How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb

I’ve read a number of articles describing what it’s like to bomb onstage but very few that tell you what to do about it. I’m going to leave out the general advice of “Be prepared” and “Know your audience” and rather focus specifically on the moment that you know you’re bombing.

If you’ve told one joke that didn’t work, that’s not bombing. Bombing refers to times when you feel the entire crowd hates you and it doesn’t appear ANYTHING you say is going to work. It’s a truly awful feeling. Imagine the rejection you feel when you strike out with a girl at a bar. Now imagine that 300 people all watched that happen — not in a funny way but in a real, exposed, vulnerable, awkward way.

The shock of bombing is actually how quickly it happens. It’s like any kind of acceleration — it’s exponential. You could bomb straight out the gate. Or you could tell one joke that deeply offends the audience members and you just don’t feel like you can get ’em back.

This is the stuff that has worked for me. Not all of it will apply to all comics — we all have our own styles, after all. I don’t bomb a lot. It’s mostly because I’ve consciously or unconsciously used these techniques. For the first time in 12 years of doing standup, I’m finally capturing what I’ve learned from some absolutely epic bombs that I have indeed had.

1. Acknowledge the situation to yourself.

“OK, this is it. I’m bombing.” Don’t spend much time in denial.

Say it aloud to get it.

2. Decide whom you’re trying to impress.

Bombing on a corporate gig is very different from bombing at an open mic. For the latter, your audience may very well be the back of the room (i.e., the comics). Comics value commitment. If you can stay in the bit and just ride it all the way out to the end, your fellow comics in the black chairs at The Comedy Store will applaud you and slap you on the back. If you’re getting paid several Gs to do 20 minutes at Procter & Gamble, then you’d better figure something out right away. If you’re getting a check, it’s always for the front of the room. This is your job and you are in customer service (and damage control) with a client. Take off your Artist cap and put on your Entertainment hat. You best shuck ‘n jive your way to some laughs.

3. Tell YOURSELF that life goes on; this, too, shall pass; or some variation of that.

“I’m not a suicide bomber: I’ve bombed before and lived to tell about it. I’ll learn from this. Besides, it’s kind of funny.” Bombing is hilarious — if you’re not the guy bombing. It’s cringe-worthy to civilians, but to comedians, OMG. It’s one of life’s pleasures. So, step outside of it and think of the good time you’re giving to the comics in the back of the room (or the ones to whom you’ll eventually tell this story).

4. Remind yourself of this: Nobody has a copy of your set list.

They don’t know what you had planned. For all they know, this could be part of your act. It’s doubtful, but I say that to make a point: No one knows what you were gonna do. As comic Chris Murphy said, “You’ve been funny your whole life without a script.”

5. Admit it ONCE.

“Well, well. Ladies and gentlemen, you are witnessing a comic bombing. It happens and now you get to tell your friends all about it. Or tweet it. Or whatever.” Do not keep calling attention to it.

6. Tell THEM you’re gonna turn it around.

Not in a cocky sort of way — you haven’t earned the right (or have lost the right) to be overconfident. “Alright, we’re all in this together. I’m gonna turn this around. Y’all ready?” Hopefully, they’ll cheer you on. If they do, ride it. If they don’t, make one self-deprecating remark about “Guess I’m in this alone” and proceed.

7. Ask for some applause.

“If nothing else, give it up for the comics you’ve seen thus far, your wait staff, and yourselves.” This’ll create some momentum. And you’re not asking them to support you — just the good folks working for them. Think of Boiler Room. “Move around. Motion creates emotion.”

8. Root.

Not root for them. Or yourself. It’s a stage term. It means to stand in one place. Didn’t we just say that motion creates emotion? Yes, but you’re trying to get the crowd to emote. You need to remain cool, calm, and collected. If you start moving around too much, you begin to pace. Not only do you look even more nervous, you make them anxious. There’s power in staying in one spot. You’ll feel energy coming through the floor into you.

9. Clear the dead weight.

If it’s a comedy club, this is tough because the wait staff all has stations set up and it’s kinda not kosher to ask people to move. But if you’re at a college or a company or some kind of hall/theater, you can absolutely ask people to move in closer. The danger is that they’ll just leave. But would you rather play to 40 people who care or 200 people who don’t? I had to make that choice about five years ago at a small college in Ohio. I bombed… hard. I opened with, “Indians had nothing to do with 9/11. Now 7/11 on the other hand…” Yes, yes, in 2014, that’s hack. But in 2007, that was pretty edgy and it was working in every room I’d done so far. But college audiences can be more sensitive and conservative than you’d imagine, precisely because their senses of humor aren’t completely developed so they don’t know what to laugh at. The setup of the joke drew a collective gasp. And then the punch line just wasn’t enough to work. (Comedy is about creating and destroying tension… it builds and builds and builds like you’re going up a roller coaster hill. Then the hill better justify all that buildup. If it does, the joke works. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.) Back to this college… so, I had some people move in… it was literally about 40 people of the original 200. There were lots of other problems with the setup of the show but I’m not going into blame mode here. The 40 who stayed actually hung around for 45 minutes and got a good show. (It still stung like hell later in the hotel room, though.)

“Break ’em with the 7, 7–11, 7–11, 7 even back-door Li’l Joe.”

10. Re-introduce yourself.

(Hey, it worked for Jay-Z. “Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is HOV…”) Literally, in a mildly self-mocking way, step to the side of the stage (NEVER leave an empty stage) and God-mic yourself back up there. It’s like when people say, “Hey, can we start over?” in a conversation. Amazingly, it works. It’s similar to being late for a meeting. If you kill the meeting, nobody will remember that you were late. Just don’t mention it again at the end and you’re all good. People love to watch a comeback so begin again and go on. That’s one thing I learned when I interned on Capitol Hill: If you make a mistake, apologize and move on. It’s the “move on” part with which people struggle. Only you keep some of your failures alive.

“We’ve got a problem, [Austin].”

11. Turn up the lights.

Not all the way — people tend not to laugh if it’s too bright. But you also can’t see too well in the dark. If you can ask the powers-that-be to crank up the setting just a bit, that will help. You can always turn them back down later.

All of The Artists.

12. Do crowd work.

Talk to them like people. Break the fourth wall. “What do you guys want to talk about?” You’ll invariably get something like this for a response: “Something funny!” “Great. I’ve got something on that…” If you can segue into material, then that’s your best bet. Then…

13. Tell your best joke.

Forget your set list or your plan. It’s desperation time and the clock is winding down on you so you need to pull out all the stops.

14. Compliment the audience once.

Call ’em smart. But do realize that you should only do it once or twice, at the most. After that, it looks like pandering. And ironically, calling them smart is pretty much like calling them dumb (which you should never do — I’ve learned from experience). Why? The implication is that they’re smart enough to get your brilliant lines. Again, you don’t want to distance yourself from them. Similarly, do not say something like, “Well, I’m getting paid, so…” I’ve done that and it’s super-douchey. Again, it’s distancing and absolutely doesn’t help your cause.

15. Change the four things about your voice that we all can control: pace, volume, pitch, and tone.

As a rule, start to talk slower and softer and lower and with more self-awareness, especially if you’ve lost them to the point where they’re talking using outdoor voices. This seems counterintuitive. Shouldn’t you talk faster and louder and higher and stick to your character? No. Pace: As it’s been said, “If you think you’re going too slow, slow down.” That isn’t a typo. When’s the last time you saw somebody give a speech and you thought the guy/gal was talking too slowly? Never, I’ll bet. It hardly ever happens. I’m not saying I haven’t seen boring speeches. More than my fair share. But it wasn’t because the pacing was too slow. If you pause, they’ll all look at the stage and you’ll have a CHANCE to get in. There’s always a chance. I experienced this back in November here in LA. I was brought to the stage under horrible circumstances. I was supposed to perform at a sports bar (strike one) at 10 pm but the Dodgers game ran into something like 14 innings and we started over 1.5 hours late (strike two). They barely heard the guy introduce me. But there was a moment — just a split second — when I could’ve gotten ’em during a lull. And I didn’t capitalize (strike three). I proceeded to bomb, doing only about five minutes, and then just got off. I was there to promote my one-person show and actually ended up doing more harm than good. Still, both shows sold out anyway, so they can SUCK IT. Ha. Volume: Shouldn’t you yell? No. Nothing is more powerful than silence. And even with a microphone, you won’t be able to drown out hundreds of people if they don’t want to be drowned out. Pitch: If you speak at a lower register, you will sound more confident. Try it right now. The higher you go, the more desperate you sound. Tone: You need to change it up so that they know that you know what’s up. Practice modifying your voice. Have fun with it. It’s amazing how much command you can have over a room when you’re versatile.

Keep Calm and Carrey On.

16. Start telling your jokes to the back of the room and the sides of the room.

Oftentimes, a room is lost from the back. The “ground-flutter” starts back there and spreads throughout the entire audience. Ask the back of the room a question. “Any single people back there?” Realize you may very well get heckled. FINE. A heckle is a response. Remember Plato’s Cave? (Slightly older allusion than Boiler Room). You can be blind from too much light or not enough light. In this case, you’d much rather too much light. It’s something to work with. Go with it. And have fun.

17. Be a professional.

This isn’t the 17th thing you need to do. Hopefully, you’ve been this the whole time. But if you’ve done those other 16 things and they just haven’t worked, then say “good night” and call it. Stick around to the end and shake people’s hands. The looks they give you — or don’t give you — will hurt. But it’s an incentive to do better. And it’s only fair — if you’re gonna soak up the adulation on the nights that you kill, then you should eat your lumps when you bomb.

When asked how he beat Jimmy Connors after losing 16 straight matches to him.

Follow those above steps and you just might find yourself having a Strange Love of the bomb.

“Will you take the pain I will give to you again and again… and will you return it?”

Rajiv Satyal is a comedian and pop culture maven. He resides in Los Angeles.


Originally published at www.rajivsatyal.com on April 26, 2014.