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When Comics Fail: How I Learned to Love the Bomb Part 1

November 1, 2010

Oh man, bombing.

Boom goes the hydrogen

It is the worst.  For you readers who don’t practice stand-up comedy and have never experienced a bomb, it’s hard to describe the feeling.  It’s like being slapped in the face by someone with clammy hands.  Or getting offered change by a beggar.  Or losing to a Nickelback fan at chess.  It hurts.

…can stop the BURN!

You need a lot of confidence to stand in front of people you don’t know, and say  “Hey, you guys are gonna find this funny.”

When they reply, “No, you are definitely wrong about that,” it is a blow. This kind of public, harsh rejection is the sort that scars kids in elementary school and creates life-long shy guys.

I don’t want no fly guy…

In fact, many studies that rank common phobias have rated public speaking as number one, higher even than death.  People would rather die for realz than die onstage.  And stand-up comics choose to go through this experience fairly often.  Are we crazy?  Masochists?  Definitely some of us, but it is simply a fact that to become a decent comic, you WILL bomb.  Many times.  Worse, it could happen when you don’t even DESERVE it.

Here are some reasons I have seen comics with solid material that killed in other situations bomb like the Enola Gay:

  • The audience didn’t appreciate their style of humour.
  • The only people watching were other comics who rarely laugh out loud.
  • The venue was super hot or cold, and people were physically uncomfortable.
  • The show ran too long and the audience became fed up.
  • They were opening for a more popular act, whose fans wanted to see them RIGHT NOW and were angry about being forced to wait.

The thing is, no one is really ever safe from the bomb.  Sure, master comics have reduced their chances of bombing to near zero, but it does still happen.

A lot of fuss was made when Louis CK

posted on this entry to his (awesome) blog  that he bombed a set in Dublin, Ireland (He would later elaboarate further on the experience during this interview with The Onion AV Club).

How could one of the best comics alive today, with decades of experience under his belt, bomb?  Did Louis bomb in the noob sense, delivering jokes in a quavering voice to an audience with their arms crossed, shaking their heads in horrible silence?  Of course not.  He probably couldn’t bomb that bad if he tried.  It was merely a lacklustre set, and not up to the standards he’d established for himself.  Thus, he considered it a bomb.

“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

And judging from his article, bombing doesn’t suck any less when you’re an established, veteran comic.  In fact, it probably sucks more. He had these words to say about bombing in this interview for Esquire Magazine:

“Bombing means: You lost them, they’re gone, and you just roast in hell until your time is up. You want to get offstage. But you also don’t want to get offstage till you can solve it. Millions of things race through your head, but it’s mostly visceral. It’s mostly in your gut: Your stomach gets a shitty feeling, your throat constricts, you can’t breathe in a natural rhythm, you’re too aware of how you’re breathing. It’s like being high, but bad. You feel your pulse in your head. If you’ve lost the audience, the silence becomes horrible and your instinct is to keep talking fast. If you can respond by keeping your head cool — like you’ve got to actually will the sweat back into your forehead; I’ve actually been able to do that — and talking at the same pace, and letting there be quiet, and letting them know you’re okay, you can actually pull out of the nosedive.

I bombed at the Improv in L. A. about two years ago. I didn’t even get through the set. As I tried to tell my jokes, I felt like a kid trying to retell jokes that some comedian he saw did. I couldn’t make my mouth move.”

The other thing that sucks about bombing is that what constitutes a bomb is totally subjective to the comic.  When I first began practicing stand-up comedy, I considered a bomb to be utter silence.  These days, I feel like I’ve bombed if the quality or length of laughter doesn’t match my expectations.

What can we do to deal with it?  Here are some thoughts on staying positive after a bad performance:

  • Remind yourself that it’s just one set. Would you beat yourself up over one bad step if you were walking across North America?
  • Be realistic about the venue and forgive yourself. Did you even have a chance to succeed?
  • Think about how every comic bombs. Probably other comics who performed with you tonight did as well.
  • Stand-up comedy is extremely difficult. Just by taking the stage, you have shown yourself to be a driven and brave person. Even if you suck, that’s worth something.
  • Spend some time watching your favourite comics and get pumped up again. (I have watched the documentary “Comedian” more times than I can count for this reason). They were once bombing and feeling the exact same way…
  • Reward yourself for getting out there and taking one on the chin. Have a post-show beer, order some poutine, or whatever you do to cheer yourself up. You deserve it.
  • Go edit right away – use the negative energy as motivation to improve the jokes that fell flat.

After all this whining and moaning about a necessary part of the art form, I do see a silver lining.  Other than slicing your ego to ribbons and making you want to quit stand-up, I think bombing is super useful. In fact, tomorrow we will go over 5 reasons why, like Stanley Kubrick, I learned to love the bomb, and maybe you can too.

I’ll leave you with a clip of a comic named Phil who performs out of Finland who recently performed in a “no win” situation on a tram in Helsinki.  His blog entry about the affair demonstrates a positive attitude toward the experience, and an ability to laugh at oneself that bombing can help develop.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Grant permalink
    September 1, 2011 1:15 pm

    OMG.. I just started doing stand up locally in Scottsdale, Az.. And I can relate… I did a show with 17 other comics.. yes 17… we all had 5 minutes a piece, and I was on 3rd to last.. Well, from what my friends said. there were a lot of people that weren’t so funny.. So.. it was really hard for me to get the crowd going again.. I did ok.. but.. it was tough.. but. hey. at least I am doing it.. I would never give a comic a hard time.. now that I know what it takes… a lot of guts.. and i think hecklers are just annoying, insecure people who wish they had the guts to get on stage, but would rather try and ruin someone’s night.. not to mention the audience’s night.. and of course writing for the audience is tricky.. sometimes you never know what an audience will laugh at.. anyway.. that’s my two cents worth . LOL

  2. borys permalink
    January 18, 2012 7:10 pm

    Hey, I just popped my stand-up cherry at a local bar in my beloved post USSR country, where no one actually gets stand-up comedy yet. I bombed hard, man. But now I know that if the public doesn’t know you, your best bet are some quick and witty one-liners as not even the best punch line can save a story that is drawn out for too long. Like you said – it’s harder than it looks. Thanks for this post. It helped me to overcome this gut wrenching feeling of self hatred after that failed performance without drinking myself to death.

  3. André permalink
    February 27, 2012 4:57 pm

    Yeah, I bombed about an hour ago. Shit was rough, they were just looking at me. Do I look like a fucking ghost? Thanks for posting this!

    • Anonymous permalink
      October 22, 2012 4:09 am

      Hey…I bombed hard doing a warm up set for a band at a local Moose Lodge. The jokes I wrote fell pretty flat. The audience didn’t connect at all. I had about 15 minutes but cut it to about 6. I had a few people in the audience that I knew who felt compelled to throw in the odd clap and haha when no one else did. On the plus side I’ve killed it in other venues that I had a better understanding of the audience. So…embarassed yes….quitting….no. I at least knew when to call the ball and didn’t show weakness or try to duck and run… I took the stale reaction to the set. One lesson I got from this is to test the jokes on a similar group…Like I could have done a practice set with guys and girls of around the same age etc. to see how it worked for them. I’m thinking that I’ll be more inclined to practice, especially with similar demographics before I go outside of my main audience…..

      Thanks for the advice…it made me think about going back to the Moose Lodge, which I am a member, with out as much embarrassment.

      – Mike S


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