Bombing – and I don’t mean Afghanastan
I doubt seriously that this blog will be funny. Because you see, the topic I have chosen concerns the worst feeling you can possibly imagine. Think of the most humiliating thing you’ve ever done, and multiply it a hundred times. Your knees wobble, sweat starts flowing, and you probably have a knot in your stomach that feels like you just swallowed a watermelon. Your voice cracks, while your self confidence is slammed like a 2 x 4 to the head. This feeling happens because a group of people are rejecting you en masse, one collective body is telling you that you suck. Comedically speaking, I’m talking about the B Word: that one word that comics fear as much as golfers do the shank. I’m talking about bombing.
Unfortunately for comedians or wanna be comedians, bombing is a necessary part of learning the job. I don’t have to tell you that most novice comedians are really bad. And the only way to get better is to practice in front of a crowd. That’s pretty nerve wracking. Imagine a beginning golfer having a large group of people watching them hit golf balls on the driving range. The big difference is that comedians are in front of a group of total strangers who may have actually paid some of their own money to watch you learn. Consequently, they will pass judgement on you as fast as a Roman Emperor judges a gladiator in the Coliseum. Quickly and without mercy.
Weird isn’t it? When you go to a club and see someone on stage, that person is presenting himself as a professional comedian no matter how bad he is. Doesn’t work that way with many other professions. Think a med school student puts on a gown, picks up a scalpel, then presents himself as a brain surgeon? Of course not. (but that may be coming with the new Obama Healthcare plan).
As you progress as a comedian, your material gets better and your delivery becomes more polished. As a result, you become more confident. And confidence may be the key factor in determining whether you bomb or not. Because an audience can sense fear, and will pounce on a comic without confidence like a lion on a wounded gazelle. A confident comic with marginal material can get by if he delivers it with authority. The attitude is a key.
Here’s an example of how attitude can affect your act. The first time I ever did stand up in San Francisco, I was freaked out. Because to me, San Francisco is the epicenter of stand up comedy. So many great comics started there, and the audiences are sophisticated. Consequently, I talked myself into being scared to death. I thought it was going to be culture meeting agriculture. But as my time to go on stage drew near, my inner comic spoke to me: it called me an idiot. Just in time I realized I was setting myself up to fail before I told my first joke by going on stage intimidated. So my psyche did a 180, and I went on stage with an attitude. I literally said, “to hell with the audience”, as I walked on stage – I have tested material that works and if they don’t laugh it’s their fault.
My theory got tested in a hurry. I was about 2 minutes into my set, and was doing OK, when I did a solid, tested joke — the punchline involving Michael Jackson managing a day care center. The audience responded with some groans and a lot of silence. I immediately admonished with an extreme attitude. I barked, “Screw you, I know that joke’s funny.” (or something to that effect). Surprise: I got a big laugh. Emboldened, I continued, “ You know comedy’s a lot like sex, you can do it alone, but it’s more fun if you have a partner.” An even Bigger laugh. Then I continued my set to very good response. Apparently, the audience got on board with me when they figured out I was going to have a good time whether they did or not.
Strangely enough, sometimes bombing can actually help you. Growing up, nothing made me laugh harder than Johnny Carson dying during a Tonight Show monologue. Carson handled bad jokes with a bemused embarrassment that the audience loved. Sometimes when you are eating it on stage, the best thing to do is admit it to the crowd. One line I always use when I’m trying a new joke that doesn’t work is to say, “That was a new joke, thank you for telling me it sucks.” It kind of deflates the tension, which can jump start your act.
In many cases, comics bomb because they don’t wisely choose their material for the audience they are speaking to. You don’t want to do your entire set on lesbian marriage in front of the Southeastern Baptist Convention. It ain’t gonna work. This leads me to one of my favorite bombing stories which doesn’t involve me. Bruce Ayers, owner of the Comedy Club, had brought in a busload of senior citizens to the club as the last stop of a casino junket. And it just so happens that that the first comic had nothing but material on drugs and drug use. Unfortunately for him, the drugs weren’t Polident or Metamucil. So his entire set about doobies, bongs, and roachclips was met with icy, painful silence. I thought I saw a tumbleweed blow by. The only person laughing was me. And it’s always a bad sign when a comic is laughing at another’s comic’s stage misery. It’s gallows humor, I guess. Exasperated by his epic failure, he delivered a brutally honest line that made me double over:
“This is the second toughest crowd I’ve ever performed for. And the first one didn’t speak English.”
Oh, and by the way – the audience didn’t laugh.
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