“Awkward Moments” is a monthly column that asks comedians, “What do you do when…” In this installment we talk about having a bad show.
Everyone’s been there. At least I hope they have. If you’re reading this and happen to be a performer that’s never had a bad show, don’t ever tell me about it because I’ll just turn it into fuel for my Insecurity Machine (patent pending). Actually I feel sorry for you, I really do. You’ve missed out on one of the great shared experiences of a performer’s life. You’ll probably start to doubt your own talent and question your perspective, spend years undermining your own success in search of “authenticity,” take a poignantly reductive job cleaning rich people’s toilets (“We all poop, don’t we, Yorick,”) and spiral into addiction and self-destruction once you realize you’ve given up the best years of your life. You should have just done that Tarantino-prov bit show at Connie’s Ric Rac.
For the sake of this column, and my self-esteem, let’s assume that bad shows happen to everyone, because that’s what all my interviewees said anyway. Whether of our own design, by factors outside of our control, or some alchemy of audience, material, and presentation, we all have to bomb sometime. I’ve asked some of Philly’s stand-up, improv, and sketch comedians to share how they deal with a show that’s going poorly, and how they recover from the experience.
Bombing is sometimes unavoidable, and usually excruciating. James Bradford, a longtime recording artist and actor who’s a newcomer to the stand-up comedy scene, was initially unprepared for “the animal that is bombing as a comic.”
“I would allow myself to get in my head about it and try to figure out ‘why it didn’t work,’” he says. “I tend to find that being who I am—a flaming faggot who is six foot one and weighs 270 pounds—the crowd is either with me or against me 30 seconds into the set. Comics like to say ‘you’re either funny or you’re not and if you’re funny the audience will be with you,’ but that’s bullshit through and through. If you’ve got a homophobic crowd and you’re me, you can be killing it and they’re going to stare at you with their arms folded, glaring.
“The first time I ever REALLY tanked was my first open mic at Helium. I had three minutes, and by minute two I was in a panic. I made the horrendous mistake of completely changing my material in the hopes of winning over the crowd, and then beat myself up about doing something as stupid as that. Now I’ve learned to roll with the punches. One bad gig isn’t going to make or break a career, and if the crowd doesn’t like me they can piss off. The last time I fully tanked was at “This is New” in South Philly. No one told me it was a full on ‘experimental comedy’ show, so I did actual material and they just looked at me like I had been freebasing Clearasil. My response was to come back the next month and do a strip tease to “Gett Off” by Prince while eating doughnuts. Standing O.”
James’s advice for anyone dying on stage is to just commit and surrender oneself to the comedy gods. “I’m not a fan of comics acknowledging on stage that it’s bombing. I am a much bigger fan of simply plowing through. You may get a cheap laugh by drawing attention to how badly it’s going, but I think it’s much more exciting to plow through your set and steep in the rejection. Revel in it. Roll around in it like a pig in a shit mound, because bombing can be a good thing if you let it.”
Doogie Horner, a stand-up who has heroically faced the aggressively inhuman audiences of America’s Got Talent, acknowledges there are different reasons for bombing, and he uses different tactics for each of them. “If the crowd isn’t paying attention, that’s one scenario with a clear solution: address the situation, chastise the crowd, change my pace, whatever,” he says. “If I’m performing poorly, or testing new material, that’s another easily-solved problem: fix the jokes or tighten the performance. But sometimes I’m telling my best jokes and the audience is paying attention, but nobody is laughing, because they just don’t like my comedy.”
In this situation, Doogie says, both he and the audience are just at the wrong show, and it’s OK to admit that. “Usually I acknowledge that the show is going poorly. I stop telling my jokes and just start messing around, improvising and doing light crowd work.” He tells me that the spontaneity injects some energy into the show, and it’s fun for him, so hopefully it will be fun for the audience. “At that point, I have nothing to lose.”
Doogie has two caveats to “messing around”: keep the message upbeat and try not to attack or criticize the audience too harshly. “I don’t want the situation to become so awkward that the audience feels bad for me, because that will make them nervous and they won’t want to laugh. I also never want to project the message, ‘You’re wrong for not laughing at me.’ I try to stick to a neutral message, such as ‘Clearly you do not like my jokes.’ I need to find common ground, and the one thing I know the audience has in common is that THEY DON’T LIKE ME.” And if the crowd dislikes him enough to vocalize their distaste? “Getting heckled, for me, is usually an opportunity to turn things around, because I’m passionate about mocking bullies.”
But it’s nice to know that even someone who’s skilled at keeping his cool loses it sometimes. “I’ve had some disaster shows where I melted down on stage and it wasn’t fun for anyone,” Doogie says. “One time I threatened to kill everyone in the room. I said, ‘I’m going to burn your bullshit town to the ground. And guess what? Nobody will notice.’ That was bad. And after my set I couldn’t leave the room, because I had driven to the show with Chris Coccia, and he still had to perform. We were in a giant ballroom, and there was nowhere I could stand without being seen, so I went into the back and hid in a closet for the rest of the show.”
“Here’s the attitude I try to have about bombing: The quickest way to advance as an artist is to take chances, and that means that sometimes you’ll fail. It’s painful, but the alternative is crafting a set that’s so safe that everyone will like it, and then never deviating from that formula. Fear of failure will hold you back. Embrace bombing, acknowledge that it’s going to happen, and when it does, try to make the best of it.”
Kaitlin Thompson shares my admiration of stand-ups’ courage in facing the wolves alone, although sketch and improv see their own fair share of bad shows. “Bombing is always rough, but at least my friends are bombing with me,” says the member of sketch group ManiPedi and improv duo Kait & Andrew. “If we’re doing a sketch that isn’t going over well, I just selfishly try to amuse myself and the people in the sketch with me. I can usually see in the eyes of whichever member I’m on stage with ‘oh, this sketch is retired after tonight, but we’re in the middle of it so lets just finish it.’ I sort of resign any shame and get silly because at that point I’ve already embarrassed myself so who cares? An entire improv show is like one sketch that’s going horribly. I get all worked up and nervous at first, then I say something stupid, and then I’m comfortable enough to say ‘fuck it’ and try to make whoever I’m on stage with laugh.”
When I asked Kait for her thoughts about bombing, she asked if it was alright to share the immature ways she deals with it since she didn’t have any advice about handling it with “any kind of grace or dignity.” I’m glad I’m not the only one.
“Right after a terrible show, I find it helpful to look at the people who were on stage with me and acknowledge how bad it sucked with a ‘Yeesh!’ or a ‘Wughf!’” she says. “Then we all go eat food and drink alcohol. I try not to dwell on how I humiliated myself in front of my friends and attractive strangers, but sometimes I can’t help it. It’s like if you twisted your ankle years ago and it usually never hurts but occasionally you move it in such a way to have sudden, agonizing pain shoot through you. Abruptly the feeling you got from being hacky and stupid comes rushing back at you. You just have to clench your jaw and try not to let out an audible ‘Ugh, you fucking idiot!’ because you’re at work and you’ll get fired if you keep cursing at yourself. That self-pity has to be fleeting and if it’s not, you better convert it into something funny. And remember that comedy is usually really fun to do.”
Matt Nelson, a man of many improv hats including Managing Director of the soon-to-be-launching Figment Theater, agrees that bad shows are inevitable, and has some creative advice for dealing with them on stage. “Early on in improv, you feel like a god with these new powers of creation you’ve started to learn,” he says. “If you’re having a bad show, the temptation then is to try to ‘fix’ it. As you learn, most likely the hard way, choosing this path is like walking on quicksand; the more you struggle, the more you sink. Now when I find myself facing this, I try to choose one person in the group—channel my energy into making them look like a rockstar. Best case, everyone is doing something similar, getting away from the selfish fix, and the show finds its legs again. At the very least, you’re making one teammate feel better about what they’re doing.
“As for rough shows that are done and buried – you have permission to feel bad about a show for as long after as the length of the show. Nothing more. 30 min show? Have your 30 min pity party. Recognize what took you there then go get a drink, or some nachos or just laugh with friends – and move on. Improv is fleeting, that includes the rough stuff too.”
So what if your friends finally come out to see you “do your comedy,” and the show is a big stinker? Improviser and sketch comedian Aubrie Williams emphasizes the importance of how you respond to compliments you think you don’t deserve.
“I was told early on to accept all compliments graciously,” says the member of Local Holiday Miracle and ManiPedi. “After a show, when someone approaches you and says ‘Great show!’, an artist can think of a million opposing arguments, but…we are our own worst critics. That is why we keep trying, learning from anyone and everything, and performing constantly. You should always graciously accept compliments, as they are a genuine thing. Outsiders have a very clean perspective- even if you think you are capable of better, that is your perspective. As an eternal optimist (as well as a jaded artist), there is a large part of me that thinks, nay…KNOWS, that those compliments are sincere. Even if you don’t agree personally, always…ALWAYS… accept them graciously. Those people went out of their way to tell you something that could possibly help you grow, learn, reaffirm your love for all things comedy. Be thankful for that, and never doubt it. We do that enough as is.”
Bombing is a part of life. Embrace the epic bomb. Learn to love it. And if you can’t love it, at least hate it in a way that’s fun. With nachos.
Hilary Kissinger is a writer and improviser splitting time between New York and Philadelphia. She performs with Philly Improv Theater House Team Davenger and writes about movies for FilmMisery.com. Chat with her on Twitter @HilaryKissinger.
What Awkward Moment in comedy would you like to see Philly’s comedians tackle? Ask “what do you do when…” by emailing email@example.com.