The Agony of Bombing

Recently I embarked on writing a new set of material and the process is going fairly well. Writing new material is difficult because when you’re on stage hoping to hear sounds of laughter, it is hard to not venture back to material you know will deliver.

We had a decent crowd on Wednesday, but an odd energy definitely existed in the room. They were a fine crowd, but often they didn’t react, which is purely an observation and not a judgement. Most of the crowd had come to see their mutual friend perform, and I believe that set a bit of “We’re patiently waiting for our friend to perform; You’re not him” feel.

As a comedian, there is nothing better than having friends in the crowd. They support, know, and understand you. They already have an established connection with you and this amplifies their enjoyment of the performance, which is spectacular.

Their friend did very well, and I took stage after him. The moment I set foot on stage, I felt an urgent sense of doom. My first few jokes fell flat and the crowd froze up. At one point a girl made a sound that I can only describe as the most audible sound of displeasure one can hear, and at that point I knew they weren’t going to warm up to me. I thought about switching to old material, but there wasn’t quite enough time and there was no point in wasting it on lost ears. I’d have tried riffing, but none of the comics had found much success. And at that point any riffing would have been correctly detected by the crowd as desperate, which never compliments riffing. I could tell they weren’t going to like my longer bit, which seems edgy at first but is actually somewhat absurd. So I threw that out, skipped to the end, and got the hell off stage early.

A crowd’s reaction to you is based on two continuums: whether they like you; whether they like your material. As a performer you have to learn to help influence those in your favor, but some nights you can’t. And on nights when you bomb, the crowds reaction to you dictates the type of bombing that you suffer.

Types of Bombing:

  1. Love you; Don’t Like Your Material – You feel good about yourself but worried about your material.
  2. Don’t Like You; Love Your Material – You feel bad about yourself but pleased with your material.
  3. Don’t Like You; Don’t Like Your Material – You walk away devastated.

I can’t vouch for how the crowd actually felt, but I walked away feeling that they didn’t enjoy me or my material, which is the worst type of bombing and is the most soul-wrenching, ego-crushing, mentally devastating feeling. It put me in a comedic stupor for about 24 hours. And it reminded me that standup is similar to chess in that when you’re defeated, you can’t pass the blame to someone else. The outcome is 100% dependent upon your abilities in that moment. It isn’t uncommon for chess players to become physically ill after losing a match, and I think the same is true for performers. It is your ego’s only response to a direct hit.

You Made It Weird – Listen to It

Pete Holmes is one of my favorite comedians, and he is also host of “You Made It Weird“, one of my favorite comedy related podcasts. The basic idea of the podcast is obviously and admittedly inspired by WTF with Marc Maron, but Pete has worked hard and given the show its own personality.

The theme is that Pete interviews comedians about weird aspects of their lives. Such weird little moments do appear in the podcast, but they’re wrapped inside a much larger conversation about becoming and being a comedian. A myriad of stories and topics worm their way up in each episode, and typically Pete brings up the three areas he seems to find the most interesting, which are religion, relationships, and family.

If you’re interested in the world of comedy, especially if you’re interested in performing, then start listening to this. There are a lot of great bits of advice about the comedy world.

Here are the episodes I have particularly enjoyed:

  1. Marc Maron – Because he is basically the show’s godfather.
  2. Mike Lawrence – Still a genuine up-and-comer in the comedy world, the amount of work and dedication he puts in is startling.
  3. Demetri Martin – Lots of good information about approaching comedy.
  4. Jim Gaffigan – A brilliant comedian and a good interview.
  5. Rob Delaney – He came to standup comedy through Twitter and has a family he balances it with. Also a good interview about having a comedy persona.
  6. TJ Miller – He is sharp and makes great distinctions.
  7. Matt Diffee and Alex Gregory – Both are cartoonists for the New Yorker. You’ll leave with a better understanding an appreciation for the craft of cartooning.

Avoid This

You can successfully do anything you want on stage as long as you have the support of the crowd. They will follow you through absurd, dark, sensitive, and even offensive material. But if you find yourself losing the crowd or having lost them, you need to work hard to get back to them, to reestablish a connection, to regain their participation back.

Without the crowd it is impossible to do well. The crowd didn’t show up to be picked on, insulted, or yelled at. They came to enjoy themselves. The video below is a prime example of everything you can do wrong to a crowd. I am not judging whether this man has talent or is funny. I am simply observing how he controls the crowd. The video is also a great example of everything you can do wrong at an openmic:

The Unhealthy Side of YouTube

In “Born Standing Up” Steve Martin points out that seeing him perform comedy and listening to his comedy albums, though the same material, are completely different experiences. One experience did not ruin the other, and that benefited his career because fans wanted both experiences — they bought tickets to shows, and they bought albums.

I don’t think that sharing videos of your comedy is wrong when you first start standup, but I am not convinced it is healthy to do. Though I have videos on YouTube, I hesitate to share them. The primary argument being that you cannot show someone a YouTube video without affecting or potentially ruining the experience he or she will have seeing you perform live.

Standup is a relationship between you and the crowd. They show up, you perform, and for your hard work they reward you with laughter. Watching a YouTube clip is the ultimate method for a person to benefit from your hard work without investing time to support you at a show. It is a losing interaction for you because there is no equal exchange.

People interested in your comedy should support you by coming to a show. And not sharing your videos is a good way to tease people to join the crowd. At this stage it is better to have someone laugh in front of the stage than in front of a monitor. You can always use support from another friendly face in the crowd, and every performer benefits from having one more person in the crowd.

Second, starting out you have a relatively tiny amount of material, and a more precious subsection of that is quality material. People will react better to your material if they’ve never been exposed to it. And the longer that content is on YouTube the less fresh your comedy will seem. “I watched him on YouTube earlier. He’s been using that joke for the last 7 months.” It is fine that you’ve been using a joke for seven months because building up material is a long process, but audiences don’t know that.

In the podcast “You Made it Weird” with Pete Holmes, he and Demetri Martin discussed the impact YouTube has had on comedians. A rough paraphrase would be that before YouTube, or the internet in general, a comedian could be on tour and rely on rotating through 3 or 4 sets. But now a crowd is more likely to be familiar with a comedian’s material. The more fluent the crowd, the more stale that material seems. Thus YouTube forces comedians to create fresh content at a faster rate.

If you already have a career in comedy, it is great that things like YouTube force you to create content. It keeps your mind busy, your fans amused, and your career continuing. But if you’re new to standup, your goal is to make sure that people get the best experience of your material. And the best experience is live.


Worst Hobby Ever

Often standup comedians say that something is wrong with standup comedians. And they’re right because standup comedy is the worst hobby ever. You’re a long way from making someone laugh when you first start out (let alone actually making money), and during the long struggle to possibly be successful one day, you voluntarily subject yourself to an introspective hell for what are in comparison very tiny, rewarding moments.

It is an exercise of complete faith in your ego. You think you are funny, and you must convince a crowd of people that it is true. When you first start, you’re given about 180 seconds to convince strangers that you are indeed funny. Where an actor can blame a bad performance on a plethora of things: the director, the writing, his costar, or such, you cannot. If you fail–if you bomb–you are the sole scape goat. You wrote the material, and you performed it.

It is the only performance where people show up demanding you to evoke a specific emotional response in them. It is easy to make people bored, depressed, or angry. It is entirely different to make people engage, join in, indulge in, and enjoy your absurd trains of thought.

It takes hours on stage to gather a decent pool of good material. You throw out more material than you use, or at least you should be. But once you have the material developed, it has been adapted to you and your delivery. It only fits you.

If you tell a joke to a friend and he starts laughing and another friend comes in and demands to hear that joke too, you shorten the joke. And if he laughs and another friend comes in and demands to hear that joke, you shorten it again. And at some point when another friend comes in you simply refuse to tell the joke any more. Standup is that scenario, but you can’t shorten the joke or eventually you’ll just be yelling punch lines.

And that is one of the largest hurdles– you have to tell the same material with the same intensity and the same commitment and the same emotion over and over, night after night, and often in front of the same comedians, staff, or regulars. Even when it makes you nauseous to say it one more time, you have to do it.

Tailored Fit

A few weeks ago we had a small crowd, the majority of whom were old Jewish types. The first 7 or so comedians stepped up and defaulted to the typical blue material beginners gravitate toward. The material failed to impress the crowd. And at one point our teacher even stepped on stage for a brief guest spot, during which he brought the crowd’s energy level and interest back up and mentioned that he had expected the comedians to tailor our bits to the crowd).

One would think that his message had been clearly stated. But the next few comedians on stage fell to the same vulnerabilities as the first. But I was determined to not follow suit. I didn’t ditch the set list I’d made, but I did tailor it to fit, which no one else had done.

Instead of glazing over references the older folk wouldn’t understand, I added concise explanations (that others had not provided) to help lead people along my premises. I kept my one or two blue bits, but I made them more subtle.

I ended with a great bit about Adam and Eve (old Jewish people love that shit). But realizing I still had another 30 seconds, I decided to throw in one last subtle blue joke. Instinctually I knew it was a bad decision. And the joke did fail miserably. So instead of ending on the highest note possible and maintaining the separation I’d made between me and the other performers, I ended with a giant step backward.

Two lessons:

  1. Tailor to the moment.
  2. Trust your instincts.


Plateau of Progress

At an open mic night it’s easy to read too much into the order of appearance. One can make multiple arguments, all equally pointless, about the trivial meanings a particular position might mean. Yes, there is probably some thought behind it, but more important than position is the amount of time you’ve been given. The more time you receive the better you’re doing or at least the more confident people are in your ability. I am always pleased with 7, thrilled for 10, and ecstatic about 10+.

If those around you are getting more time while you’re not, it is time to do two things. First, don’t outright ask for more time, but do ask those in charge what you can improve to earn more time. Second, take a look at those progressing around you. In what ways have they progressed that have earned them more time that you have not?

Finally, take a look at the content of your material. There is nothing wrong with blue material, but it can be taken too far. A crowd, especially at an open mic, will quickly tire from too much blue material. And beginning comedians often have ample material about dicks and a lack of any other material. Make sure you’re delivering comedy the crowd is going to enjoy.


Starting Out – Riffing – (part 4 of 4)

When you first start riffing, your conversations with the crowd will either feel stale or become stale quickly. You’ll encounter barriers you don’t have the experience to handle yet: the answer from the crowd is a dead end; the person is uninterested in participating; or your brain will come to a halt. More than quick, witty responses, riffing relies on your ability to control the outcome of a conversation. It is the art of subtly shifting or reinterpreting responses in your favor.

Do it. You can’t get better at riffing if you’re not taking time to do it.

Have an opinion. If someone in the crowd says something, have a response. If that guy loves pandas, then have an opinion about pandas. Having an opinion, not whether the opinion is true, is the important part.

Be specific. A response to a question such as “Where are you from?” will get you started but it won’t sustain you. Follow-up questions should be more specific. They should narrow down on something interesting. For example, the previous four comedians had each asked the same guy the same two or three generic questions without success. When I came out, I picked up where the last had left off:

Me: “Why do you live in Oklahoma?”
Him: “Because of a mistake.”
Me: “So is she home with the kid tonight?”

Not the best line ever, but in that scenario it killed. And in that question I was fulfilling both goals at once (expressed an opinion and narrowed the discussion).

Fall back to the other. Ideally you should be familiar enough with your material that you can seamlessly go between it and riffing. When one isn’t working, switch to the other for a bit.

Don’t lose the crowd. The crowd is not there to watch you be mean to someone. Don’t make fun of a person regarding things that are permanent or not easily changed. A person can easily change his shirt, but he can’t change his gender, height, weight, voice, or looks. Make light of what they say, not who they are. The moment you alienate the person, the crowd will turn on you.

For Every Reaction

A comedian is always both in search of and in need of feedback, whether positive or negative. After asking around, it seems that most comedians massively prefer mixed or negative feedback to silence.

Whether or not you material makes everyone laugh, you should at least strive for a reaction (good or bad). You can learn from and adjust to reactions. From tone it is easy to tell where an ew, ah, oh, or sigh falls on the spectrum of feedback (typically between “that was too far” to “that was too pitiful”).

But silence is haunting. In the moment of a sentence you’ve found yourself abandoned, and you’re not sure why. From the harmless, “did your mic stop working?”, to the more terrifying “did they stop paying attention?” or the severe “Is your joke that bad?”


Starting Out – Performing – (part 3 of 4)

You’ll never know if your material is good until you’ve performed it, and a multitude of factors influence your performance. It is impossible to address every factor, but here are some of the more important ones for beginners. For now pick a few of these to focus on and simply be aware of the others. As you gain experience you’ll also gain the coordination to manage a multitude of factors.

Get on stage. As soon as possible. It is phenomenal how many people who are interested in comedy or are actively enrolled in comedy lessons never proceed to get on stage or wait weeks to do so. Stage time is the only way to gain experience. And effort is the only aspect of comedy that can be measured.

Practice material out loud. Rarely is a person’s written voice the same as his spoken voice. Material should flow naturally when spoken. (Write the joke, speak the joke, rewrite the joke to match your speech.)

Memorize your material. It draws less attention to your inexperience. I don’t mean memorize it verbatim the way you wrote it. I mean know your material and know it well.

Have a goal. Every time you step on stage, you should have a goal. It can be as simple or complex as you desire (“to say ‘like’ less often”, “to not fall off the stage”, “to riff for three minutes”). Meeting your goals is always progress.

MOVE THE MIC STAND. If the mic is not in the stand, then the stand should not be between you and the audience.

Record every performance. Ideally you want video and audio, but simple audio is better than nothing. What you recall and what actually happened are vastly different. You want what actually happened.

You will bomb. It might happen the first time you perform, the first ten times, or not until your fifth time, but eventually it will happen. You cannot avoid it eternally.

Don’t step on laughs. Give the audience a moment to finish laughing at your joke. Laughter is the goal, so appreciate the sanctity of that moment. If you consistently step on the audiences’ laughs, they will naturally stop laughing.

Avoid asking questions. Unless you actually need an answer from the crowd, asking a question is a weak segue in to material and it is unnecessary bloat. You can better use those precious seconds by actually moving on to real material. Also, you might not be prepared for hecklers that you’re inviting into the moment.

Pace yourself. You’re not a machine gun of jokes. The goal isn’t to tell as many jokes a possible.

Recognize the moment. If something massively distracting or interesting is happening in the room, pay attention, and comment on it. Comedy is a shared experience. The crowd is there for that aspect.

Adapt to the audience. You don’t have to hold back, but you need to be flexible. If the crowd is too old for your references, add an extra sentence in the setup. If the last five comics were dirty, then something clever is going to do better than another dirty joke.

Experiment with your material. If a joke fails, find out why. Change the wording, the delivery, the timing, your cadence, the order. You will find what works.

Remember to have fun. The audience will notice the moment you stop having fun. When you stop, they stop.

Look for the light. As far as you’re concerned that light is God giving you one minute to end your set. The worst thing you can do is run past your time. It is bright on stage and it’s extremely easy to miss the light. You need to actively pay attention for the light. When you see it, indicate to the time keeper that you saw the light. Lock eyes and give a small hand gesture or nod or simply say that your time is up. (I try to be done with my set by the time I have one minute remaining. At the point you can throw in one more joke or simply thank the audience and step off stage).

Get feedback. After every performance ask other comedians for feedback. When you’re watching them, take notes, and have something to offer when they ask.

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