Even the greatest working comedians (including the eight below) bomb every once in a while. It can be as unavoidable as it is uncomfortable. But as bad as a bomb can feel, time hardens the wound into a scar that comedians eventually regard with a morbid pride. They share survival stories, cringing and laughing about it at diners in wee hours of the morning. A few amazing comics have shared their best bombing stories with Paste, answering the questions “What’s the worst you’ve bombed and how did you handle it?” and “What do you think is the best way to handle bombing?” Whether you’re a comedian or you’ve received any kind of cold reception from a group, there is a lot to be learned here about how to survive in the event that your social parachute won’t open, and you plummet toward the earth like a torpedo, all on stage in front of a room full of angry, judgmental customers. As painful as that might sound, a lot of these stories are freaking hilarious—we’re talking to comedians, after all.
(The K Ohle with Kurt Braunohler podcast, Comedy Central’s The Half Hour)
My comedy partner Kristen Schaal and I were doing as corporate gig in New York years ago. We had asked the booker if we had any restrictions on content and they said no, which was good because a lot of our material was pretty blue back then. We get there and it turns out that the “show” will take place in a board room. We’ll be performing at the end of a table, and there are 12 executives there. That’s the “audience.”
10 minutes into our 30 minute set, one woman, who’s close to the front, just leans over to her co-worker and in a decidedly non-whisper just says “Oh no, this is terrible.” That was a tough 20 minutes to follow in such an intimate space.
I handle bombing by just trying to bomb as completely as possible. I will purposefully pick material that I think will alienate an audience. Because at a certain point it just becomes magical, how bad it is. And sometimes that works. Sometimes you can come out the other side of bombing by just committing to it. Other times, it just makes it worse. But at this point, who gives a shit? I’ve had real horrible things happen to me in my life. Bombing at a comedy show, as an Australian ex-girlfriend of mine used to say, “it doesn’t even touch the sides.”
(Conan warm-up comedian, Never Not Funny podcast)
In the early ‘90s, I did a show at a military base that I had performed at once before (and it had gone very well). This time the vibe seemed different even before I went on stage. The opening act KILLED! He worked a little dirty and the crowd ate it up. When I took the stage, things started out great… for about 6 minutes and then the crowd turned on me, and I really have no idea why. Maybe not dirty enough, maybe too “out there” for them, I really don’t know, but man, they hated me… and I still had to do another 39 minutes. That wasn’t going to happen: after 10 more minutes of battling people yelling out “You suck” and “Get off the stage,” I looked out and said, “That’s it for me. If you see a dick, suck it!” I then walked calmly off the stage, grabbed my coat and paycheck from the entertainment director (who told me “Run, they will kill you!) and then ran to my car as they chased me. Obviously, I got away… but that experience rattled me for a bunch of shows.
[On the best way to handle bombing] I think you have to comment on it. Others will completely disagree with that and say it’s not professional, but I think it’s ridiculous to keep talking and pretend like there is nothing wrong. The audience knows it’s not going well, I think it releases the pressure in the room if you acknowledge it. It may not help… but at least the crowd doesn’t think you’re a crazy person.
(IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, Groundhog Day)
It’s almost always a charity event or a fundraiser that you were giving your time to contribute to. It seems to instill the one watching the show with the sense that since they paid so much for the show, the comic should be superhuman. Hey, I remember there was one show where before I went on, the presenters showed a succession of people who have enjoyed horribly botched surgeries. One after the next, gasps from the crowd. “And now please welcome funnyman Rick Overton!” They literally hated me for trying to make them switch emotions so quickly. But the comedian’s obligation is to ride out the set, and I kept my end of the bargain. But in comedy terms, it was like the beach landing in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.
(Hulu’s Coming To The Stage, VICE)
One time I did a show at restaurant in Berkeley. The audience gave me nothing. To this day I still don’t know why. I thought, “Maybe this is just a tight crowd.” Then the next comic gets up and immediately starts killing. As I’m leaving the venue my friend Jesse says, “Wow, you were terrible.” Again, I think the best way to handle bombing is not to lose your cool. You can address it if you want, but don’t get mean-spirited towards the crowd. Chances are, they wanted you to succeed and something just didn’t click.
(creator of Comedy Central’s 7 Minutes in Purgatory, Chicago Magazine’s “Best Experimental Comedian”)
I was the post-prom entertainment for a high school. Huge auditorium, a quarter filled with teenagers that had just had the best night of their life. The lights were completely on, so that they weren’t tempted to get frisky. And also, they had never seen stand-up, so they didn’t quite understand why I was up there talking about nonsense to them. I bombed completely, and totally. A couple kids started throwing loose change at me for some reason. When you’re in that situation, you have to just keep going. You can’t fully reset, but you can try to talk to people directly. Crowd work builds a lot of good will.
(Sirius XM Radio’s Opie with Jim Norton, HBO’s One Night Stand)
The worst I bombed it was when I was very new in the business and working with Bobby Levy, who was one of my idols of the time. He was hosting a show, and he killed upfront, and then brought me on, and I bombed. Actually apologized to the audience and walked off early feeling like an imposter.
I cried on the way home from the gig because I thought my dream of being a comedian was over. I have bombed a lot worse since then, but none ever hurt as much as that one did.
I think the best way to handle bombing is to acknowledge it. At first, you try to dig yourself out by doing jokes, but once you realize that you are not going to salvage the set, might as well acknowledge it and enjoy it.
(Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, writer on Late Night With Seth Meyers)
One of my worst more recent bombs was at a college music festival where I was up exactly in the middle of a daylong lineup of eight bands, and the act right before me happened to be a punk band. To then switch to the quiet musings of a gently trembling introvert is perhaps a shaky transition for an audience, at least it was from where I was standing. At one point, toward the end of my set, I saw a girl just spinning in circles near the back of the venue. I think the best way to handle bombing is to stay true to yourself and your act. You can switch to jokes you think the audience will like more, but I generally try to stick to mostly what I had planned (which also includes some spinning in circles).
(one-hour special on Comedy Central, Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch 2015)
The bomb that I remember the most was at the Boston Comedy Club in NYC. It’s no longer there. Everyone was murdering on the show I was on. Just killing. The crowd was great. I couldn’t wait to get on stage. I get on and then proceed to bomb so hard. Not one joke was working. I was only a couple years into comedy. And just have never felt that before. If you walked in when I was on stage you would have thought I just asked for a moment of silence. I got off stage and had to go walk around the village for about an hour to regroup. It shook me up. I also never wore the shirt I was wearing that night again. Just in case that had to do anything with it. When you bomb in the beginning you have to just get through it. You don’t really have a ton of different directions you can go, as far as jokes. Now I have more material and can go to wife jokes or stories about being drunk or whatever you have to do to get out of it. And sometimes it takes just addressing how awkward the room is to get them out of it. And if none of that works. 45 minutes can feel like 2 hours.
Ian Abramson photo by Joanna DeGeneres.
Rick Overton photo by Bruce Smith.
Jesse Fernandez is a half centaur, half man whose comedy writing has been featured on ABC, TED Talks, MSN, StarWipe, eBaum’s World, and Starbucks. Follow him on Twitter @JesseFernandez to see what’s really swirling around that cauldron of a brain.