Josh is a charming NYC comic who currently writes for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO and co-authored (along with Joe Berkowitz) the book You Blew It. You can catch him tomorrow at Bier Baron Tavern. Purchase tickets here. – ed
As a comedian, once you’ve bombed enough times, the real harrowing part of any gig is rarely the show itself. And I don’t mean you stop bombing. That still happens. Even a bomb of atomic proportions stops feeling like a world-shattering breakup and starts to feel more like a bad first date. You walk away having wasted only an evening, and if it was really bad, you have a story to tell your friends the next day. Sometimes it’s faster than that. I once left my friend Sean’s bachelor party to perform at a fundraiser, told jokes to a crowd of four hundred people talking so loudly that none of them even looked up when I got onstage, and went back to the bachelor party in time to tell the tale over slices of naked-lady-shaped cake.
I’ve had lots of terrible sets. I once did so badly at a private party in a basement in Queens that when the host didn’t have the right combination of bills to pay me the agreed-upon fee, he underpaid me by ten dollars, refusing to make change because I’d bombed so hard. One time I opened for a prominent touring comedian in a 250-seat theater and heard so few laughs that I actually thought to myself: “Maybe the crowd hasn’t gotten here yet. Maybe they’re coming late, like at a rock show.” (They were not late. I could tell they saw the whole thing by how they avoided eye contact with me as they filed out of the building after the show.) A few years ago, I performed a full, forty-five minute show in a student center at a community college in east Texas at 11:45 in the morning. My opening act was a fire drill. Fewer people walked out of the room during the fire drill than during my set. These were all bad shows. None of them was the worst.
Time passes, and seasons change, and the bad shows scattered throughout your career collapse into a few moments of bygone desperation. You don’t remember every second of a bad set for the same reason you can’t recall every line of dialogue from the worst movie you’ve ever seen. Your brain wisely says: “This will bring only pain!” and refuses to commit to memory anything but the absolute worst parts, so you can learn from them…or just so you have something to keep you up at night.
The disappointments that really stick with you aren’t the performances themselves. They’re the quiet moments after the bad shows, when you’re reflecting on the choices you’ve made and where they’ve brought you. Eating dinner alone in the fluorescent-lit employees’ cafeteria of a casino. Being lectured about your lack of energy onstage by the prop comedian you’re opening for, whose name you haven’t heard before or since. Getting a call from a club owner telling you he’s going to fire you midway through the week if reviews from the staff don’t get better, and having him end the conversation with: “But remember, the Friday night late show is why Steve Martin quit comedy, so…good luck.” These are the seeds that grow from a bad show into a true nightmare.
All that is to say, the worst gig of my career took place in a Chinese restaurant just outside Boston (which, if you know anything about Boston comedy, narrows the possible scene of the crime down to approximately 900 venues). It was probably 2007. I was emceeing the show, and I’d done terribly. I almost always did terribly at this particular venue. Even though it was less than ten miles from my hometown, onstage I felt like I was speaking a different language than the audience, or, more accurately, a different dialect of the same language. The crowd understood the literal meaning of my words, just not why I thought those words constituted jokes. A group of twelve walked in eight minutes into my ten minute set, speaking at full volume, undeterred that a comedy show (one they had just paid to see) was (despite the notable absence of laughter) happening all around them. I did my last joke, to general indifference. Then I brought up the next comic to a round of applause that was less for me and more for the concept of anyone else taking over. It was bad, but it was fine.
As I walked towards the back of the room, I had the most pathetic thought of my comedy career, which was, verbatim:
“I am going to drink a Coke and eat some chicken fingers. Nothing else bad can happen to me now.”
That’s not what you’re supposed to think after performing. It’s what passes through your head when the guy who burned down your house gets sentenced to life in prison. But it’s what I thought in that instant. Nothing else bad can happen to me now. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Halfway to the back of the room, I passed a table of two middle-aged women who had already accumulated a glass menagerie of empty Bud Light bottles. One pointed to the comic currently onstage. She leaned over to her companion and whispered an absolutely breathtaking insult, not directed towards him, but rather in reference to me.
“At least this guy is good looking.”
That is, to this day, the worst heckle I’ve ever received, and I wasn’t even onstage for it. And I know that as a male standup comedian, the standards for my appearance are not high. And it’s rare that even when I don’t meet people’s expectations, they would tell me to my face. But that’s not the part that hurt the most. What really crushed me about that sentence was this:
- It implied that not only was I unattractive, I had no other redeeming qualities. Even if this other guy was as unfunny and uninteresting and generally unbearable as I was, at least he was easy on the eyes.
- I wasn’t supposed to hear it! That woman was not grandstanding to feel important or cool. She was just being totally honest in what she thought was an intimate setting.
- He wasn’t even that much better looking than I was!
- The lady kind of looked like my mom, which hurt in a Freudian way that I don’t have any interest in unpacking.
If it weren’t for that woman, I probably wouldn’t even remember that show. It would have run together with all the other times I died a painful onstage death and then soothed myself with deep-fried, purportedly Asian cuisine. But thanks to her, that night lives with me forever as a reminder that in that moment, not only was I failing at my dream, but as a living, breathing human being, I brought absolutely nothing to the table. I was reminded that night (and forever after) that just as with a nuclear explosion, it’s not the bomb that’s the worst part; it’s the fallout.