Everybody bombs. The occasional, weirdly cold reaction from others is an inescapable part of life. But comedians do it differently. They’ve got far more at stake than the average person, and when they fail the sting is multiplied by however many audience members are staring at them blankly, but bombing—everybody’s worst fear—doesn’t haunt comedians for long. The next night their wounds have completely healed, and they take the stage somehow more confident than before—like barbarians incensed at the sight of their own blood. Maybe it’s zen. Maybe spite. Maybe they just know that if a bomb is spectacular enough—like fireworks made of train wrecks—they’ll have one hell of a story. This article is about those stories. Paste asked some of the best comics on the scene, “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?” And the answers were glorious. Read on, laugh, and maybe pick up a tool or two for your own philosophical tool belt in case you find a similar situation is happening to you.
(MADtv, NBC’s Up All Night):
Back in Chicago, starting out, I had the misfortune of killing my first time I tried it. I started a show at a brewery soon afterwards and on the opening night I killed again. The next week I ate my own dick onstage. Just nothing. With the same jokes. I introduced the first comic then walked backstage and jumped sideways onto a couch and laid there for a while. If you’re bombing, make fun of it, but not too much. Sometimes it’s good to make fun of the audience. Just don’t blame them with a “What? You guys don’t like [fill in the blank with the topic of your joke here]??”
(Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central’s The Half Hour):
This one is easy! I did this festival at the University of Florida called Gator Growl. I was hosting the fest doing small sets in between all sorts of different things the students were putting on, and it was going well. Then the band Foster the People played, and they were great. The headliner was Ludacris, and the crowd thought he’d be next up, but NOPE, I was scheduled to do a half-hour set. I’m dumb and confident so I thought I could handle it. I went out to maybe about 10,000 people or something and just started in on my idiot material, and they were all like “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS!” I had never done stand up to a crowd that size, and I didn’t think about the sound. Basically I would say something then a half-second later it would blast out of the speakers behind me. It was super confusing. I made it about 10 minutes in before like half the crowd was booing and a student running the thing just walked out onto the stage and said, “You can be done now.” I just said, “Enjoy Ludacris” and got out of there. The students were all pissed. I kinda got in a twitter war with the entire college back in my hotel room until I realized that was a terrible idea. Anyway I’m back in Gainesville at The High Dive September 16th! Returning to my personal Mordor.
(judge on Last Comic Standing, Comedy Central’s The Half Hour):
My worst disaster was a Comedy Central half hour special that never aired. It was shot in Las Vegas where I’ve never had a good set. The audience consisted of people who thought they were going to see George Lopez and were redirected at the last minute. From the stage I could see the concerned look on my manager’s face at the back of the room. I handled it by panicking.
When I bomb I let the crowd know before they do that I’m bombing. Nobody can judge me faster than I can judge myself. Some comics like to pretend things are going well when they’re not. I like to bail on the material as fast as possible.
(Comedy Central’s @Midnight, MTV’s Acting Out):
I prefer to call it the “BEST” I’ve ever bombed! I mean, bombing is actually a gift. That’s when you learn the most, I’m afraid. I pretty much bombed my entire first year of doing stand-up. I didn’t know I was bombing at the time, because I had never done well yet. When I finally got my first laugh, I was like, “Oh! I’ve been bombing for a year without even knowing it!”
Best way to handle bombing is with grace and dignity and then get really drunk after. Pass out and do it again tomorrow. But always acknowledge that you’re bombing in the moment. Say something, anything, so the audience knows that you know that you’re bombing. That takes the pressure off of everyone. You may even turn the whole thing around and get someone to come up to you after the show and say, “You’re really brave.” Or, “Well, I thought you were funny even if nobody else did.” Or, “I got what you were trying to do.” Or…”You looked really hot bombing up there.” (Seriously got that once). But really, bombing isn’t so bad. It makes you stronger!
(Whose Line Is It Anyway?, The Smartest Man In The World Podcast):
[On the worst he’s ever bombed and how he handled it] Why? What have you heard?
[On the best way to handle bombing…] Take it on board and write more.
(Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, The Dork Forest Podcast):
I opened for a band that didn’t know I was opening for them and so they did the song “twist and shout” at the student union of my college… stopped, said, “OH THERE’S AN OPENING ACT? What’s her name? What does she do?” and then introduced me to 300 college kids that were already stoned and drunk (1986) and I did 15 minutes. I mentioned that I would get paid my $75 if I did my time so I just talked to the four people that were paying attention. One of them handed me a joint. I got off stage and my friends, who were there, said, “man that was rough.” Yes. Yes it was. I got paid. If you’re being paid, do your time. If you’re not being paid, evaluate whether you want to subject yourself to the silence or scorn and bail if you want.
(Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Eric Andre Show):
I don’t know, I’ve bombed so much. The best way to handle bombing is to make the audience laugh, at which point it’s technically no longer bombing. Don’t try too hard to win over stubborn jerks that aren’t giving you any love. Stay proud and defiant, like the rebel soldiers who shout “FREEDOM!” in the face of the firing squad.
Allen Strickland Williams
(Conan, IFC’s Comedy Crib):
The worst I ever bombed was early on when I first started at open mics. I didn’t get any laughs and got so pissed I stormed off the stage and straight out the door. It was childish and petty. I promised to never do that again. The best way to handle bombing is pretty simple: Enjoy it! After you have confidence on stage there is nothing more fun than bombing. It’s probably the hardest I ever laugh when I perform, because you tell these jokes that work so well so often, and then they fall flat, and it just boggles the mind. It makes me laugh on an existential level, and I love it. There’s always another show.
(Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, Here We Are podcast):
I once walked an entire room of people in some horrible show in a seafood restaurant full of a bunch of disinterested rich snobs. I don’t really remember the details. It was a nightmare. I’ve never experienced anything else like that.
Bombing is tough. I lot of times I think just keeping your rhythm and confidence and being consistent is the best thing you can do. One of the hardest things to learn to avoid and to do consistently is to not start rushing and getting nervous when you are bombing. That usually makes the situation worse. Usually the audience doesn’t want you to be bombing either.
Sometimes there are off nights. Maybe the room is near empty or sometimes the opening acts are too new and make everyone uncomfortable. People might want to laugh but no one wants to start. So if you are consistent and confident, they might warm up to you. Sometimes it’s good to acknowledge the situation, sometimes that only makes people more uncomfortable. Every situation is different. You get better at reading it with experience.
Andy Kindler photo by Susan Maljan
Allen Strickland Williams photo by Joanna DeGeneres
Erica Rhodes photo by Bruce Smith
Greg Proops photo by Mike Windle / Getty Images
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.