We’ve all seen it, and many of us, unfortunately, have done it; bombing on a stand up comedy stage. It’s painful to watch, but much more painful to personally endure.
The comic goes up with the best of intentions; “Here are some jokes I’m going to tell, the audience is going to laugh, and then shower me with adulation.” The comic dreams of hooking up with the most attractive woman or man in the room, being offered all of the free drinks they can handle, and then being handed a business card from the President of Comedy who will then whisk them away to fame, fortune, and their own Netflix special.
But this particular night, none of that happens for the comic. They go up on stage and start talking, and the lack of response is palpable. Sweat starts to form, panic ensues, and after the comic’s time is up, it’s off to the bar to describe the experience to their comrades-in-arms; “I died, I bombed, I ate the cheese off the big wheel. Even a guy in a wheelchair stood up and walked out.”
Bombing is a regular thing in comedy, some nights the audience just isn’t buying what a comic is selling. But it’s never the audience’s fault. They have zero control over the performance they saw, the blame lies strictly with the performer. The occasional bombing is to be expected, but what if the performer bombs every single night?” Well, now we have a problem. We have a comedian who is just bad at comedy.
Comedians who are bad usually don’t realize they are bad until it’s too late; they’ve become the name around town that is joked about as being the worst comic ever, nobody wants to book them, and eventually other performers become angry and resentful if they have to follow them on a show after they’ve sucked all of the oxygen out of the room. Some people take the hint and just stop coming around, and others don’t; they just keep showing up at open mic, week after week, hammering nails into their own coffin with each unimpressive performance.
So why is someone bad at comedy, when others seem to do it so well, or at least adequately enough not to become a pariah? I will address our hapless friend directly.
You didn’t write enough jokes. Just because you wrote five minutes worth of material, doesn’t mean you got the job done. The best comics write as much material as they can, and choose only the best, most clever jokes for their performance. Every industry has quality control, and if you’re not getting laughs on a regular basis, you haven’t completed the most basic requirement of the job. Jokes need to be tested over and over in front of many different audiences, and once a joke fails three times or more, it’s time to get back to the drawing board and change something. Failed jokes should be rewritten or thrown out entirely. And never go on stage unprepared with the idea that you’re just going to “wing it.” That’s going to a gunfight with no bullets, and you can only dance around for so long before you’re laying face down in the street.
You don’t practice enough. A comedy performance is like acting, or being a professional athlete, or a musician, or any other type of pursuit that requires precision and quality. Athletes at the top of their game spend hours in the gym, musicians spend hours in rehearsal, actors rehearse and run lines and memorize their scripts, and then start working with the nuance of the way those lines are delivered. Stand up comedy is the same as any of these pursuits; it requires polish, rewriting, experimentation with delivery and memorization that only comes through repetition. Don’t plan on getting on stage once a week for a year and thinking that will be enough to do the trick; comedy requires work. And you need to get in front of an audience for the practice time to count; your bathroom mirror isn’t ever going to laugh, I guarantee it.
You don’t offer a unique point of view. Comedy audiences require stimulation to stay interested, engaged, and connected to the performer on stage. They aren’t going to be there for you for very long if you’re churning out the same type of jokes and talking about the same topics that the performers who were on stage before you already did. You are an individual with a unique life and experiences that are specific to you, and if you don’t talk about those things, you’re going to be passed over in favor of other performers who cover the common terrain more effectively than you can. Don’t be boring or derivative, talk about your life and let the audience see what is special about you. Your experience as a person is literally the only thing you have to trade with when you’re on stage, don’t take it for granted.
You don’t trust the audience enough to be vulnerable. Stand up comedy depends on an audience response, more so than most other endeavors; a band can play in the corner and be nothing more than background noise, and no audience feedback is necessary. But a stand up comedian requires the audience to respond, and in order to have a strong response like laughter or applause, they need to experience a strong emotion. The only way for you to get them there is to have them be emotionally invested in you, and that requires trust and vulnerability. Self-deprecation almost always works except when it ventures into self-loathing; let an audience recognize you as a normal human being with the same hopes, dreams and fears that they experience, and they will identify with you. If you talk about your problems, they may think to themselves “Wow, I thought I was the only one who was going through that” or they may think “Wow, I thought I had problems, but listen to this person…I didn’t realize how well off I was.” Either way, you’ve made a connection with the audience and can now expect that response you were hoping for. Confession is good for the soul, and it also reaps rewards in front of a live audience that hungers for something genuine.
You don’t respect the audience enough to put their needs before your own. A good comedian can size up an audience and decide what material will delight them, and what material will make them bored, unresponsive or angry. A bad comedian decides ahead of time that they don’t care what the audience thinks, they are going to ram their material down that audience’s throat whether they like it or not. Some comedians will excuse themselves with well-worn cliches like “I say the things that everyone is thinking but are too afraid to say” or “I tell the truth and sometimes the truth hurts.” Those excuses are all well and good, unless the audience isn’t laughing, in which case you just haven’t done your job, which is to entertain them. It is never their job to like you or get you or understand you. It is always your job to entertain them, whatever it takes.
An audience pays for every performance, whether it is a cover charge at the door, a ticket that is purchased, or in the case of a free show or open mic, the time they spent sitting in an audience (and time is worth money). Don’t disrespect the audience by being a bad comedian who is guilty of taking up stage time and not being very funny. Work to get better, or give it up. Either way, the audience will thank you.