I wasn’t sure what to write about this month. My young friend Connor suggested Star Wars. When pressed for more, he said that I should say “Obi Wan Kenobi, knows how to use a force, but a Jedi never fails. He just keeps fighting.” Pretty smart for a chap in kindergarten.
So that was my plan, but then tonight I saw somebody perform a bit on stage that bombed. Not because it wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t because of the audience, it was because of something else and it brought me right back to my first time.
Not that first time! I mean my first time doing stand up. Though to be fair the end result was about the same for both.
When I was 16-years old, my mom took me on a cruise to Alaska. It was an amazing trip and also, my first time doing stand up comedy. There was a passenger talent show, and I thought that it would be fun. How hard could it possibly be? I signed up and then started writing my A material. The night came and I got up on stage and just bombed. I died a thousand deaths. Nobody laughed. Halfway through my set the crew opened the stage curtains to show the hosts and the band sleeping. They might have been nicer if they knew how young I was. I wouldn’t try stand up again for over a decade.
Looking back now as a professional comedian, I know why I bombed. The material was too specific and the audience couldn’t connect with me. When you are telling a joke about your Aunt Sylvia, you want it to be about everybody’s “Aunt Sylvia”.
Frequently, when I am at a party or a family function, more than one person will come up and say, “I’ll bet you are getting some good material here!” or when telling a joke so old it has dust on it, “You can use that if you want!”
I never do. That’s the problem; rarely can you take a situation exactly as it happened and tell it on stage.
Today, if I was to tell the story about my Aunt Sylvia I would twist it and turn it. Look at it from different angles. What is the funniest part? Is it funnier if it happened to me instead of her? I would try it again and again with different set ups and punchlines. The goal, of course, is that when you see it live, it looks like I haven’t put a moment’s thought into any of it and it just comes off as improvised hilarity.
Tonight, as I watched this guy fumble with a bit about family that wasn’t getting a laugh, it brought me right back to being 16. I could see after the show that he was very upset. I know the instinct is to quit and run away. Heck, I know I walked away from it for more than 10 years, but I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if I hadn’t tried again. A smart comedian will figure out the problem, fix it, and spin it into gold.
To paraphrase a friend, a comedian doesn’t fail they keep fighting.