January 26, 2013 When comedy gets ugly

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.




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February 5, 2011

A year ago, around this same time, I was heading to a comedy gig in the mountains in Pennsylvania in the middle of a blizzard. I had to drive as the feature I chose to take with me doesn’t drive. However, I love performing with him as he is great company and we always have fun together. We had a hair-raising drive to the gig, narrowly avoiding car wrecks, skidding along the highway, navigating through deer on backwoods roads, etc. But the gig itself was great – appreciative audience, fun to do.

Kevin, my feature, who is black, followed his set material, then reached the point in his set where he generally adlibs and has fun with the audience. So, the very first question he put out to an audience member was, “Where are you from?” The man answered, “Coonville,” and the fun began. Kevin was shocked at the name and momentarily thought that the man was playing with him. What followed was 10 of the funniest minutes of adlibs about racism. It was a good show.

On the way home, driving was unbelievably even more hazardous than what we had experienced in getting to the gig. It was a three-hour drive, but bookers are notorious for not putting up the comics, even when weather conditions are horrible. So, we had no choice but to make the drive or spend more than we had made on a motel. In typical comic style, we told humorous stories from our times on the road to pass the time. We laughed so hard that a lot of our stress over the driving conditions dissipated.

One of the stories from that night was about a comic/ventriloquist Kevin knows who, along with his wife, had been involved in a terrible car accident. The story goes that they had been thrown out of the vehicle and had become conscious again as paramedics attended to them. The ventriloquist suddenly started calling out (in his normal voice, not throwing his voice, ha ha) “Where are the kids?!!? Where are the kids?!!?” The paramedics looked at each other worriedly and looked up the road to where they could see two small bodies lying in the road. One of the paramedics ran up the road and knelt by the bodies. On his return, the other paramedic asked, “What do we have?” The other paramedic whispered, “They’re dummies!”

About a month after hearing that story, I had a gig with a comic/ventriloquist, and I feared that it might be the one Kevin had told me about. I tapdanced all around the subject of ventriloquism, trying to learn if he might be the performer from the story. I tentatively asked him, “How do you refer to your, uh, your little….um, men?” He looked at me as if I were an alien and said very slowly, “They are DUMMIES.” I was so relieved and proceeded to tell him the story that Kevin had relayed to me. I’m sure that he probably knew the person from the story, and on some level, I have a feeling that I’m going to run into the man and his “kids” some day.

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July 23

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is better than comedy when it works. (And nothing is more painful than bombing on stage when it doesn’t work! But I’ll save bombing for another day.) When you are on stage and the audience is connected with you and your material, it is the greatest feeling. They are putty in your hands, listening to every word, laughing and enjoying your creativity – the ultimate in creativity and entertainment. It is such a high! You can float on the high for hours afterward, and sleep doesn’t come easily after a show. Comics typically go to bed around 4:00 a.m. and don’t get up until noon unless there is a broadcast to do to promote the show on a morning-drive radio or TV program. The most fun after a show is going out to eat with your fellow comics. This is basically a tradition as most comics are unable to eat before a show; they spend that time before a show either throwing up or having diarrhea from nervousness. (Oh, there a few diehards who can eat anything before a show. They clean up at the shows where comics are given a free meal prior to the show; that freebie is wasted on the rest of us.) After the show at some local restaurant, the comics will sit around discussing the show, trade jabs with each other, do each others’ material (or mock each others’ material), and just bask in the glow from the performance. In L.A., I found the camaraderie to be the strongest. There was a consistent group of comics with whom I performed. Locally, there are cliques of comics – not so much fun or support. What a life to be able to write and perform your comedy for a living. Comedy is the only job in which people will work for no pay and spend tons of their own money to get there to work for free. If you can ever cross that threshold to be able to actually earn a living at it…bliss!

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July 15, 2010

Last night, I watched a number of comedy videos from Comedy Central that I had recorded. It’s frustrating to see some comics who just aren’t that funny, yet are on TV specials. There are comics locally who are so much funnier! It just shows that often it’s the proverbial “lucky break” that gets someone seen and gets him some work.

I’ve seen terrible comics with super promotional skills that get work for themselves, but they also give a bad name to comedy. Often, the venues where they have performed will give up on comedy after the terrible shows the lousy comics have done.

It’s also a big joke in the comedy world that comics’ agents are usually their girlfriends posing as agents. One local comic was notoriously bad…bombed every show he ever did. He had no talent, no material, zip. However, his “agent” girlfriend got him some work in some big clubs (often he would perform one night and be let go after the horrible performance) where he stole plenty of excellent material. He returned to the local club with a full hour of excellent material after being on the road for less than a month. How is that possible when comics struggle for years to develop 30-45 minutes of good material? Stolen!!!! Then, that night that he had returned to the local club, I recorded my set with the camera set up right next to that “comic.” When I listened to it later and it got to my new great joke of which I was so proud, I could hear him laughing and laughing and repeating the joke. I knew it was going to be stolen. Hey, rip off material in west coast clubs, come back east, rip off some more and go on the road to get credit as a great “comic.” That is a piece of the reality of stand-up comedy.

Comedy is not pretty!

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July 14

Time to start a blog! I’m a stand-up comic struggling to live my passion. I’ve got the natural talent, successful performances, and audience support, but how do you live as a comic when it doesn’t pay well and you need health insurance? In upcoming blog entries, I’ll tell you how I got to this point and what I plan to do about it. I’ve had a great, interesting life to this point, and I’m ready for it to get better. Live your passion! (But how?)

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