Eli Yudin is a Brooklyn based comic. He used to live in D.C. He used to perform in Arlington. That’s the past. -ed.
I’m very lucky as a comedian that when someone brings up a “nightmare gig,” I don’t have one immediately come to mind. With some comedians, all you have to do is ask an innocuous question about bad gigs and immediately you see their pupils shrink. They look like they’re smelling gunpowder and blood. I probably owe this to my lack of work on the road. I mostly stay in the warm little comedy uterus that is New York City, where, even if somebody may not like your comedy, they at least know what you’re trying to do. I don’t have stories of times they had to tell jokes to the KKK, or worse, a rowdy bachelorette party. I’ve never gotten into a knife fight with a one-legged man who didn’t cotton to my “pirate hopscotch” material (NOTE: Not a real bit, but now I feel it might have to be.) I’ve never had a club owner tell me, before being paid, I would have to throw a magical ring into the fires of Mount Doom. (Also, if JRR Tolkien is supposed to be such an amazing writer, you’d think he could do better than “Mount Doom.” You’re gonna come up with Gandalf and Frodo and Treebeard, then go with Mount Doom? Why not just say he’s got to throw the ring down the Scary Hole? The Uh-Oh Pit? But I digress.)
The story I’m gonna tell isn’t really that bad, especially in hindsight. But it does have the dubious honor of being the first time I really got good and worked over by silence. And since, anytime bombing or a bad show is brought up, it’s right back up, projected onto the inside of my forehead, like the least helpful version of that Microsoft Word paper clip. “It looks like you’re thinking about bombing! Here’s what that felt like again.” Your first time really bombing is like your first time blacking out, (unless you don’t do that, in which case, I’d like to remind you that you are not better than me) in that you’ve heard about it, but it seems terribly dramatic and possibly like an old wives’ tale. “I don’t remember anything!” Maybe you don’t, Trevor, maybe you just don’t want to pay for a new table. Until you experience it first-hand.
The show was in Arlington, at an Irish pub called Ri-Ra, which was very much every Irish pub, besides the fact that it had two stories. Imagine an Irish pub, then drop another one on top of it, and that was Ri-Ra. This specific show was advertised as an open mic, and I was too fresh to the game to know the flexible vocabulary of the stand-up world. “Open Mic,” “Showcase,” and above all, “Industry” are notoriously malleable. In this case, it was an “open mic” which was to a crowd of probably 30-40 people. A situation in which someone more experienced and less stupid would have thought, “Oh, clearly this is a situation in which perhaps I should dive into my more time-tested material.” My brain, however, made the decision to double down on the commitment to the arbitrary two words on the flyer. A perfect time to work out some brand new material!
Now, a comic saying “I’m going to try some new stuff,” is not dissimilar to the time your friend, on his rusted BMX bike, looked at the ramp you two had built but not reinforced, and said, “Watch this.” Sure, there’s a chance it could go well. More likely, there’ll be blood on the pavement by the time we’re through.
Important to know as well is that this is the first show that all my friends had come out to. I rowed crew in high school, and a good portion of my team, and my old coach, had come out, sitting at a long thin table not unlike our boat, dead center in the middle of the room. They’d heard me talking about doing comedy, and even more, heard my parents talk about me doing comedy. Finally, they’d decided, we’ve got to check this out for ourselves.
Like I said earlier, I’ve had pretty good luck as a comedian. I didn’t have the notoriously terrible first set. In fact, I’d had fairly positive experiences on stage so far. Enough to form a wholly unearned sense of comfort and ego. This was the first time I would learn that in comedy, your self-esteem is like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween. No matter how much time you’ve spent on it, how good it looks, sooner or later, some dickheads are gonna come by and stomp it to a pulp.
I was brought up, notebook in hand, hubris in heart. I grabbed the microphone, said hello, and went straight into what I thought was assuredly an amazing new bit, one I’d pull from the coals and form into a shiny new opener without a single stroke of the hammer. This bit was about how, in my elementary school, there was a rumor that Mountain Dew made your balls shrink. (The culprit was Yellow No. 5, if I remember correctly.) Being as we were elementary school students, and the two things we wanted most in the world were a holographic Charizard and to know that our testicles were normal, not a adolescent soul was seen drinking it from then on. Time to connect the dots, I thought! “AUDIENCE!” I screamed, “IMAGINE THAT BUSINESS MEETING!” In my created scene, sales would have dropped, and at Mountain Dew HQ, they had to have a serious meeting where they were like, “Sales are dropping! How do we tell these kids our drink won’t shrink their balls!? We can’t put it on the label!” Not the worst premise I’ve ever thought of, but far from a bit that’s going to, well, work.
That’s the last joke I remember telling. Bombing is the perfect name, because the experience is much like when an explosive goes off in a war film. Your ears start ringing, all sounds fall to a low wave, even your own words. Your palms shoot out sweat like some sort of disgusting Spider-man. Your limbs feel alien and gangly, like you’re Pinocchio, desperately trying to convince the audience you’re a real comedian. When recording sound for a film, they always capture “room tone,” which is a couple seconds of the natural sound of a quiet room. It seems almost useless, but when not done, the result makes people feel surprisingly uncomfortable, because this level of silence is unnatural to our brain. This is the level of silence you feel when you’re bombing. Recently, watching the new Netflix series Daredevil, I thought to myself, as he picks up on the smallest sounds, hears quiet conversations on the other side of the room with crystal clarity, and can feel the body heat of people close to him, “Oh, like bombing.”
I walked off stage, and the host did his best to wrangle the room back after I’d done the comedic equivalent of firing a rifle in a crowd of skittish horses. He managed it, and after doing so, he brought up the featured comics, Seaton Smith and Rory Scovel, both very talented comedians. I’d embarrassed myself in front of them, I thought. My friends gave me the sort of tortured smiles you might paint on a mid-grade marionette, as I slunk to the back. I remember talking to Rory after the show, briefly, and him being very nice, but still with that pit in the back of his eyes that any comic has while talking to someone after they, to use a colloquial term, eat a bag of shit on stage. A very “there but for the grace of God go I” sort of vibe.
Looking back, I still get a little turn in my stomach. I’m sure in some other language there’s a word for the twisted nostalgia towards a terrifying moment. Based on subject, I’m gonna guess it’s Russian. But also, I now know that doing badly is as much a part of comedy as doing well. In fact, doing badly is the genesis of doing well. Every solid bit, the ones you hear and that draw that deep belly laugh, immediately followed by “Oh man, that’s good,” or, if you’re a comic, “Fuck you for thinking of that before me,” is built on a foundation of shit. You’re gonna go through a lot of manure if you want to grow the best vegetables. And, against my understanding of show business, they don’t blackball you for doing badly at an Irish pub in Virginia.
So that’s my “nightmare” gig. Sorry I didn’t get stabbed or have fish guts thrown on me.