What are Cue Cards? (with pictures)

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Television performers like David Letterman may rely upon cue cards when delivering monologues.
Television performers like David Letterman may rely upon cue cards when delivering monologues.

When television performers such as Jay Leno or David Letterman deliver their monologues, they often rely on unseen prompts known as cue cards. These cards are usually made from poster-size card stock, with individual lines and cues written by hand with large markers. Sometimes, they contain different colored lines to be delivered by two or more performers, such as the scripted dialogue used by presenters during live award shows. Cue cards may contain short bullet-style prompts, or they may have all of the scripted dialogue for a comedy sketch or monologue.

News reporters may rely on cue cards to adequately deliver the news.
News reporters may rely on cue cards to adequately deliver the news.

Many professional television shows and newscasts now use special teleprompters that project the script onto a one-way mirror, but many performers still prefer the use of cue cards to control the pace of their delivery. Even if an actor or host is improvising or speaking off-script, cards can provide him or her with the essential information to get back on track. An experienced performer can often deliver lines or jokes from a prompter and still make them sound natural and impromptu.

An actor may rely on the use of cue cards to control the pace of their delivery on a television show.
An actor may rely on the use of cue cards to control the pace of their delivery on a television show.

The use of cue cards is sometimes viewed by professional actors as a crutch to avoid memorizing dialogue, but if a performer has not had sufficient time to learn his or her lines or the show is on a strict time schedule, an actor may have no other choice. Cue cards are often placed just off the eye line of a camera in order to help the performer look more natural as he or she reads the lines cold. If there are a number of camera movements, the cues for each scene may be placed in different areas of the stage. One danger is the inadvertent exposure of the person holding them during a live shot.

Cue cards may be used by presenters during live award shows.
Cue cards may be used by presenters during live award shows.

Cue cards for professional television shows are often prepared by designated stage union members who take their responsibilities very seriously. They must be presented in a precise order, the writing must be legible from a distance, and the holder must synchronize the display with the host's delivery style. A performer using cue cards may decide to improvise some dialogue or even reject material published on the cards. It can be surprising to learn how much of a performer's monologue or other comedic bits are actually scripted word-for-word on cards.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

FernValley

These days a lot of people who speak on television use teleprompters instead. This is debated a lot, because some people feel that it means professionals, such as news anchors and politicians, don't actually know about issues, they just read scripted statements.

At the same time, others argue that even with cues of any kind, it is easy to tell who knows their stuff and who doesn't.

I don't know what I think about this, although I imagine if I was giving speeches to the international community on television, I might appreciate cue cards, or at least notes, too.

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    • Television performers like David Letterman may rely upon cue cards when delivering monologues.
      Television performers like David Letterman may rely upon cue cards when delivering monologues.
    • News reporters may rely on cue cards to adequately deliver the news.
      News reporters may rely on cue cards to adequately deliver the news.
    • An actor may rely on the use of cue cards to control the pace of their delivery on a television show.
      An actor may rely on the use of cue cards to control the pace of their delivery on a television show.
    • Cue cards may be used by presenters during live award shows.
      Cue cards may be used by presenters during live award shows.