NPF: BOMBING

The quote "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." has been attributed to numerous sources over the years. I don't know who said it but it sums up comedy quite accurately. Especially stand-up comedy.

I have performed in front of large groups of people in several different contexts throughout my life – teaching (which is remarkably like doing stand-up) a few hundred disinterested undergraduates, playing in bands, and comedy – and there is nothing quite as intimidating as the latter. When you fail, you fail hard and, more importantly, you fail alone. In a band, if the audience is not into it (which was not uncommon in my experience) you turn up the volume, look down at your instrument, and keep going. Or you focus on your bandmates and just have a good time together. With comedy if you suck, you have to stand there and bask in how much you suck. You see the disinterested looks and hear the brutal silence. Then you start second-guessing yourself, trying too hard, and collapsing within yourself like a dying star, crushed by the sheer magnitude of your own suck. And people are staring at you, excepting the ones too mortified to watch you experience ego death on stage. The experience offers some of the highest highs and lowest lows without much middle ground.

My friend DJ (of the fantastic IfIHadAHiFi, and yes, that's a palindrome) writes for several alternative media outlets around Milwaukee and he recently struck gold with "The Ballad of Johnny D," recounting the spectacular failure of a novice comedian. It is your highly recommended reading for the day. Johnny's ineptness is nothing short of amazing, yet you can't help sympathizing with him (or empathizing, if appropriate). I imagine the people in the room with him simultaneously could not wait for him to shut up and really hoped that he would rattle off one half-decent joke to salvage some dignity from the evening.

DJ usually kills it, but this one was both funny (and not for the reasons Johnny D would have preferred) and poignant. I mean, we have all been in an audience to see something this bad or worse. And we usually think about ourselves – "This is horrible and I am suffering" – rather than the person whose self-esteem is dying before our eyes. It's doubtlessly an unpleasant experience for all involved, but the only way to avoid it is to stay home. Bombing, and bombing hard, is the inevitable consequence of putting yourself out there. Johnny D sucked, but he might learn something from it and improve. Given the high likelihood that he will not, I still salute him for having the nuts to give it a go. Most people avoid bombing by refusing to expose themselves to the possibility.

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13 Responses to “NPF: BOMBING”

  1. beau Says:

    "In a band, if the audience is not into it (which was not uncommon in my experience) you turn up the volume, look down at your instrument, and keep going."

    Pfft… spoken (typed?) like a true drummer. Try sucking out the front of stage, with cute girls up the front pointing at your chicken legs and giggling. Ego death indeed.

  2. Desargues Says:

    Wow. I doff my hat in reverence at your courage, sir. Bronze gonads, you must have.

    Um, were your students disinterested (not necessarily a bad thing) or just uninterested?

  3. Rick Says:

    I'm a uni teacher, and a drummer, but I've never attempted comedy. I have no plans to try. I know what it's like to "die" in the classroom, and for the band to die a slow death onstage. The comic's death is too much to contemplate.

    Beau: We drummers are quite content to suck from the back of the stage because when things are good we're still in the back of the fucking stage! While I'm at it, why is it that every time one of you guys fucks up (singer, guitar player, it doesn't matter) the first thing you do is look back at the drummer as if he's just had a shit onstage? I swear, it's worse than the ball player looking for the hole in his glove! ;-)

  4. Pan Sapiens Says:

    I once witnessed a Daown's syndrome comic crash and burn. Crash and burn? From orbit. With a cargo of high-level nuclear waste leaving a Rhode Island sized contaminant footprint. And with a passenger's list of hopeful little wide-eyed Rumanian orphasn, finally heading towards a better life.

    The doubly tragic thing was, the audience desperately wanted him to be funny.

  5. waldo Says:

    "…a passenger's list of hopeful little wide-eyed Rumanian orphasn were they Catholic and deaf? ~ *boom tish*

  6. Hazy Davy Says:

    Gee, at a speech contest last night, I threw in jokes about my kid getting expelled from preschool, and my Dad being diagnosed with lung cancer. I got bigger laughs from *those* jokes, than I did in a humorous speech contest in the Fall that I competed in.

    The bigger challenge for comedy, is that people usually are *expecting* comedy. "Be funny, Hazy D!" is a lot harder than "Make me laugh before you make me cry."

    Only tangentially related: I'd give aspiring comedians two hard-learned lessons of mine:
    (1) Your (my) sense of humor stinks. Oh, I know, I know, people tell you you're funny. But look, the mass market appeal is the slapstick, not the wit. So be funny and witty, sure. But point at your butt and imitate a sick animal for most folks, and throw in the carefully cut gems for a few.
    (2) Even at comedy, the audiences are conditioned to laugh on cue. You can tell non-jokes, and give them the Denis Leary intonation and exasperation, coordinated with the Henny Youngman upward-palm-hand-stabs, and you will make *some* people laugh. I really didn't want this to be so, but after last night, I'm sure. "You do not want to be here." That is the entirety of the joke (with the context being I've just described being between a "rock and a hard place") Laughs. It wasn't a joke, but people knew to laugh when I gave them the right body language.

    Still, something you *can't* do in a speech contest, and probably shouldn't do as a teacher — go on the offensive. If you're acerbic enough, you can turn a hostile audience into a set of targets…and I've witnessed enough stand-up to know that *that* is always an out, once you can admit to yourself that your scripted material's not resonated with the crowd.

    Also, Texas sucks.

  7. johnnyboy Says:

    "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" – attributed to Sir Donald Wolfit, the last of the great English actor/managers.

    FYI.

  8. DJ Says:

    When Johnny D got posted to Metafilter, it caused a long conversation about stand-up, bombing, etc. that was actually pretty interesting in parts. It's really cool to get insight from someone who's done it and can relate to the slow, agonizing death that Johnny experienced. Big thanks for linking me and continuing the story, pal. :)

  9. beau Says:

    Rick: Some of my best friends are drummers, I swear!

    Good point about being up the back, even in the good times. I, personally, look to the drummer when I fuck up 'cause I play bass, so I kinda have to. And don't get me started on guitarists and singers…

  10. HoosierPoli Says:

    I've noticed this, and other teachers have confirmed it: teaching is doing a standup routine, except your "inside baseball" jokes are aimed at whatever the course topic is, and people can't heckle you.

  11. Robert Says:

    My own take on it was this – while drama that isn't working is merely dull for the audience, comedy that isn't working is actually painful to witness. I'm not certain why this is so, but watching a high schooler trudge woodenly through Hamlet's soliloquy would be balm for the soul compared with seeing a comic dissolve in flop sweat.

    I actually enjoy speaking in front of groups of people, but trying to make them laugh is out of the question. This might be connected with my not finding clowns funny, except that nobody actually finds clowns funny.

  12. DavidR Says:

    Since no one's pointed this out yet— the "grossly insufficient" joke that DJ bitches about is actually a stolen one. I saw a different stand up artist deliver that joke at least a year ago, as footage in a banking-industry related documentary. This one, I think: http://www.maxedoutmovie.com

    The delivery was doubtlessly different, and there was an extra line thrown in to build up to the "grossly insufficient" punchline, which allowed the comedian I watched to pull it off (IMHO) spectacularly. Or maybe the humor reaches me a little more easily because I used to work in a big bank call center.