One of the more perplexing things about being a musician in Los Angeles is how often I’m invited to play somewhere, from an open mic night to a booked showcase, only to arrive and discover I’m the only person performing who isn’t a stand-up comedian. This happened again last night, and made for a very bizarre evening in Echo Park. Even though I’m not a stand-up, I’ve watched a lot of them bomb, and I’ve sure as hell bombed as a musician. And as a director, sometime acting teacher, and somebody who’s been paid to write jokes on paper, I feel like I’ve got some words of wisdom that might be of aid to those sad fellows who inevitably slink off the stage in despair, often loudly pondering self-immolation.
So God bless you, struggling stand-up comedian. What you’re doing is really hard, and you’re in for some of the longest 3-7 minutes of your life.
1. You Will Probably Bomb. But it’s Cool.
Look, if you’re taking the “stage” in a whole earth cafe or coffee shop or something, and a blender’s running like ten feet from the stage, you may recognize you’re not in the ideal comedy environment. And understand that the people sitting there mostly looking at you aren’t really an audience. Most of them either just got off the stage and are inwardly crucifying themselves for bombing the same way you’re about to, or they are waiting their turn to go on, running through their own routines and breaking out in flop sweat as the entire room continues not laughing at anybody.
But that’s cool. You’re not there at the open mic night with the make-believe audience and hummus-based menu to bring down the house. You’re there to get better at your craft, and you cannot fail at that. It is not possible. You do your material, and it makes the next time you’re onstage easier. You work on your banter, which is huge. In this case, your measure for success isn’t laughs, but just doing it.
Oh, but that joke about raping your female roommate while she sleeps? That one’s probably never going to be funny. You should just cut that one.
2. Don’t Apologize For Your Jokes. Unless That’s Your Thing.
The audience wants you to be good. It’s almost as uncomfortable for us to watch you bomb as it is for you to do it. And you get that, so the natural thing is to want to apologize to us. There are lots of ways to apologize. You can say “I’m sorry,” sure, but you can also talk too fast like you simply CANNOT WAIT! to get off the stage, or you can hedge. Hedging is self-critiquing while onstage. It comes in the form of taking the microphone and saying “I’m gonna try out some new stuff, so it might be rough,” or failing to land a punchline and saying “ok, there’s something there in that one, I just have to find it,” or even telling us “Really? Nothing? People liked that one on Twitter. It got favorited.”
What you’re doing here is giving the audience permission to not give you that first laugh. The first laugh makes it easier to get the second one, and then the third one, etc. But maybe your shtick is apologizing for your jokes. In that case, go to town.
3. Relax. Slow Down.
Even if we’re totally in our own heads and worrying about our own material, we do want you to be good because it makes the room better. A good comic makes the room better for everybody who follows. We *want* you to be good, so what are you nervous about? You know you’re probably going to bomb, you know we want to like you, you know that your measure of success is simply not dying of fright while holding the microphone, and you’re probably going to pull that off. So slow the hell down and take a minute to be yourself and let your material breathe. If we don’t realize your punchline is happening until after it’s over, because you just blew through the whole thing and didn’t give the joke any shape, we won’t laugh. And then we’ll feel bad we didn’t laugh. And then there’s just this big shame spiral that the whole room gets sucked into, and there’s nothing we can do about it because the vegan place doesn’t have a liquor license.
This is your moment, and somebody was dumb enough to give it to you, so take a deep breath, and make it last as long as possible. If for no other reason than to punish them for giving you a microphone.
4. Try To Not Be On Drugs.
They really don’t make you funnier. I get that it’s hard and your nerves are a mess. I used to get so nervous before going onstage I would literally lose my voice. Now I do breathing exercises, and they help. But if you want this to be your job, remember nobody keeps a job very long if they’re always blitzed.
Also – just, as a very last thing – stick around. The people going after you listened to your bit, so sit back down and listen to theirs as you eat your pita of shame. It’s basic etiquitte, and we’re all in the same boat, here, so grab an oar and help out.
Here’s one of my friends bombing on purpose. And it is amazing: