Our series, “A Comic’s Life” focuses on life on the road, performing stand-up. Dan Perlman is a young writer and comic, who has been performing comedy full time for two years. He performs nightly in New York City, and tours around the country at festivals, clubs and colleges. Dan is writing a series of articles for “A Comic’s Life”, which chronicles some of his thoughts and stories about being a young comedian just getting started in his career. This week, he writes about what happens if people don’t laugh.
Bombing happens. Particularly when starting in comedy, bombing is frequent. A lot of people are scared off from doing stand-up after encountering these early failures. It certainly hurt when I bombed early on.
I occasionally listen back to sets from when I first started and think, “Man, I am racing through that bombing.” I just plowed full-speed ahead, talking faster than I otherwise would, with no awareness of what’s going on around me. As I gained more experience doing stand-up, I naturally found myself slowing down to how I actually speak. Slowing down has helped, as it allows me to hear specifically where people aren’t laughing and, with increasing experience, why a line isn’t hitting.
I don’t have a worst bomb story — though there are plenty that would qualify.
My favorite ‘worst bomb tale’ is from Chris Rock, who shared his story as part of Nantucket Film Festival’s Comedy Roundtable — alongside Jim Carrey, Bill Hader, and Ben Stiller. Rock detailed his first late-night appearance, a spot on the soon-to-be-cancelled Late Show with Joan Rivers. Rock recalls that his first joke, in front of the studio audience, bombed. Rock, panicking, rearranged his set and told his closing bit second, hoping to win back the crowd. The band, however, had been given this closing bit as Rock’s outdo cue, and played him off. Rock then moved to the couch, where Rivers and the other guests of the night — Howie Mandel and Pee Wee Herman — ripped his bumbling performance.
This set is not online. I found this story so refreshing when I heard it, because he did not take this painful experience and step away from comedy, even for a short while. He kept going. Today, this anecdote is simply a random footnote in the career of one of the world’s best stand-ups.
There are many ways to bomb. The comedian might lose the audience’s attention; perhaps at a bar, the crowd might start talking amongst themselves, ignoring the comic. The comic might face a hostile audience or a heckler and handle the situation poorly. For me, the worst bombing situation is when none of the aforementioned occurs. Rather, the most painful way to bomb is when the audience is engaged, eyes focused, ready to laugh. They are looking up at you, hoping to be entertained, listening to your every word, but they just can’t bring themselves to laugh. In those sets, it felt like I was a Sims character, shouting to the game-player in an incomprehensible language, hoping to be understood by one person.
I record audio of every set. I don’t listen to every one, but I do when I feel like there’s something from the set that went better than expected, worse than expected (more important), or it’s a newer bit (most important).
I’ve found that helpful, if initially painful, as part of getting better. Considering the set afterwards — why parts went well or poorly, how I can improve in the rewriting or delivery of certain bits, etc. — and hearing the set itself has proven, if occasionally agonizing, ultimately beneficial.
Over the past couple years, I’ve also found it key to find safe spaces to fail. That is, I will often write on-stage, take an idea and talk it out at open mics. The first couple times I talk out a thought, I give myself some permission to fail. I am aware in these cases that I have not zeroed in on the strongest part of the idea just yet, because I often don’t know until I hear myself say it on-stage. In this context, open mics or small bar shows are invaluable, as they provide me with a chance to try, rewrite, and hone material in front of living human beings.
Doing stand-up and writing new material, I constantly feel like I’m gathering puzzle pieces. Every new bit, new realization, half-formed thought that I can’t yet frame — they all feel like additional pieces to the puzzle. Occasionally, I can fill out a corner, or piece together a few thoughts. For instance, I might realize that I can link these two bits, or I can synthesize this idea, or trim one bit down to a few lines and fold it into another bit.
At times, it can feel overwhelming, looking at the metaphorical stack of puzzle pieces. I don’t know how to piece them all together. I’m not sure how large the puzzle is, nor am I even sure what exactly I’m building. Yet the more I do stand-up and the more I write, I feel like I can see things slightly clearer and build a little more.
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian and writer from New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @danjperlman.