Setup and payoff is a storytelling rule which establishes that if something is “setup” at the beginning of the screenplay, it must be “paid off” before the end.
For example: imagine that you have a scene in which a cop is interrogating a murderer and he has to prove that the man in front of him is unstable.
Setup = taking something (an event, a person, an object, etc..) that is apparently unimportant for the story or forgettable and highlighting it without explaining the reason why.
While the criminal is talking about his alibi, the officer grabs two pens and starts playing the table as if it were a drum-set. The criminal stops talking for a second and looks clearly annoyed but pretends that everything is fine.
Payoff = taking that “something” from before and giving it an important role in the narrative.
A few days later, in a courtroom, while the criminal is being questioned by a lawyer the cop takes out a pen and starts playing with it. As soon as the criminal sees this, he snaps and everyone in the jury sees that he is insane.
Setup and payoff is often used in comedies to steal a laugh with a joke that the audience didn’t see coming.
One of the best examples of Setup and payoff in comedies is the episode from The Office (US version) called “Dinner Party”.
This episode is basically made of setups in the first half and payoffs in the second half, but it’s hard to notice at first. Why?
Because The Office nails this technique by “hiding” its setup behind jokes, this way each setup and each payoff is funny enough to pass as a standalone gag.
Here’s an example:
Setup – Dwight is not invited
In the very first scene, Michael accidentally reveals to everyone that he lied about a “big project” that would have kept the employees at work until late, just because he wanted to force some of his employees to come to a dinner party at his house.
Dwight, after overhearing the conversation wants to come to his boss’ dinner, but Michael tells him that he can’t with an excuse.
“It’s couples only. Besides, I only have six wine glasses. So it will only be me and Jan, Pam and Jim, Angela and Andy.”– The Office, season 4 Dinner Party
This leaves the poor Assistant to the Regional Manager crying alone heartbroken.
Apparently, Michael simply doesn’t want Dwight to come to his house and his exaggerated reaction to being denied an invite is the joke that makes this setup hilarious.
Payoff – Michael wanted to invite Dwight
At the party, Dwight shows up with his old babysitter and carrying two wine glasses. Jen looks at Michael, angry, but he defends his friend.
“Dwight is my friend. You said that I couldn’t invite Dwight because he was not part of a couple and because we didn’t have enough wine glasses. Dwight brought glasses and a person”– The Office, season 4 Dinner Party
This is the payoff. Dwight is not the kind of guy to go down without a fight (as he would say it himself), it would be out of character for him to let his two “mortal enemies” (Jim and Andy) just have fun with his beloved Michael without trying to interfere.
Setup – The dinner
As soon as Andy and Angela arrive, Jen reveals that the dinner is not ready but that it will actually take 3 hours before they can eat.
Jen: “It’s just that the osso buco needs to braise for about 3 hours. Everything else is done.”
Pam: “3 hours from now or 3 hours from earlier like 4:00?”
Jen: “You know Pam, in Spain they often don’t even start eating until midnight.”– The Office, season 4 Dinner Party
This sets up two things: one is that this dinner party will mostly be without food, and the other is that Jen is not crazy about Pam.
After a couple of scenes, Jen, Pam, and Angela all go to the kitchen to check on the food. There we find out that Jen believes that Pam and Michael are ex-lovers, this is the reason why she is being so hostile towards her.
Payoff – Poisoned food?
Once dinner finally arrives, Michael tells Pam that he suspects that Jen might be trying to poison him through the food.
Pam connects the dots and realizes that the one in danger of being poisoned is actually her.
Pam: “I know Jen didn’t poison the food, I know that. But if she was going to poison the food of someone at that table wouldn’t it be me? Michael’s FORMER LOVER.”– The Office, season 4 Dinner Party
Setup – The song, the plasma screen, the beer sign, the Dundies, the candles
Jen: “Well, it was between the neon beer sign and the Dundies. So I said Honey keep the trophies!”– The Office, season 4 Dinner Party
During a tour of the house, Michael and Jen show their guests all the things that they are proud of:
- Jen’s “new business” of selling scented candles
- Michael’s new tiny plasma TV screen
- The love song that Jen’s old assistant wrote for her
- All the little changes that Jen decided to bring to the house (including getting rid of a neon beer sign)
- Michael’s Dundies
Each object is a joke on its own (Michel’s exaggerated enthusiasm over a TV that is just slightly larger than a phone, Janet’s stinky and ugly looking candles etc…).
They don’t really stand out among the sea of strange things that the couple show to their guests, so the audience doesn’t notice that they are the setup.
Payoff – Michael and Jen triggering each other
We’re close to the climax of the episode (if you don’t know what that is you can check out a different post about story structure), this whole time the story has been hinting (and not in a subtle way) at the fact that Michael and Jen despise each other.
Now it’s time for them to have a showdown.
Here’s how they give us an epic fight by using all the little things mentioned during the tour of the house:
- Michael decides to replace a painting with the horrible beer sign that Jen hates just to make her get mad
- Jen starts playing the song that her assistant wrote for her just to piss off her partner
- Michael mocks her for having spent so much money on a doomed candle business
- Jen snaps and destroys the precious plasma TV with a Dundie
Now the circle is complete. All the little gags that were brought up at the beginning of the episode, came back towards the end and became hilarious jokes.
The setup and payoff technique helps the writers to reinforce the theme of the story, which is: Michael and Jen are a terrible couple.
First, each setup hints at the fact that they are both trying to subtly sabotage or gain control over the other person.
Second, the payoff confirms that the relationship is indeed as dysfunctional as it appeared at first.
“Dinner party” is probably my favorite episode from The Office because, thanks to its masterful writing, it manages to create conflict and bring it to a satisfying resolution while keeping the audience entertained.