Look: everyone has a bad set once in a while. It happens! And sometimes you just have to power through and forget about it. But, there are actually a ton of easy tricks you can do that will make you WAY funnier, (no there aren’t) even if your set is going…well, not so great.
Which is why I compiled this list of things you can say on stage that will totally not just win your audience back (nope, they won’t), but also make you KILL and seem super duper funny too (not so much).
So you just told a joke and no one laughed. Did you do something wrong? Of course not! How could it be your fault? You’re a comedian. Comedy is what you do. Your joke is extremely funny; the audience clearly just didn’t hear it right. They probably don’t know what a punchline sounds like, since they aren’t a brilliant comedian like you. You have to help them. Give them a hint!
Here’s what happens when you ask, “You know what I mean?” The audience thinks, “Yes! I do know what he means! Oh, that’s funny and I didn’t even realize it…I should laugh!” And then they do laugh. If you want to change it up after a couple jokes, “Am I right?” and “You know what I’m saying?” work just as well.
You’re probably just so funny and so clever that you’re on a whole other level than your audience. Look: if they don’t see how you’re the second-coming of Bill Hicks, it’s not your responsibility to spoon-feed them. You’re just too highbrow for those plebeians.
You could try to explain your joke to them. But no matter how well you explain it, they simply aren’t going to be smart enough to understand your other-worldly genius. You might as well skip straight to insulting your audience’s intelligence. People are natural followers. They can’t help but think, “Wow, I never realized how stupid I was! Thankfully, I have this comedian to tell me what is funny!”
This is an extreme case, but it’s feasible that your audience is SO dumb they don’t even understand how stand up comedy works…that they should blindly laugh at whatever you say. They’re way too busy thinking, “What’s going on!? Where am I? Why are we all facing in the same direction except for that one guy?” The very last thing on their mind is laughing at what you have to say!
You need to tell people what’s happening: “You’re at a comedy show. This is when you laugh. This is what fun feels like!” You know that one guy at the party who always stops the conversation to interject, “Wow, we’re all having so much fun, aren’t we!?” Everybody loves that guy. Be that guy.
Some silly, uninformed people might think a premise without a punchline isn’t that funny. However, the fact that you have not yet developed your joke into a presentable form is, without a doubt, hilarious. There are few things funnier than the absence of humor.
If people don’t laugh at your admittance of un-funniness, then they are clinically insane. But, if for some crazy reason this comment doesn’t get you a laugh, you can go a couple of other, slightly different routes…
Sarcasm is the height of intellectual comedy. When you hear someone going “OF COURSE I want to slit my throat!” it’s hysterical because the person is saying one thing when they really mean another thing.
If your set isn’t going well, let the humor of sarcasm play to your advantage. Remember that uproarious game you used to play when you were a kid where you pretend it’s opposite day? Simply say the opposite of the truth and pretend it’s fact. You can say really creative things like, “Well, this is fun” or “You guys are really enjoying this!” or “My parents definitely aren’t disappointed in me.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in stand up comedy is that the very architectural framework you’re standing in is constantly working against you and wants nothing more than to see you fail. “The room” is out to get you and will stop at nothing to make you seem unfunny. If there’s one thing that everybody knows, it’s that rooms control people’s laughter. Sometimes I refuse to even go inside a building because I know there will be rooms in there. I can’t have those rooms challenging my drollery!
So, if you just call out the fact that the room is bad, everything is definitely going to get better. People will be like, “OH DUH…it’s the room’s fault! Now I see that he’s funny. The forces of an inanimate structure on the performance just made that really hard to realize.”
People are never going to think something is cool unless other cool people say it’s cool. You have to convince your audience they need to be laughing at you. Forget the jokes for a second. Think of your set as a job interview – like you’re presenting a dissertation on why you are funny. You need to bring up indisputable data; back up your claims with cold hard facts.
One of the most efficient methods is to refer to Twitter. If a joke doesn’t hit as hard as you wanted, think back to how well it did when you posted it. “Well, that joke got four favorites on Twitter,” immediately establishes your credibility as a funny person and simultaneously doesn’t sound defensive at all. The audience will register that four of your closest friends validated you about this joke and will invariably begin laughing uncontrollably.
Nothing gets the crowd going more than a soundly-proven thesis. People don’t laugh at you because you’re funny; they laugh at you because they think you’re funny. You just have to be THAT persuasive.
If the Twitter plug fails (which it totally won’t), you can always push it even further. Why haven’t you mentioned your credits yet!? You won’t even have to tell the audience they don’t matter if you imply it with all your accomplishments. Not only will people trust and respect you more, you’ll gain instant fans who will kill to see you when “you’re really trying.” You’re way better than this; it’s just that these specific people aren’t laughing at you.
In order to make it in stand up, you want to be as derivative as possible, so you can sell yourself to a wide range of audiences. Forget originality. You want to paint yourself as someone who even the dumbest person thinks is funny. Saying you were on the television box will get people’s attention. But if you can’t say that, another solution would be something like: “LOOK, I perform this stuff ALL OVER THE COUNTRY and people LOVE ME!” Boom. I’m sold. You’re funny.
Laughing at your own joke is kind of like saying, “Hey, I’ve heard this joke 500 times already…and I STILL think it’s funny. That’s just how hilarious I am.” Of course, you don’t actually find your jokes funny any more, but this is where your performing chops come into play. Ham it up a little bit. Develop your own unique fake chuckling style. Don’t worry, it’s not going to sound fake at all. As long as you laugh at yourself every single chance that you get. If you’re struggling to get your joke out amongst all those phony guffaws, you’re on the right track.
You know that friend who always laughs at her own jokes? And you’re like, “Why is she laughing? That wasn’t even funny.” You could literally be as funny as she is, if you really applied yourself. If you really go for it, soon the audience can’t help but think, “He’s even funnier than Sharon!”
If you can’t get by on the quality of your own jokes, you can create the illusion that you are funny by juxtaposing yourself with someone who is not. When one of the comedians before you bombs (or even just does “okay”), drop your prepared, carefully worked out, and thoughtfully-planned material posthaste! It is now your right – nay, your responsibility – to destroy the self-esteem of that comedian by making him look like a complete fool. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT THE FEELINGS OF ANOTHER HUMAN BEING. Nothing could be less important when you have the opportunity to make yourself look good. Do you want to be funny, or do you want friends? You cannot have both.
Is it easy to kick someone while they’re down? Yes. And that’s why you have to do it. Comedians will respect you for how little you care about others.
Finally: the ultimate “F-U” to the audience. The more it appears that you don’t care about whether people laugh, the cooler you seem. And the cooler you seem, the more people laugh at you. You don’t care about other people and that makes them love you even more. Confidence is king. You are confidence. You are king. This is your castle. Castles are awesome. You are awesome. Just face it…you’re too good to try! You could kill telling nursery rhymes if you wanted to. Hell, if Dice could do it, so can you.
Speaking of “F-U,” add expletives to your set wherever you can. “Motherfucker” is your new favorite word. Print it out and put it up on your wall so you can design-think it into your everyday speech. Missing a punchline? Not anymore, motherfucker!
There is never a bad time to talk about suicide; it’s always funny to everyone. Death is incredibly humorous; why else would comics use the word “killing” to describe a particularly good set?
Wow. Just look at how much funnier this article got simply from my allusion to death. If I can be that funny simply by mentioning it, imagine what you could do with 5-10 minutes of material on dying.
I know I said this about sarcasm too, but I was being sarcastic: saying you’re going to kill yourself is The Pinnacle of All Comedy. In the history of comedy, no one has ever said they were going to kill themselves, so you’re bound to be appreciated for your novelty. Moreover, it’s the perfect way to trivialize everything you have said on stage thus far, making it seem as though you really don’t give a shit how this is going. After all, comedy is pretty unimportant when you’re contemplating suicide, isn’t it? Kind of puts things in perspective.
If you really want to get innovative, target another mental disorder besides depression. For example, maybe, “Man, that set was so bad I’m going to go have me some Bulimia…so I can puke up all that shit I ate on stage!” Or, “Wow I bombed so hard I’m going to have PTSD!…Post Traumatic Stupidjoke Disorder!”
Better yet, make a pact with the devil whereby you sell your soul to be considered the greatest comedian of all time. Become a ghost and slowly destroy the lives of those who didn’t laugh at your jokes. Fear is more powerful than funniness. The evil of the underworld engulfs you. You welcome it. You murder Satan. You are Satan now. NO ONE WILL EVER LAUGH AGAIN! Fear replaces all merriment as Earth becomes a living Hell. If no one laughs for you…then no one will ever laugh at all.
Stu Melton is a comedian in New York City and the creator of A Comedian’s Notebook, a blog about stand up comedy with a bunch of articles like this one. ACN has also been featured in The Comic’s Comic and Chortle. Stu hosts the stand up show Hyperbole every second Tuesday of the month at The Creek and the Cave Comedy Club.
Illustration by ComedyArtwork.com.