Right now comedy venues have closed and independent shows and mics are wisely not operating. Nor should they. Seriously — stay home — but that has me reflecting on the bests and the worsts of comedy. Comedians, in case you didn’t know, are generally self-obsessed narcissists who will (for the most part) insist they either crushed or bombed. I’m often surprised that my friends who are trained night-after-night to read a room can’t tell (or can’t admit) that sometimes? They just did fine.
Most of the time, you’re going to do fine. Fine is good. Fine is a B or a B+ even. I run two shows in Chicago and I can tell you unequivocally that most people do totally okay. That’s good! I usually do okay-to-good. If I was all crushing ALL THE TIME I wouldn’t be doing this dinky bar show because I’d be the best comedian in the whole world along with the all the other #absolutecrushers crushing it every single night everywhere.
I’m being facetious, but I do believe that bombing on stage isn’t always about us. Sometimes — and the most insane comics out there will claim this never happens — it really is some kind of outside factor that brings down your set, like a paranormal force making the show run off the rails. Whether it’s the venue, the audience, some kind of poltergeist in the room, or the show’s entire premise, it isn’t actually you who bombed — it’s the whole damn thing.
Again, I can already hear the most delusional comics out there saying that that’s never true. YOU CAN ALWAYS TURN THE AUDIENCE AROUND. IT’S NEVER ANYONE’S FAULT BUT YOURS. Okay, buddy, sure. I hear that speech on a shitty night at one of my shows and then watch that same comic sweat profusely as they are unable to “turn it around” in just the way they dreamed they would. Then I get to watch the real show: a middle-aged man pout in the corner. Ah, comedy.
So during this time of no shows, of no chances to crush or bomb, I spent some time reflecting on exactly those kinds of gigs. The gigs that felt impossible. The gigs that felt like playing Donkey Kong at an arcade where barrels were hurled at you while you told your jokes (literally or metaphorically). The gigs that were so weird that you felt like you could see outside of yourself, watching this unfold on a weird Netflix dramedy in some kind of out-of-body experience foreshadowing a time where you would tell this story to make people laugh. But at that moment? You had no choice but to power through your 20-minute set (why are these gigs also always 20 minutes???). For your entertainment and consideration, here are my absolute worst gigs:
My sketch group was asked to perform at a banquet for scientists. Hey, you take what you can get. We were going to be fed and paid, but our sketches were pretty elaborate and weird. We couldn’t do “our thing” so we decided instead to do short-form improv games. We brought up some scientists as volunteers — middle-aged men in glasses and khakis mostly — who kept insisting on trying to touch us. We did that improv game where they control our movements and they kept making the guys in the group touch their dicks. In a rare moment of foresight, I opted to not participate in that game.
A comic I had recently met who did a lot of well-paying gigs asked me to fill in for her last minute. She was very sparse on details, but she told me it would be a paid gig and gave me the venue’s address. I looked up the venue and it was a bar and event space. Okay, tight, this would be great. It would be me and one other comic and I would do 20 minutes (see? Always 20 minutes). That was all I knew. I arrived and learned that this was a surprise party for a veteran who recently learned that she also had cancer. Go ahead and read that sentence again. Read it again and scream into a pillow because that’s what I wanted to do when I got there. So this woman, a strong and brave veteran of war, just learned about a horrible diagnosis and her entire family surprised her with this celebration. That was very sweet! But it’s also not, like, the best time for an unknown comic to drop in on your kind of bittersweet family reunion. Yet they insisted that this woman loved comedy.
After me and the other comic performed (a REAL professional, by the way, with a shit ton of impressive credits), I can tell you that she did not. She would have rather had me recite original poems about my toenails than tell my lil’ jokes. Not only that, but this event was filled with her family. Her entire family. That means generations of people who also did not know comedy would happen. That also meant performing for children when I was not told to do clean content. The children also were the only people there really listening which felt even more like a trap. I didn’t have jokes for kids. I had adult jokes for adults. What was I supposed to do? Use this time to teach her nieces and nephews about cunnilingus? The entire set had my brain screaming: ‘let’s just die? Can we die now? Is it time to die? Please no more. Do anything else. Sing a song. Runaway. Stop this madness.’
The other comic did slightly better because they were a real professional and I was about two years in the game, but it was still bizarre which was a certain kind of solace. We were told we could leave right after our sets, but as we got our coats to head out the door they started doing a group prayer. We had to awkwardly stand there as everyone prayed. Lord, wash away the sins of the jokes I told that night.
Performing in front of people who don’t know the language your jokes are in. I’ve had this happen twice and it’s honestly fine, but you aren’t going to TOTALLY CRUSH BRO when they can only understand select words. However! They do smile very politely throughout the set because they can understand the rhythm of a joke. Isn’t that interesting? We can all understand rhythm, nuance, and feeling without knowing the actual words being said. It doesn’t make anything funnier though.
I was booked on a private show at a bar that had kids. Lots of kids (is that legal?). The comics were rightfully pissed. We were not warned about children nor were we told to do clean material (why does this keep happening?). The person running the show, a mom whose kids were there, insisted it was fine cause her kids were cool. Yeah, everyone says that. Everyone insists their kids “get it” until they have to replace their child’s bedtime story with an explanation of what Jeffrey Dahmer did because their kid didn’t actually get the reference. The headliner said, “If I was told there would be kids here, I wouldn’t have done the show.” Totally understandable as their set was entirely about sex. I did crowd work for 8 minutes which ended up being okay, but as the headliner said, I also wouldn’t have done that show had I been told. Go hire a birthday clown if you want someone to entertain children.
I was asked to open for an improv team by doing standup. No problem! I like doing that! I love a show with all kinds of comedy. I also love a show with an audience. No one came to this show which happens, but those shows usually get canceled. The improvisers said they wouldn’t cancel, acting like they were saving the country by doing their set. I told them point-blank, “I would cancel if I were you.” I have a rule as a producer that there can’t be more people in the show than in the audience (see my fringe festival experience below for the source of that rule). The improvisers decided that the show must go on. “What else are we going to do tonight?” one said with a laugh. I don’t know…anything? I can see where they were coming from. As a solo performer, I had slightly more options than their group did. I could still perform that night if I chose to. I could have gone to a mic or, better yet, I could have gone home and gotten laid (the best kind of performance). Instead, I did my set for three improvisers. Then…I had to be their audience. I felt so suddenly embarrassed. Not so much for them, but for comedy itself. I like improv! I did it for years! I threw myself into it! But watching three men in their 30s play pretend for an audience of only me sent me into an existential panic. What were any of us doing here?! Why was this how we were spending our time?? I also felt like I was babysitting them. It felt like I should pat each one on their bald spot and say, “very good, boys! Mommy is so proud of you! Who wants to go out for ice cream?” The weirdest part to me was that they were utterly unbothered and they were all amazing audience members during my deranged set. Sometimes comedy is a sickness.
Perhaps the most memorably awful show I had to do was a two-person sketch show for the first-ever Chicago Fringe Festival. It was our first show and we were given a most undesirable slot to kick off our run: 4 pm in a converted art gallery. Our rehearsed and tightly-written show required blackouts, but the venue had a skylight. #FringeFestivalProblems. We begged them to put a tarp over the window but were told we couldn’t because of some law or code that was probably being made up to our faces.
“Balloons,” someone said. “Black balloons.”
The festival volunteer then — yes, you guessed it — blew up twenty black balloons that they somehow ran out and got before the show. It took more effort to get and fill the balloons than it did to just put a tarp over the skylight. The balloons did not work. At all. The September afternoon sun poured in through the ceiling. To make matters worse, only one person came to the 4 pm show and that one person was the fucking reviewer for the paper. Luckily, the three festival volunteers working our show understood the awkwardness of the situation and sat down to fill out the room. The review, thankfully, spent its time kvetching about all the ways the venue sucked and how it was unfair to our show. This is the only time I’ve ever formally been reviewed in eleven years of comedy and it was all about how the black balloons didn’t work.