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.
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.
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 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.