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When It Hits the Fan: Dealing with Stand-Up Disasters Part 1

March 14, 2011

We all know what a disaster looks like: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake.  Hurricaine Katrina.  M. Night Shamalayan’s career.

Dear: M. Night: Grass blowing in the wind isn’t scary.

Sincerely, Common Sense

Here’s a cool thing about life and bat-related sports: curve balls.  Unexpected turns keep things interesting, and more often than not, annoy the crap out of us.  But there’s a reason for the phrase “We’ll all look back at this and laugh.”  Often it is the craziest disasters that we remember most fondly.

All through highschool I spent a ton of time camping.  Memories from those trips could fill a dozen Hello Kitty journals, but the ones that stand out the most?

– The time me and my friend Saker accidentally sealed ourselves into a snow shelter, basically building a tomb for ourselves.  We spent a long time waiting to be discovered.

– The time I almost died of heat stroke at the bottom of the grand canyon and just lay in a shallow river looking up at the blue-ass sky and thinking about my life while people fed me Slim Jims.

– The time we got caught hiking on a ridge in a thunder storm and almost got hit by a bolt of lightning.

At the time, each of these events were uncomfortable, scary, and to be honest, completely shitty.  But these days when I meet up with old camping pals, guess which stories we laugh about the most?

Life can be as predictable as we want.  All we have to do is sit on the couch and watch TV, and probably not too much will happen, good or bad.  But if we want to get out there and live, we are opening ourselves up to random variables.  We even have a name for when things go inevitably wrong: Murphy’s Law.

How very zany!  They tried to make a sign about Murphy’s Law, and the sign went wrong!


I know that the more I envision how a journey will go, the less likely it will match my predictions.  I still set clear goals for myself, and have an idea of how to get there, but I’ve found it’s much better to let the details work themselves out.  The key is not to make a perfect plan, but to be flexible.

Sun Tzu offers some sage advice on flexibility in his famouse tome “The Art of War.”

“Military tactics are like unto water… just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.

I believe the following quote applies to stand-up as well (maybe not the heaven-born stuff).  I like the idea of comparing stand-up comedy to war, because they share many commonalities:

1) Both involve an element of risk

Well, sentient fish, I think the risk for you is these kids are gonna pour

laundry detergent in your bowl, bud.

In an armed conflict, participants are at risk of dying, which is definitely a heavier situation than not getting a laugh.  But considering that on many ranked list of phobias, fear of public speaking trumps fear of death, it would seem that not everyone agrees with me.

2) Both involve an element of dominance

In nature, subordinate wolves lick their betters on the muzzle to demonstrate complicity.

When I do it with humans, apparently it’s called “sexual harrassment.”

Just like the military General who has committed his mind and resources to conquering an opponent, the stand-up comic must dominate their audience.  I’m not saying it has to be an aggressive thing, but comics are in a leadership role when they take the stage.  They are deciding what is funny, when to let people laugh, and how the set will play out.  Don’t think that this involves domination?  Wait till you see a comic face off against a heckler, who decides they should be the focus of attention.

3) Both involve myriad, complex, intertwined skill-sets

Complex skill set…

Not complex skill set.

In World War II they called Erwin Rommel the “Desert Fox,” because he was the best cat around at fighting in the sand.  You gave that son of a bitch some tanks and some Nazis, and he would crush his enemies.  On the other hand, Eisenhower on the Allies side was clearly a master of misdirection and resource management, as is apparent from the success of D-Day’s difficult amphibious invasion.

Switch either of these military leaders to the other’s territory and they’d probably struggle to adapt.  The rules, terrain, and logistics for one theatre of war don’t necessarily apply to the other.  Can a dead open mike room be likened to a desert, while a corporate stand-up gig a delicate invasion, requiring vastly different approaches?  I think so.

4)  Both involve a mix of preparation and flexibility

I don’t even have a smart-ass remark for this one.  It’s simply the best picture I’ve ever seen.

In war and stand-up, watch out for the best laid plans of mice and men.  Rather than focusing on an outcome and creating a linear plan to reach that goal, it is more desirable to leave the steps toward the goal as a fluid idea, that can incorporate new opportunities or react to bad turns of fortune.

5) Both have high stakes, where losing is incredibly uncomfortable (sometimes dangerous)

This guy, for example, lost his dignity, and is arguably less comfortable because of it.

I have seen comics get pushed around as a result of things they’ve said onstage.  I remember an open mike night where a comic was ripping on a heckler, and the heckler started to rush the stage.  Myself and a few other comics stood symbolically behind him with our arms crossed, basically saying “think about what you’re about to do, pal.”  When the things go wrong in war and stand-up comedy, it gets a bit ugly.  For more examples of crazy heckling stories, check out this article.


Why are we comparing these two things?  Well, I believe that a good stand-up comic or General can take the aforementioned trials and tribulations and use them to their advantage, becoming more experienced and wily.  And in a city where 400 comics are competing for stage time, being the most adaptable General on the field can only be a good thing.

Come back tomorrow where we’ll get all practical up in this, and take a look at some possible disasters that could happen at a set, and some suggestions for coming through a potential bomb unscathed.


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