I Bombed And Then This Is What Blah Blah

There was total silence. I’m not sure if anyone laughed at a single joke.

First, I prepared to be bombed. I spoke with the comedian Jim Norton. I said, “I’m afraid it will be a disaster.”

He said, “The fear goes away when you realize that bombing is survivable.”

I spoke to the MC of the show. She said, “It’s not IF you will bomb, it’s WHEN you will bomb, because you WILL bomb.”

And then ten minutes later I bombed. I said jokes. Dead silence.

Were the jokes bad? I don’t know.

I used them just a week earlier. Everyone laughed then!

But this night, my third time, nothing. Silence. Embarrassment.

I’m not quite sure what i did wrong.

The comedian Judah Friedlander was up right before me. I heard him muttering as he walked out, “Shitty audience.” Or at least I think I heard him muttering that.

But maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel good. I need to feel good one way or the other.

If Plan “A” didn’t work (making people laugh), then maybe Plan B will work (“the audience is bad”) or Plan C – not sure what Plan C is yet. Working on it.

Here is what I learned: 

A) SOMETIMES THERE ARE NO ANSWERS

I did jokes that had worked the week before. Now they didn’t. I don’t know why. I videotaped it. I watched it. I’m still not sure why.

B) I DID IT! 

I’ve been afraid of doing standup. I’m even afraid to do public speaking. I’m afraid to interview people on my podcast.

But I’ve given talks hundreds of times. I’ve done hundreds of interviews. I always get people to laugh.

People keep telling me, “you WILL bomb” at some point in standup.

I didn’t believe them. The other two times I had done it went great.

And BAM! Death.

C) I DIDN’T DIE

Jim Norton was right. I survived. I know the important thing for me to do now is to do it again. To not quit.

My instinct is always to quit when things don’t work out. I feel like I want to be the smartest and best RIGHT AWAY.

Or else!

But the only way to get better in something you love is to get through the worst moments which are inevitable.

D) DIVERSIFY

The jokes I did were very crude.

I was watching Louis CK a few weeks ago and it seemed to me he would think of the WORST topics he could joke about and then he would specifically go over the line. Slavery, Racism, Abortions, etc.

So I asked a friend of mine, “what’s the one thing you really don’t want to hear about:” and she said, “Child abuse”.

So at least half the jokes I did were about child abuse.

Again, the first time I did them, people were laughing. The second time, nothing. People even groaning.

People didn’t like me. I felt like a 14 year old at the dance again.

The next day I watched about a dozen videos of people who had “clean” acts.

I watched Todd Barry, Dan Soder, Jim Gaffigan, Gary Gulman, Judd Apatow.

Then I decided to practice. I wrote down about 20 “clean” jokes.

I sent them to a friend of mine who has been writing jokes for a living for 25 years. He sent me back notes on each one. The notes were brilliant. I practiced again the next day and the next.

We’ll see.

When I give a talk it’s easier to tell a story that leads up to something funny.

When you are standing on a stage for five minutes to do comedy you kind of need a punchline every ten seconds (time Louis CK between laughs).

So it’s basically setup / punchline / follow through and then new setup.

It’s hard. I want to get better. And have a wider range.

E) WATCH THE VIDEO

It’s important to watch yourself. When I got nervous, I started talking faster. I need to slow down. I need to pause between laughs. I need to not pander to the audience.

The only way to get better at something is to study what you’ve done.

I was watching a video of Greg Shahade playing chess. He analyzed the game afterwards.

He described a move he made in the middle and said, “I lost a game FIVE YEARS AGO to Nakamura and afterwards we were looking at it and determined the this move would have been good. Now, five years later in a position that looked similar, I made the move and it worked.”

You have to study your losses, really analyze them, and determine what you could have done better.

Every single time.

F) RESPECT THE GAP

When I watch a video on YouTube of someone doing standup, chances are they have been honing their craft for 20-30 years.

20 to 30 YEARS!

I will never do that.

And it’s not similar to giving a talk and making people laugh. When I give a talk, the audience usually knows who I am. There is more time. It’s a friendly audience. They are already to go.

Standup is different. It’s not the story or the observation. It’s really just about making people laugh.

But I love watching standup. And I want to get better at it .The raw skill of it. It’s not just making people laugh. It’s moving in a certain way. It’s having a certain kind of courage to say something outlandish and commit to it.

It’s about dealing with a variety of nuances and unexpected things (different audiences) in real time and responding appropriately.

Whenever you love something but you are just trying it, you have the sense to realize the best are the best for a reason. I can’t fool myself.

But still…I love trying and experimenting and taking risks.

G) tl;dr

– Everyone bombs and lives
– You have to get up again afterwards
– Study the video. Learn from mistakes
– Diversify the way you do things.
– Practice and repeat
– Respect the gap. Learn from watching others

I’m not trying to switch careers or anything. This is the benefit I have. But I want to get good at a new skill.

Part of happiness is these two things:

– possibility
– growth

“Possibility” is doing things you never did before but you feel are “possible.”

The mystery. It’s why humans, above all other species can adapt to and seek out new environments. It makes us happy.

“Growth” is a sense that you are improving in things. You don’t have to improve in ONE thing only. I used to think I’d go to college, find my ONE thing and then keep improving in it.

Instead, I had to find many things. And I still do. Combining the possible with growth is part of what makes me happy each day.

Standing up there. The groans. Nobody laughing. I died on the stage.

But I did it. And I’m alive writing about it. And I’m going to do it again.

  • Ted Scarborough

    Big brass ones James! You’re crazy, my friend.

  • Great story James. It couldn’t come at a more perfect time for me. I’m about to start recording my own new podcast and am a nervous wreck that I’ll suck. Odds are that I will suck terribly as an interviewer/host but I’ll live to host again. Thanks!

  • Captain Paintball

    I would also add, be the “authentically funny you”. Don’t be Louis CK-ish if it is too much of a stretch to the point you can’t pull it off/be convincing.

  • Charles Odhiamboh

    I learn new grammar every time i read your posts. this time it is tl;dr and GIF last time it was corollary and lots of ideas. in fact I’m thinking of writing comedy and selling. I welcome you to Kenya James and I wish you well with comedy.

  • Joanna Christopher

    I love you, James. Thank you.

  • I did stand-up when I was about 21 (a long time ago) for about three years. It took me that long to discover that I had two problems with comedy. First, I wasn’t funny. Second, I didn’t know I wasn’t funny.

    However, it was the best training I could have had for professional speaking, which has been part of a long successful career, where I got lots of laughs. See the article, “Why Tony Robbins’ People Hated Me.” http://yourinnerwizard.com/why-tony-robbins-people-hated-me/

    Every audience has a distinct personality, much as every individual does. It’s like a cake mix done differently every time. That’s the reason you have a great line one week and it falls flat the next. some audiences don’t have a sense of humor, just as some humans don’t.

  • Seangspence

    Always and again, really honest & useful. From one who has bombed just standing, never mind the comedy! And it’s true of ‘Real Fails’, where your soul hurts, too. You live and an audience is out there somewhere that gets you.

  • Paul Brian

    For a man at your age to try standup is pretty outstanding. Not that you’re old, I’m two years older. I can only assume it would give you confidence to try other things. By the way, interview with Dave Asprey was awesome.

  • Brendan M

    I tried out for a musical on a lark(dragged along by a buddy, actually) and landed a much larger part than I expected. It was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, and everyone should do it. There were great audiences and shitty audiences. And I did great and i bombed. And survived.

    Another great post, James! Thanks for all the great work!