what made him love stand-up in the first place.

“A lot of them also come from low-income areas like I did,” Todd said. “And they are now wildly successful off of comedy. That’s such a dream to me.” 

Weinberg freshman Colette Samek, majoring in economics and geography, said she sees connections between her studies and comedy. She said working with crowds, reading audiences’ reactions and being conversationally funny are important — especially in a business environment. 

As the only female performer at the Feb. 2 show, she said women are held to higher standards in comedy. 

“I think a lot of women have to be sort of clever and precise with their writing,” Samek said, “It’s harder for a woman to be silly and still get a laugh.”

Peng said the comedy scene is dominated by straight white men but that the open design of The Set-Up is meant to cherish minority comedians.

Although The Set-Up specifically avoids auditions, Peng said he understands the need for a selection process in many comedy clubs because “comedy can sometimes go awry.” He said comedians come from different backgrounds and might make jokes that those from other backgrounds find offensive. 

With this in mind, Peng and Mulder discussed how they would address an offensive joke said at the workshop. Instead of waiting until the workshop was over, they decided they would “nip it in the bud.” 

“Sometimes, especially when you’re starting out, you might fall over the line because you’re just trying stuff out,” Mulder said. 

Peng said it is an opportunity to have a healthy, mature conversation.

Starting this quarter, The Set-Up plans to have a final show at the end of each quarter, which they’re naming “The Punch Line.” It will be more rehearsed, hosting comedians who have done at least one prior stand-up show with the organization.

In comedy, Kelly said not all jokes land. He said he overcomes the stress and perseveres by “focusing on the big laughs.”

“Afterwards, it’s like a big release,” he said. “It’s very, very, very cathartic.”

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