Nothing is better than doing standup when it works, and nothing is worse than bombing on stage. Fortunately, even from my earliest days in standup, I didn’t experience much bombing, but I’ve had my share of uncomfortable moments. One of the most “uncomfortable” performances I’ve ever had was in an upscale coffee shoppe in Orange County, California. I had performed there a month earlier and had a great time – nearly rivaling experiences I’ve had in good comedy clubs. It was standing room only, an appreciative audience, and a great lineup. So when the owner asked me to come back to perform again, I readily accepted the gig. Only this time, the show coincided with some big sports event of which I wasn’t aware.
Five minutes before the show was to begin, the three comics in the lineup outnumbered the audience members! It was then that the owner apologized for the two-member audience and told me about the sports event. Luck of the draw, I drew the “bullet” position and had to go up first, taking the bullet for the other two comics. Arriving on stage, I looked at my “audience” – a man with severe cerebral palsy in a motorized wheelchair and a man who immediately crossed his arms and scowled as I walked up to the microphone. I started into my “A” material – some of my best material, always able to warm up the audience, get them laughing, and win them over. I hit them hard and confidently with my first joke series. To my dismay, the scowling man pressed his lips tighter and breathed out a hissing sound. Dude, really, you’re going to hiss at me? And then came an even more disarming noise. It started out like something gutteral…moaning…then erupted into a full-fledge Chewbaka from Star Wars growl. I looked around the room in shock, but there were only the other comics (laughing like hyenas now), the owner, and the two audience members. I tried my next joke. Again the hissing and then Chewbaka’s cry. Now I understood. I was performing to a misogynist who clearly hated me from the time he first saw me and to a very appreciative man with cerebral palsy who enjoyed my jokes and responded to each one with that incredible Chewbaka cry, which I must say, killed my timing! I struggled through my set, shaking and sweating from nervousness, unable to leave the stage; when it’s a paid show, you keep going no matter what. Those vile fellow comics belly laughed through my performance, not at my jokes, but at my suffering, another blow to my timing. In L.A., it was a tradition to even videotape other comics’ bombing. At least they didn’t have their cameras. On Youtube, I know I would have had zillions of hits with that performance!
I’ve had some incredibly bad experiences with comedy, that are quite laughable now – performances where we showed up to the gigs to find the place full of tough bikers, outdoor malls (where you really heard crickets!) and where people walked through our “shows” and were never there long enough to hear the punchlines, shows where the audience members were so drunk that they threw chairs at us when one comic insulted them, small clubs where you had to walk across the alley to get to the restroom and the exit was just offstage so that every audience member had to walk past us onstage to go take a leak.
Once I arrived at a gig, told the emcee not to put me up first because I wanted time to organize my material. He agreed to put up another comic, which would give me about 20 minutes to prepare. The comic got up on stage and started his material. He had barely begun when a man in the audience jumped onto the stage, pulled the microphone away from him, and began to tell really stupid jokes. There was a scuffle for about three minutes – swearing, wrestling, hitting. Eventually, the real comic gained control of the microphone just long enough to say, “That’s it! I’m out of here!” and leave the stage. The emcee came to the stage and said, “Our next comic is Nance Marshall!” There was no real introduction, no addressing the horrible incident that had just transpired, NOTHING! The stunned, uncomprehending, apprehensive audience sat silent as I hurriedly went to the stage. In my haste, I forgot the ONE prop that I use for a bit that I do. I launched into the bit, only to realize halfway through that I had forgotten the prop and it wouldn’t make any sense to finish, so I changed gears and went into another bit of material. One man sitting up front said very loudly, “What the hell was that about?” I worked my butt off to get that audience back after the wrestling incident and my disastrous start.
It’s funny now to look back on the experiences. They made me a stronger comic, they provided me with new material, and they gave me a lot of laughs. And they SUCKED!!!
I’ve heard of other comics’ brutal performances, too. Once, when we knew it was the last show for one of our local comics before he moved on to NYC, all of the comics performed his material before he came to the stage. By the time he got onstage, he had no material left to do. Not being good with improvising, he bombed and, of course, we comics laughed hard while the audience sat stone faced, wondering how this comic would ever survive in NYC. One local comic, notorious for his dirty humor, was booked into a university student union building to do lunchtime comedy during finals week. They put him, without a microphone, in a corner of the lounge to do his standup. Students were walking past saying things like, “Why is that guy standing in the corner talking about his balls?” Another comic was onstage in a hole in the wall in Texas when a rat ran across the stage and someone took out a gun and shot it.
Peed pants onstage, falling off the stage, standing like a deer in the headlights, a comic announcing to the audience that “I FEEL like a deer in the headlights”, throwing up onstage from nervousness, having the microphone die, hecklers who are funnier than the comics, it’s all been done. This is when comedy gets ugly.