Bombing, (not getting any laughs while on stage), is not only a learning experience, it is an absolute certainty in the business of stand up. Last night was one of those nights for me. I will not make any excuses about why my set did not do so well. I will attempt to describe the environment I was in and feelings running through my head at the time. Here we go:
The stage is set at a local bar, which has made Tuesday nights a regular stand up comedy night. For the most part, the audiences can be 50/50 when it comes to being receptive. Tonight, the show is delayed as U.S.A battles Mexico in a soccer World Cup qualifying match. The game ultimately ends in a zero tie. A few people have left at the conclusion of the game, but most have stayed. Some of the patrons are regulars and some are fresh new faces. The bar can occupy at least 100 people. By the time the show starts, everyone has settled in to their socializing and drinking and the show begins 30 minutes after the soccer game has ended. The promoter of the show, and fellow comic, asks me if I am willing to go on first to “break the ice”. I reluctantly agree. I say that because I am accepting the daunting task of trying to get everyone’s attention with some humor while they are all enjoying their drinks and camaraderie. Being the first to take the stage is perceived as a losing effort. The assumption that you are funny and going first is at a negative rating. The way I see it, however, I am now a semi professional at this. I can “break the ice!”
My name is introduced, then my “Jump Around” intro music is played. No one recognizes my name and my out dated music does not seem to resonate with anyone in the audience. I take the stage to the sound of continuous chatter and absolutely no applause. No biggie. I will get them with my first joke. I get up, I greet the crowd and get in to my fist joke. I use a joke that gets laughs 100% of the time. It works, but only 1/3rd of the audience is with me. I can tell that continuing at this pace, I will end the show with the same 1/3rd of the crowd. I decide to “riff” (talk directly to specific member of the audience), in an effort to get them more engaged. I select to speak with 2 black guys, the only 2 black guys, seated at a table a few feet away from me. I make a joke about black people living in a predominately Latino town and the joke goes over well. But it goes well with the same 1/3rd of the audience. At this point, I think I can now take these people by the hand to my prepared material. I go for it! I go in to a bit about annoying people in Mexican parties. The bit is fairly new but did incredibly well at the comedy club where I hosted 7 straight shows last week, and I am being modest about it just doing “well”. It actually did way better than that! I get to the first punchline of the joke…nothing…I move quickly to the second punchline…nothing but blank faces. I move on to the 3rd punchline and get a few laughs, then a huge laugh when I describe the creepy family member that checks out all the women at the party. Then I get to the funniest part of the joke AND….nothing. Absolutely nothing.
At this point, I am sure you are asking yourself, “Why would anyone put themselves through that? If it were me, I do not know what I would do!” I am on my 7th year of doing stand up and only 4 years in to doing it as aggressively as I have been. I can now go on stage and handle the silence and the blank stares. Often times, I will even let the silence linger long enough for someone to feel the need to laugh! It is a technique that comes with time and patience. I realize that a complete “bomb” on stage is when a comic gets no laughter, but for me, if the laughs are not consistent and sincere, I have bombed. Pure and simple.
What keeps a comic like me going back to the stage night in and night out despite episodes like the one I have described? It is that stubborn feeling that I can still do better. I can learn to win over an audience like this one. I can take the few laughs that I did get and use those bits again when in front of a similar crowd. Yes, every audience is different, but just as you may have learned new techniques or procedures at your job, a stand up comic learns and applies those to each and every show.
If you ever meet a comic that has not been in the business for too long and boasts about how they will soon rise to the top, rest assured, “soon” really means 10 to 15 years. Most stand up comedians have quit way before then.
On to the next show tonight!!