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When Comics Fail: How I Learned to Love the Bomb Part 2

November 2, 2010

Welcome back to part two of this week’s theory post on bombing (Part one here):

Like any comic, I don’t particularly enjoy telling jokes and having no one laugh.  But despite my best efforts, it still occasionally happens.  When it does, I try to keep these points in mind:

1)      Bombing Builds Discipline and Toughness

He wants that cake, yo.

If you don’t practice an skill, it atrophies.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that failing with grace is a skill.

There’s are a couple of rooms in Toronto that are widely considered “difficult.”  Several factors are responsible: the bar is not set up for easy viewing of the comics, distracting televisions are left on during the sets, and the event occurs on an otherwise slow night for the bar, so the crowd is small and self-conscious. On top of that, most of the patrons are simply not interested in watching a stand-up comedy show.

I love going to these rooms.  I’d go on every week if they let me.  See, the knowledge that bombing is the norm takes my ego out of the equation, and eases the pain when it inevitably happens.  I value the opportunity to watch how other comics deal with bombing – to learn from their grace (or lack thereof) as they react to the harsh conditions of the room.  I like the challenge of wrestling everyone’s attention, and finally, I LOVE the feeling of completing a good set (which does happen, occasionally).  It feels like you climbed a mountain.

Tough-ass rooms teach me a unique and tremendous set of skills every time I go on.  And the fact that I have learned to keep the experience in perspective, and learn some lessons while swallowing a bomb, is proof positive that these rooms have thickened my comedic skin.

2)      Feedback

Stand-up comedy is interesting as an art form in the sense that you get immediate feedback.  The author waits up to a year between finishing a final draft and seeing his or her book published.  Film directors and musicians wait even longer to share their work.  Heck, even webmasters are hungry for feedback, like this guy:

Yo, this kid’s talking a thought bubble.

When you receive feedback from someone who doesn’t hate you, they choose their words carefully. It’s human nature to placate, to spare the whip as it were.  I can hate a painting and still find nice things to say about it, no problem.  Especially if it was made by a friend.  But it’s real hard to fake convincing laughter.  When a stand-up bit sucks, you know immediately, even if the person desperately wants to lie to you.  This is a unique and wonderful aspect of stand-up.  Feedback is fast, ruthless, and efficient.

When you bomb, it is the ultimate gift from an audience.  They are saying loud and clear: “This shit ain’t funny.”  And by doing so, they are helping you to discover what is.  The audience is an unpaid writing partner, your personal humour adviser.  It helps me to think of bombing not as a judgement of me as a person, but more of a brainstorming session that didn’t go well.

3)      Reality Check

Remember when you were a kid and your mom told you everything you did was absolutely amazing?  You would make a three-legged lump out of plasticine, call it a dog and she’d go nuts, telling her friends you’re the next Rodin.

I think not.

Then you got older and found out she was just plain wrong, and that kid who sits next to you at school is better at EVERYTHING.  God bless you moms, and shout-outs to my mom for giving me that encouragement.  But there’s such a thing as too much confidence.

Look at George Lucas and the prequels to the Star Wars films.  They sucked because he became too powerful.  Too many yes-men, telling him that having a bunch of racist aliens

Meesa should never have gotten past first draft!

and casting Hayden Christensen was a great idea.  Lucas needed a reality check and did not receive one.

Sometimes I’ll be writing a bit and thinking “Oh my God, this is the funniest thing ever written.  I might just be the most hilarious man who ever lived.”  Of course, the feeling passes, often with the help of an audience who graciously points out through their silence that I am mistaken.

4)      Emergency Procedures / Exit Strategy

In this situation I would pretend I had asthma.

When you’re bombing, there’s always a chance to squeak out a win.  Stand-up is a lot of thinking on your feet, and the more experienced veteran comics showcase this skill with ease.  Wrong material for the crowd?  Not a problem, got another hour of bits ready to go on alternate topics.  Bored crowd?  No sweat, get them engaged by riffing for awhile, then move on to material.

One time at a slow room, I saw Toronto comic Andrew Hamm get off the stage and sit down with the few audience members present, delivering his act as if he was one of their buddies.  He created such an intimacy that they couldn’t possibly ignore him.

5)      Stories / Camaraderie

Nothing says teamwork like matching hip waders.

What comic doesn’t like a good old round of bombing stories?   Statistically everyone bombs.  If you haven’t yet, you are either wet behind the ears, or you did bomb a set and you were too arrogant to label it so.  See number 3.

Also, this is one of those wonderful elements that builds camaraderie in a community.  The best friends are forged on battlefields, and bombing together is the kind of trauma that builds meaningful connections between members of a community.  I never fought in World War II, but I bet when those cats were huddled, half frozen in trenches, the bonding was out of this world.

Let’s ease on outta here with another bomb (don’t worry, I’m not picking on anyone, it’s a staged video but eerily familiar…).

8 Comments leave one →
  1. djdemers permalink
    November 2, 2010 12:32 pm

    Great double post on bombing, Joel. I love bombing. It is such a useful and necessary experience for any comic. With that being said, you still wanna cut yourself badly when it happens.

    • November 3, 2010 2:08 pm

      Thanks DJ, you are definitely one of the comics I had in mind wen I was writing about taking a bomb gracefully.

  2. Chris Kerley permalink
    April 7, 2011 4:04 am

    Is it possible to bomb so often that you rely on it to be the only funny part of you’re act?

    • April 8, 2011 1:15 pm

      I think it’s not only possible, but a trap lots of comics fall into. Acknowledging the bomb releases the built up tension of their set stinking and creates a nice, hearty laugh. Sometimes this laugh is mistaken as a part of the set when it is really just a valve release, and the bit is kept or not modified. I look at breaking the fourth wall and commenting (negatively or otherwise) on your act as a last resort kind of thing. It has its uses, but not something you want to lean on.

  3. April 13, 2014 12:49 pm

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  4. jxfv permalink
    June 14, 2014 10:41 am


  5. Mick Martin permalink
    July 17, 2014 11:15 am

    You are an excellent blogger. Reading this stuff is very encouraging and very, very helpful.


  1. Been awhile… « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog

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