Failure is a gift.
It’s hard to remember this when your jokes are bombing in front of a room full of strangers or, worse, friends and family. But stand-up, more than most things, is trial by fire. You learn if jokes work because people laugh or they don’t. You need failure to succeed at stand-up comedy. You can’t avoid it, even at the highest level, so you might as well learn what it means, how to handle it, and, most important, how to make it serve your craft.
What Does It Mean When You Fail?
When a joke (or an entire stand-up set) doesn’t land, it means either:
- The joke wasn’t funny;
- The joke was funny, but you weren’t telling it quite right;
- Something else was going on in the room;
- The audience wasn’t ideal; or
- Some combination of these factors.
In fact, it’s often a combination of these factors. Like a scientist, your job as a comedian is to account for variables such as audience, venue, night of the week, host, where you are in the lineup, other comedians, time of show, temperature, sound system, jokes you chose to tell, your mood, and your physical presentation, and then repeat your experiment many times over until you figure out which of these factors are contributing to poor performances.
This isn’t to say that you should blame “the room” when you have a bad set. A skilled comedian can walk into almost any room and adjust their set to make it work. But, for example, if you walk into a room and realize it’s full of senior citizens, your jokes about dating apps may not land because your audience simply doesn’t understand them. The jokes themselves may be solid, but you’ve failed to recognize that they aren’t a good fit for that particular room.
Let’s say you have a joke that you’ve tried 25 times using nearly the same wording, and it almost always tanks. Different types of audiences in different rooms consistently aren’t laughing. At this point, you can safely assume that this joke, as it stands, is a failure. Recognizing that the content of a joke isn’t working is frustrating but also very freeing: You’re now untethered from a punchline that was standing between you and a perfect stand-up set.
At this point, you must throw this failing joke into the garbage or take it back to open mics for retooling. Ask your comedy peers, “Does that joke make sense to you? Why do you think it’s not getting laughs?” By bouncing ideas off peers and mentors, you might unlock the concept or wording that finally makes your joke work. If you still can’t get there, put the joke on the back burner until you can approach it from a different angle. Don’t continue doing a joke you know doesn’t work unless you’re trying to change it.
Is There a “Right” Way to Fail?
Yes. It bears repeating: Every comedian fails. It’s part of the job. But some comedians fail gracefully and learn from their experience, while others look like fools.
Let’s say you’re bombing. You’re on stage and even your best material is getting only a distant chuckle. You’ve got five minutes left to your set — a significant amount of time when you’re doing so poorly that you’d rather crawl in a hole and shrivel into dust. Your options are to:
A. Get mad or sad at the audience and blame them — to their faces — for a bad set;
B. Plow through your jokes as if nothing’s wrong;
C. Shift gears to material that is really different from the jokes you’ve been telling; or
D. Break up the flow of your bad set by trying some crowd work.
Which do you do?
I’d like to say there’s no wrong answer, but there is one wrong answer, and that’s option A. Telling an audience how stupid, uptight, or “wrong” they are to not laugh at your brilliant material almost always makes them hate you more. It makes you look fragile and the room tense up. No one wins.
I often default to option D in this situation and try some crowd work. It changes the pace of the set, gets the audience to engage, and sometimes lightens the mood and puts the show back on track. But you can’t always count on an audience to chat with you. When they won’t, it’s absolutely okay to brightly plow through your set or try some jokes you hadn’t planned on that you suspect may work better.
Maintaining a professional demeanor is so important, because sometimes what you think is a failure was actually just a timid audience quietly enjoying your material. Nearly every comedian has been in the position of thinking they bombed, only to be approached after the show by a group of new fans. But unraveling on stage guarantees that won’t happen.
After the Bomb
Let’s say you had a bad set. Really, truly, one of your worst. Afterward — when you go back to the green room or comics’ table and have to face your peers — be honest. Nothing’s more irritating than a comedian who bombed, gets off stage and says, “That was great! The audience loved me!”
I have never understood if these people are in denial or are just trying to change the narrative of the massacre we all just witnessed. In either case, it makes the comedian look silly. It also makes me think, “If this comedian can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a great set, I don’t want to book them on my own show.”
You also don’t want to go too far the other way and keep talking about how poorly you did. That won’t serve you either. It’s completely fine to walk off stage and say, “Woof. That was rough.” But leave it at that. Tomorrow’s another day full of comedy, and no one will remember your bad set a few weeks from now…unless you keep talking about it.
During the course of writing this post, I experienced my own failure — a rejection from a TV writing job I really wanted. When I got the disappointing email, my heart ached, and in that moment, I was reminded that it takes a very strong person to succeed in comedy.
Strength doesn’t come from burying feelings and ignoring losses; it comes from embracing them. As comedians, we need to feel the pangs of rejection, because they’re important: They signal us to grow and change. Every failure is life instructing us to make an adjustment.
And when we make enough adjustments, we start to succeed.