Hi Dave – What should you do if no one is laughing or if you realize that you are starting to bomb? – A.B.
Hey A.B. – Duck and cover. Okay, if that’s not the answer you’re looking for, here’s another one I’ve seen work…
But first a definition. Some of our readers may not understand what you mean by bomb. That’s when you’re doing your best to entertain (comedians) or entertain AND inform (humorous speakers) and NOTHING is working. The audience is not laughing, you’re starting to panic and sweat, and you have this overwhelming feeling that everyone in the room HATES you.
That’s called Bombing 101. And if you ever get used to it – you’re in the wrong business. I don’t know any comedian who hasn’t gone through the sensation. If they claim they haven’t, they’re lying.
The dedicated comics never let bombing on stage stop them from performing again. But the smart ones use the experience to learn something. And what they usually learn is what not to do on stage again that caused them to bomb in the first place.
As an example:
In my book Comedy FAQs And Answers I talk with comedian George Wallace about this. He told me how he first started his career under the stage name “The Reverend George Wallace” and he would use a phone book like a Bible. It worked in NYC, but when he played his first road gig in upstate New York, the audience hated him. He was paid to do an hour – and he did an hour – but it was a mega-ton bombing experience. On the drive home he told me he thought about driving his car off a bridge because he felt so bad.
But the learning experience was that he would NEVER allow himself to go through that again. It made him rethink and change everything about his act and his comedy voice (who he was on stage). The “Reverend” title was gone – and so was the phone book. He decided that if he was having fun – a party – on stage, so would the audience. When the audience is having fun – when they’re in a party mood – you’re not bombing.
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And if you’ve ever seen George Wallace perform you’ll know what I mean. He’s become immune to bombing.
So you want some advice? Okay…
If you feel like you’re starting to bomb, a technique or trick (for lack of a better term) I’ve seen some other big-name comics use to turn things around is to talk TO and WITH the audience. Forget your material for a moment – especially since they don’t appear to like it anyway – and bring the audience into the show.
Here’s an example…
When I was scheduling the comics for the Hollywood Improv, one of our most dependable (meaning funniest!) acts was Jimmy Brogan. When Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show he brought Jimmy with him as Head Writer.
That’s how much respect this guy has in the business!
His material is great and I always enjoyed watching his sets because of that reason – great material. But I remember one evening at The Improv when the audience just wasn’t getting it. I have no idea why not, but it happens to all comics.
Anyway, much to my astonishment and confusion, Jimmy’s material didn’t seem to be working. But as I watched, he took the microphone out of the stand and started talking TO and WITH the audience. He really looked at them and REALLY had conversations.
He kept it simple, easy, and made it comfortable for anyone to be involved in what he was doing.
“Where are you from? What do you do for a living?” type of questions led into some very funny replies and ensuing conversations. And once the audience was with him, he put the microphone back in the stand and started doing his material.
This time the audience LOVED him. They followed him, GOT the material, laughed at the material, and it was a great show. He walked off stage to big applause.
So I had to ask him about it – right?
Jimmy reminded me that all comedians start out as MC’s in clubs. That’s where you break in and get your earliest on stage experience. It’s how you develop your writing and performing skills in front of listeners who will respond – positively or negatively. And one of the most important jobs of being an MC is to warm up the audience (make them laugh) and get them involved in the show. The best way to do that?
Talk TO and WITH them.
Jimmy had developed the skill, talent and experience for doing that – and could call on it whenever he needed to.
George Carlin used to call his writing and experiences in the business as his arsenal. It was always there when he needed it. If you don’t believe me, check out his interview in Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material (I know… blatant book plug, but I can’t help it – that’s part of my basic arsenal).
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I could also name other comics I’ve watched do this – and also tell you they gave me the exact same answer. When they were MC’s moving up in the biz, they learned how to talk TO and WITH an audience.
It’s a way to keep them involved, interested and (hopefully) laughing. It’s an important skill and your arsenal to help defuse (at least almost) any bomb.
So start talking. Otherwise, just get used to the duck and cover method of surviving on stage.
Dave Schwensen is the author of Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers, How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, and Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works.
For information about these books, comedy workshops at The Cleveland Improv, and private coaching for comedians and speakers in person, by phone or via Skype visit www.TheComedyBook.com
Copyright 2013 – North Shore Publishing
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