September 26, 2013

Everybody Bombs

As I am writing this, I am about to enter year number thirty in standup comedy. I never thought that many years could not only pass me by so quickly, but also prove to be such an unusual roller coaster ride with all kinds of unexpected twists and turns. It’s been an adventure and then some. I’ve learned lessons I never expected I’d need to know, and most of them were bought and paid for with my own stupidity. I made some extremely poor decisions throughout that time, and then had to not only suffer the painful consequences but press on and continue to grow and improve.

And grow and improve I did. I worked my way up from a rank beginner to rock solid headliner in some of the top standup comedy venues in North America. I have paid decades of dues, and in all that time there weren’t any discounts, coupons or shortcuts. I paid those dues in full, in blood. I have appeared on local, regional and national radio and television in my time, and also placed third out of over four hundred entrants in The San Francisco Comedy Competition – THE largest and most prestigious comedy competition in the world. I say none of this to brag, only to prove I have been around the block more than once and I know full well of what I speak. I’m no rookie.

That all being said, I had an absolutely HORRIBLE show tonight. It was brutal and then some. Humiliation and embarrassment took the place of humor and enjoyment, and I had to stand there and take it for a full FIFTY MINUTES. Nothing went right all night no matter what I tried - and I’ve got more than a few tricks up both of my sleeves. In my ‘stinker pile’, this one stands out.

The Perfect Time

Dobie Maxwell
That’s exactly why I chose now to write about this topic. It’s more than fresh in my mind, and even as it was happening I was looking for points to make that would help young comedians for years to come. That audience – as bad as they were – is going to be used for positive instruction. An unfortunate fact of life for all who pursue standup comedy is; without exception everybody fails miserably at one time or another. Use whatever term you like – bombing, tanking, taking it in the shorts, stinking up the joint, going down in flames, laying an egg, sucking a bullet, eating cheese off the big wheel – the results are the same. You tried to be funny, but didn’t get laughs.

That can be an unbelievably traumatic and frightening experience, but if you know it’s coming and more importantly why it happens you can get through it with the least amount of damage to your ego and self esteem. Believe me, I’ve been there. Having a bad show can rock one’s world to its very foundation. It can be so upsetting that it makes a person never step on a stage again. It can also be a marvelously effective teacher. What exactly went wrong? Why? How can it be fixed? What can I do the next time I’m facing a similar situation? The number of questions to be asked (and answered) is almost as high as the number of things that can go wrong on the stage.

Early and Often

My personal experience from having watched or spoken with literally thousands of comedians as they have gotten started on their journey is that the first time they experience bombing is their first or second time on stage. There may be exceptions to that rule, but not many. It comes early. I’ve seen all kinds of people go on stage for their first time and absolutely kill the audience. It’s usually because their friends and family are there to support them, and that’s fine. I’ve taught my comedy classes for years, and the graduation shows have been some of the most thrilling events I have ever been a part of. The energy from the audience is electric, and everyone has a great time.

Unfortunately, that’s not a realistic reflection of how it really is 99.999% of the time for people starting out and I drum that into my students’ heads until they’re sick of hearing it. It’s fun to see them do well their first time up, but it’s like the free space on a bingo card. It’s a one and done. Friends and family know and love you, but they’re not going to follow you around the country and be there to support you every time you step on a stage. Every comedian has to learn how to make strangers laugh, and therein lies the rub. You have no control as to who those strangers are.

All too often, comedians starting out have to perform for audiences that aren’t comedy fans by a long shot. Most open mic nights are held on an off night at some roughneck bar and there’s not a lot of thought put behind anything other than the bar owner making an attempt to sell alcohol. There is rarely if ever a cover charge, and those few who wander in to see what’s going on that aren’t aspiring comedians themselves are often prone to interrupting the show without having to face any consequences. They didn’t pay to get in so they don’t respect the show or how difficult it is to do standup comedy correctly. That makes for a prime recipe for disaster again and again.

Weeding Out The Weak

I’ve always wondered why the most cruel and inhuman circumstances for comedians occur so close to the beginning of the journey, but I guess it weeds out the wannabes from those who are serious about doing it. If one can last through those early horrors, it lays a foundation for growth. My personal experience was that I ate it my very first time out. I got it out of the way early, but it was not a pleasant experience. I thought I was a lot funnier than I actually was, and looking out at those blank stares and hearing that deafening silence was a humbling experience I won’t forget any time soon. Time slowed down to a crawl, and five minutes seemed like five years in prison.

I hadn’t planned on going on stage that evening, I was just there to watch and see what standup comedy was about. I wasn’t impressed with the performers before me, and I cockily thought that I could do better. How wrong I was, and it was a fantastic lesson. It taught me to respect the craft and I have ever since. I did get one pretty decent laugh toward the end of my five minutes with a line I ad libbed, and that alone is what made me try it again. Had I not gotten it, I may have quit.

Trial and Error

I remember my ride home that night like it was yesterday. My entire world was upside down as I tried to figure out why I did so poorly compared to how I imagined. I thought since I was funny in real life all I had to do was stand on a stage and everyone would love me and laugh. I had zero hint whatsoever it could be that difficult, and I felt myself getting physically sick to my stomach. The rest of that week I debated back and forth whether I should try it again, but getting that one solid laugh is what prompted me to give it another shot. My next time up wasn’t stellar, but I did feel a lot better about myself when I got off stage. It wasn’t even close to the nightmarish feeling of my first experience, and I kept going back again and again. Nearly thirty years later, here I sit.

During those years there have been some spectacular highs and some horrendous lows along an uneven path that has given me Green Beret status among live performers. If anyone alive has had more stories of struggle than me I’d like to buy them lunch and hear them. I’m in an elite class of road warriors that I’m still not sure whether to be proud or ashamed of. I have stayed the course. Throughout that course, I have bombed more times than I care to think about. Circumstances in comedy change from show to show, and quite often I’ve had multiple shows in the same evening at the same venue using virtually the same jokes that have produced completely different results.

Every single audience is different, and all a comedian can do is guess what they will respond to positively during a given performance. It’s trial and error, and the margin of error can be gigantic depending on the circumstances. By sheer luck of the draw, everyone is bound to guess wrongly.

Thick Skin

While bombing is never pleasant, after a while it becomes much less disturbing. I’m sure it can be compared to an athlete losing a game. It’s not fun to lose, but the pursuit of that championship keeps the athlete going. Losing is a necessary evil, but the bigger goal is to win more often not. The same is true in comedy. After a while, through trial and error and maturation the process of bombing takes a back seat to positive growth. One starts to hit a stride, and eventually a sense of confidence settles in and one expects to do well – and pretty much does. Bombing becomes a lot less frequent, but from my experience never EVER completely goes away. It’s a constant threat.

Just about the time one thinks he or she has it all figured out, that’s when a show like I suffered through tonight comes along and topples the house of cards. I’ve seen it happen to all comedians on all levels without exception. Once in a while we all have to munch on a slice of humble pie to show us how delicate this craft really is. We are never fully in control, and we need to know that. Personally, I think it’s good to have a show like that – but only once in a great while. I tried to remember the last time I had one this bad, and I couldn’t nail it down. It’d been a while, and I’m hoping it will be another long while before the next one. But I know at some point it will come.

It WILL Happen To You

Bombing on stage is something that happens to every single comedian who pursues comedy on any level. It happens much more often in the beginning, but even experienced and successful acts have to face it dead on in the face from time to time. Nobody can predict when that time is, and it often comes along completely out of the blue – especially after a run of consistently solid shows. That’s how it’s been for me as of this writing. I’d been working all over North America of late in a variety of venues and been on a red hot streak of which I was very proud. It has taken me all these years to acquire the skills needed to do that, and knocking it out of the park on a consistent basis is the reason I got into the business in the first place. It’s a feeling that feeds off of itself.

There’s a feeling of inner confidence that builds, but not cockiness. There’s a fine line, and it’s like a surfer riding a wave. There’s a definite thrill involved knowing you’ll be able to figure out most any situation, and when you do you’ll be able to deliver solid headliner sets again and again night after night. That’s the level most comedians aspire to, and getting there has a high price. That’s why the unforeseen clunker that comes out of nowhere can be so devastating. Who likes to experience failure? Obviously nobody enjoys it, but since it’s inevitable why not let it become a learning experience? Even as it was happening, I knew I would be able to derive good from it.

What Are The Positives?

Fortunately, I have the luxury of years and thousands of good shows to look back and compare notes to see what went wrong. If you’re reading this and you’re brand new, you won’t have that luxury in the near future so it’s not an option. What can you do when you have a terrible show? Here are a few thoughts I want to throw out there hoping at least one or two strike you at a time you can use it. Trust me, I’ve been there myself and few things can cheer a comic up after having ‘one of those nights’. Many try to drown their sorrows in booze, drugs or sex but that rarely has a positive effect to fix the actual problem. It might help numb the pain, but not at its direct source. So after you stink one up – and you will – try to put things into perspective and think of these:

-You’re not the first person to eat it on stage and you won’t be the last. It was your turn.
-It’s OVER. The audience stopped noticing less than five seconds after you got off stage.
-Every rough set adds to the thick skin all comedians need to have long lasting success.
-The best home run hitters in baseball also strike out the most. You took your swings.
-Nobody was injured and the world is still spinning. Come back to fight another day.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for now just know that bombing happens to us all.

Contributing Writer - Dobie Maxwell
Dobie is a nationally touring, award-winning comedian with 30 years under his belt. He has numerous TV credits and has worked with notable performers like Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, and many others.