Booed off the Stage at my Home Club

There’s a story comedians will often tell each other after a bad set, and that is the story of Dave Chappelle getting booed off the stage at the Apollo Theatre, back when he was a teen in the early 90’s. It’s a comforting story to a comic who just bombed, because Chappelle became such a huge success after what sounds like a bombing way worse than anything you or I (until recently) have experienced. Even back then Dave was funny, but he was young in comedy and this Harlem crowd was merciless. He recounts the experience as being one of the defining moments in his career, that shaped him into the comic he became later on. And thus, as a comedian, you hear this story and think, well, “Even if a crowd boo’s me off stage, I just might go on to be the next Dave Chappelle!”

Sadly though, sometimes you just get booed off stage because you…suck. The universe is trying to tell you something. I mean, it takes a lot for a crowd to boo someone off stage. The crowd is not just sitting in silence like a normal bombing; a booing takes effort, moving around, and raised voices. You really do have to anger a whole group of people all at once, which requires a special talent in itself. It’d be really interesting to have a competition, where the crowd doesn’t know, but each comedian on the show’s goal is to get the crowd to boo them offstage. I guarantee that even some of the worst comedians we know could not pull it off! Well, my friends, I pulled it off.

It’s the night after Christmas, and all through the house…no one laughs, not even their spouse. I’m returning to comedy after 2 nights off, which is the most I’ve taken since my 10 day hiatus right after my 1,000 days. I’m the kind of comedian who gets rusty real fast. Even between nights, I rust. If I take a full week off of comedy I’m like a junkyard, ready to trash the whole show and give them tetanus. Why, I’m not sure. But I know it has something to do with me being very antisocial. Whereas some comedians spend their off-time yap yap yapping, I prefer to bask in my own silence. Less noise coming out of me, the better. I often go through whole days without talking to anyone, and so when I hit the stage it’s like I’m coming out of a cave and learning words again. Suddenly, there’s a group of people in front of me expecting me to be some sort of ambassador of communication, and yet they’ve been talking more than me all day! I’ll stutter and jumble words, looking like I just started comedy for the first time. My brain will freeze and I start worrying that people will demand their money back. This is how I feel every time I return to comedy after a night or two off. It’s an icky feeling. And that’s why I did 1,000 days in a row, just to not feel that way for a while.

Maybe I should just start talking during the day? … Naaaaa.

So here I am, at Tommy T’s in Pleasanton, the stage that raised me in my early years, where I learned the art of stage presence, and how to simultaneously get a weird mix of a suburban and urban crowd on my side without being able to use my full vocabulary of words I learned at Berkeley. This is the club that’s closest to my parent’s house in Fremont, the club that called me up to perform every week when I was less than a year in and nobody knew who I was, the first place to headline me on a weekend, and the place where I won a $5,000 competition between 100 comics just less than a year ago. What I’m saying is, I know this stage. If there’s any stage I know, it’s Tommy T’s Pleasanton. I know what pleases them, and also what prickles their pickles (make them angry). I’d never had to resort to using the latter…before this night.

I’m the feature act tonight, and I notice from the opening sets that the crowd is not being very responsive to the comedians. But if anyone shouldn’t bomb, it’s the feature act, since it’s the prime middle spot, where the crowd is warm and not anxious to leave yet. So I go up thinking, “I got this.” Famous last words of a comedian before he/she bombs.

I get on stage and start doing jokes, not my best ones, and my delivery is rusty, but still I feel that I deserve more laughs than what I am yielding. I notice there’s a lot of chatter from a few of the tables. So I talk to them to get them to quiet down. But they don’t. Then I go into a joke about crack and ask if anyone there has ever done crack before, which is a rhetorical question that usually just gets a laugh, but this time, two young women raised their hands, and it was sincere. They really do crack, and one was very proud of it. “Hell yea I do crack!” she exclaimed as she raised her hand. Then, the table next to them started calling them crackheads and laughing, and then a war broke out between the tables, which started to result in an altercation, but then the pissed off members just left. So now the room is now divided, the right hates the left, and the left hates the right. Meanwhile I’m on stage doing a horrible rusty job of choosing the right jokes to keep the rest of the crowd engaged. I start talking to the table in the front that is listening, and it’s this guys first comedy show ever. I say ‘Give it up for this guy, it’s his first show!’ and no one claps. Jeez, this crowd does not want to be controlled.

I continue with jokes, getting a few laughs, but there are tables still talking over me. Finally, I snap, and say, “You know what, let’s get civilized here so I can tell my jokes and you guys can shut up and listen, because we are effectively ruining the show right now, you all by talking, and me by letting it happen” (or something like that). After I say this, I can sense their anger just boiling up. I go on with a few more jokes, and now they are laughing even less, because they, collectively, don’t like me. They already didn’t want to like me, and then when I suggest that they shut up, they liked me less. Except one table in the back is laughing. I say, ‘You guys are the best!’ which makes the rest of the crowd even more hostile because what I said seemed backhanded, even though I was really just trying to bond with the only part of the crowd that likes me.

So now, my show is almost in complete silence, so I just take a break to reshuffle my thoughts, and sigh it out. My brain freezes…. Crickets…You can hear me breathing. And then I say, ‘Well guys, I’ve got about another 10 minutes up here.” Suddenly crowd explodes with a massive “BOO!”. Here we go! It was as if they turned to each other like ‘Holy shit! 10 more minutes of this guy??! No way! We can’t let this happen! We need to boo him off” I was shocked by how the boo came out of nowhere, from complete silence, and furthermore that they were able to coordinate the boo so well with each other, when previously they seemed like a crowd that was not capable of working together to do anything. It was certain they all wanted me off. Part of me is saddened by this deliberate insult to my art, but the other part is surprisingly happy that I emitted a definite reaction from them for once. And now the purpose of this set is at least starting to have meaning.

So now I got a crowd of 100 booing at me, and of course, when all is falling apart, the club gives me the light. I could just get off now. But your boy likes to do his time, and I kinda want to punish this crowd some more. I keep moving forward with jokes, and now it’s like fighting a hail storm. I remember once watching a clip of comedian Bill Burr, where a crowd in Philly was booing him, but he kept going, and ripped on them for his remaining time. I’m not the type to rip on people, so I just keep doing my jokes. I have one guy and his girl laughing in the back and everyone else in silence or boo’s. I look at the guy in the front whose first comedy show it is, and he’s one of the crowd members booing the hardest! Really man? You have no frame of reference, this is your first show! Now I’m really feeling like a piece of sh*t. But I keep going. Now I’m doing jokes that I know they specifically won’t like. Higher brow, jokes about linguistics and religion. I start using words that I know most of them don’t understand, like ‘paradox’. I can feel the hate boiling. People are looking at me like I’m the Satan of comedy who has come to destroy the art form they once knew.

“I’ve got a few more jokes guys”, I say, and the crowd explodes again with an atomic ‘BOOOO!” Well, at least I’m unifying the crowd on something. A crowd that was once fighting each other is now in full harmony with their communal hatred for Sammy Obeid!

So I start going into sex jokes, stuff they would actually like, and it’s all still falling flat to their joke protest. That’s how much they hate me now, that they are hating jokes that they know deep down in their soul that they find funny. And I can sense, after a few of these jokes that they would like, they are starting to realize that I do have value to them, yet we’ve committed so hard to our enmity that we continue to play the game. Well, let’s play then!

“Last joke guys” BOOOOOOO.

Now part of me is feeling bad that I’m doing this at a home club of mine, so I say, “Okay, there’s two things I want you to take home tonight. 1) Keep coming back to Tommy T’s and supporting live comedy. And 2) go fuck yourselves.” The crowd is in shambles, full of “Oh no he didn’t!” and “Get this guy off!” I close with one of my best sex jokes, normally my strongest joke at Tommy T’s, it’s so right for this crowd that it actually has a lot of them laughing against their own will. I can tell the laughs hurt them. It was like I sprayed them with bullets, and then I walk off stage, and I’ve never seen a crowd so excited and rejoicing for my exit.

Walking off stage like that I felt all of embarrassed, failed, yet accomplished, and liberated. I stood my ground and didn’t surrender to them or tell them they were great when they weren’t. I don’t think I could have handled this experience a year ago or before. It would have crushed me. But even if I bomb now, I”m still the guy who did 1,000 days of comedy. I”ve been through worse.

And I didn’t let this experience stop me. I picked myself up and came back to Tommy T’s the next 3 nights in a row and did well on every show. Complete 180. Since the weekend shows at Tommy T’s are normally hot. A few nights later, I”m headlining the Crow’s Nest in Santa Cruz, and a guy and a girl come up after and say, ‘We saw you at Tommy T’s last week’. I was like, “uh-oh, what show?” They said, “The bad one, but we were the couple at the table in the back laughing” I said “You guys! You laughed when no one else did!” They say, “Yea we thought you were so funny that night that we looked you up and came out to this show to see you do a longer set. We’d also like to buy a CD.” I gave them a CD for free, signed with a big heart. Even at my worst, they were fans. And way to not follow the lead of the others that night. That’s what I like to know, that my fans are leaders, not followers or crackheads.

I won’t say that my getting booed of the stage in front of a hundred Pleasantonians was as horrifying of an experience as it was for the young Chappelle in front of thousands of Harlemmers, but I will say that it felt like a defining moment for me as well. One where I learned that I have power over people’s emotions in ways that I didn’t even know I did. And one where I learned that I could take a booing and shrug it off, because I have enough faith in myself as a performer. And I also learned that even when one bombs, there still may be future fans in the room 🙂

Either that or I completely failed to hear the universe trying to tell me to quit.

Day 990: I Still Bomb

Some people would expect that after doing comedy nearly 1,000 days in a row, one should be so good that they never bomb, but this is far from true. I still bomb all the time. And sometimes when I bomb its worse than ever, because everyone sees the tragedy of someone who works so hard yet still bombs. Thing is, comedy is like the Middle East, bombing is inevitable. And whether or not I did this 1,000 days thing, I’d still be bombing. In fact, if you are not bombing, it’s most likely because you aren’t taking enough risks.

Tonight I did an open mic in SF, and followed an open miker who annihilated the place with a rant that he had just put together. Kudos to him, it was very impressive, but then I have to go up…Mr. 1,000 Days of Comedy…and somehow follow that with my crappy half-tested jokes that are scribbled on my piece of paper. Immediately, we all knew that compared to the last set, I was going to bomb. But I let everyone know that I was aware.

I guess that’s the difference between a novice comic and a professional…the latter is aware of when he/she is bombing. Hence, every bombing I do, I do with full awareness. It’s like the zen of bombing. Just breathe, smile, and eat sh*t.

Day 944: Digging a hole to try and get out of it

Sometimes, for some of us, when things are going too well and easy, we create problems in our lives. We do this partly to entertain ourselves with drama, but also because we get off on solving problems. We get some kind of joy out of being in a rough spot and seeing if we can climb our way back to the good. [Tweet Summary]

A lot of pro comedians will do this in their sets. I refer to it as ‘digging a hole’. There are many ways to do this, but it essentially involves getting the crowd to turn on you. You can start your set by being mean to everyone, or you can just tell a series of bad jokes, and then see if you can turn it around and become loved again. Sometimes success is found, and other times we dig the hole too deep. [Tweet Summary]

Tonight at the Haha Cafe in NoHo, I dug myself a hole too deep. I started by not telling jokes, just looking at the crowd and talking in cryptic phrases, and they were not impressed. Then I asked a girl in the front row what kinds of jokes she likes, and she pulled out the classic, ‘funny ones.’ It’s funny that I’ve got myself into that dialogue a number of times and still no response to it. Then, people were being chatty, and I said I would refuse to perform until they stopped chatting. They did not stop. [Tweet Summary]

Very quickly I get the light, because it’s evident I’m bombing and the crowd hates me. So I quickly go into jokes so I don’t get 86’d from this club. But it’s too late. Even my jokes aren’t really working. The crowd dislikes me and thinks I’m so unfunny, that even when I give them funny content, they don’t buy it. I keep firing out the jokes, one after the next, and slowly, laughter starts to grow. By my last joke, I finally get a good pop of laughter, but now it’s time to go. [Tweet Summary]

Yes, I did essentially climb out of the hole, but it was too deep for me to climb out and build a mountain. I just made it back to sea level. It was a great learning experience, and definitely helped me grow as a comic. The club, however, not too happy about it. Which sucks, because just one week ago I was on such good terms with them. It was almost too good. So I had to mess it up, to see if I could earn my way back. Unlike crowds, it can take years to climb out of holes with people. Sometimes you never leave that hole. So essentially, I dug myself a hole on stage, which in turn created a hole in my relationship with a club. I’m forever going to be known to them as the guy who digs holes when he should just be performing. How do you climb out of the hole of being known as the hole digger? [Tweet Summary]

That’s right, you just keep digging the hole, until you pop out in China.

Day 841: How to Know if Your New Material is Good or if it’s Just Funny to Comedians

‘But I did it at the Meltdown open mic last night and it killed!’ Yea because you were playing to an audience of your peers. Typical crowds don’t have the same sense of humor as the dark, lurking, jaded minds that us comics have. Of course there is variance amongst crowds and comedians. And very often a joke killing at an open mic is a great indicator that it will work for a ‘real’ crowd. But there’s some basic laws to keep in mind.

1) If a lot of your comic friends are in the audience, you will already get an unfair laugh boost, or laugh drop, depending on your relationship with them. I have two kinds of comic friends, ones that laugh at my jokes, and ones that judge in silence. So I guess, know which friends are which, and then you can tell if your joke really has potential.

2) If your joke is about rape, AIDS, abortion, molestation, suicide, period blood, or something else extremely dark, vulgar, or ‘edgy’, it probably sucks. But comics laugh at that stuff because we’ve been overstimulated by comedy, so we need that kind of sh*t to prod our innards into laughing. Heck, I laugh at those kinds of jokes. But try doing it at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach for a room full of 50 year old conservatives. You will ruin the show. Just because your soulless peers gave you a laugh at Tribal Cafe?

3) If your joke is about being a comedian, or makes some inside reference to comedy, make sure that what your saying is intelligible to common folk. I don’t slam comedians for talking about being a comedian, because I will reference it too, but I do slam you if you talk about it in a way that only people in the industry get and you think that normal people will get it too. They won’t. I mean in LA they will, but no one is normal in LA. No one.

4) Know when comedians are laughing with you or at you. I love bad comedy. It’s my favorite. It’s nearly the only thing that makes me laugh now. If I’m busting up hysterically at your set, it doesn’t mean you are bad, but it probably means that you should not do those jokes on a real crowd. Sadly, I’m not the only one like this. So, if comedians are laughing at your joke, it doesn’t even mean that they think it’s funny in a traditional sense, but they are more laughing ironically. So beware of that.

5) Know fake support laughs from real ones. Often people feel bad for you. You’re at an open mic, they want to support. Especially when everyone in the room has checked out but one nice person is listening, that person may fake laugh just to make you feel supported. Don’t trust it.

6) Even if none of the above are the case and your joke gets a laugh, it could still bomb the next time you do it, because…that’s just how comedy works. But most importantly, if it doesn’t get a laugh, that doesn’t mean it sucks. I’ve done my best jokes at open mics just to see where they stand and they often fall flat. So no laughs means nothing, other than your joke is not gross/edgy/vile enough to make comedians laugh. I sometimes say that you know you have a good joke when, even if it bombs, you still have the balls to tell it again. Mark of a strong comedian. But if it keeps bombing, and you keep telling it, that just makes you a terrorist.

Days 823-824: Killing at Places you once Bombed

Feels good doesn’t it? You were too new, or the vibe was off, and you ate it that night. But then you come back to that same venue, maybe the next night, maybe years later? And you absolutely….don’t suck…you do well. Maybe you kill, that’s even better. For me it’s kind of a necessary part of marking my progress. If I bomb somewhere, I absolutely have to go back to make sure I kill there. Sometimes it was just the crowd that night, but sometimes it’s that particular venue/stage/type of crowd, and you need to go back in for redemption.

Last two nights I headlined Club 9 Lives in Gilroy and the Morgan Hill Playhouse, in Morgan HIll, a two night run. Now I never bombed at either. In fact I’ve done well every time. But the first and second time I headlined these rooms, in 2010 and 2011 respectively, I didn’t do as well as I wanted to, as I should have as a headliner. I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t strong enough to handle that smaller, older, more conservative crowd. But now with 2 more years passing, and over 700 days of comedy, I come back, and get those applause breaks I was looking for originally from that same crowd. And it felt effortless.

Am I reducing success in comedy to objective standards of killing it via quantifying laughter or applause breaks? Maybe. Sure, there’s many qualitative aspects to comedy. But what matters the most, is if it felt natural and effortless, and this did. So what I’m saying it. Keep performing as much as you can, and if you bomb somewhere, go back and kill it there, and don’t accept your results until it feels effortless.

I just realized how ridiculous I sound right now. Like, yes, kids, work hard, and you too can one day do a two night run in Gilroy and Morgan Hill. Ugh, I should go back into teaching…where you just keep bombing no matter how many times you come back to the same room.

Day 794: Bombing vs. Not doing so well

How do you know when you’re bombing? Is it the sweat beading on your forehead? Or that feeling of not connecting with the crowd, or any single person in it for that matter? Is it hearing crickets or getting groans instead of laughs? Is it someone from the crow yelling ‘You’re not funny’? Having had all of these happen to me, I can safely say I know what it feels like to bomb.

But there are many levels of bombing. At the top we have simply, ‘not doing so well’. This is when your jokes don’t hit as hard as they normally do, but significantly so. Like in a crowd of 100, whats normally 50 people laughing is now 5. So basically you’re still getting laughs, but you are just not doing as well as you normally do or should be doing. I had one of these sets in Playa Del Rey, at Tower 42. The room was packed with 50 people, mostly older, wealthy, pretty much all white, and getting tired as the night went on. I followed 2 really awesome sets by Kyle Kinane and Lachlan Patterson. As I go up, about 15 people leave the room to go to the bathroom. The room is kind of in chaos. I may have smoked some marijuana earlier, which doesn’t help in this situation. It quiets down and their energy is low, so instead of raising it, I just match theirs. And comedy is a sport of teaching, so you teach the audience to be a certain way, they will be. I dug myself a low energy whole, and it was extremely difficult climbing out. But I was getting scattered laughs, I was just not doing so well. But fortunately, Playa Del Rey, is a tiny city in the middle of nowhere along the coast, so nobody will ever really know, except everyone in that room.

The next level of bombing, would be ‘struggling’. This is where you are hardly getting laughs at all, and you’re working hard to remedy that. At points in my set at Playa, I felt like I was struggling, but it wasn’t quite that bad. Struggling is something other people can watch and say damn that’s a struggle, where as not doing so well, people can watch and just assume that’s how the comic normally does. Struggling is a gateway between levels, because a struggle can turn into a kill if you work hard enough and get them on board, or, alternatively, a failed struggle can end up in the next level down of bombing, which is ‘bombing’.

‘Bombing’ is where the crowd definitely does not like you. You often get groans instead of laughs, you look like you are struggling but also defeated, as your efforts won’t do you any good at this point. This level can also be called ‘tanking it’.

The next level down is, ‘eating sh*t’. When you eat sh*t, you and everyone in the mile radius around you can feel the vibrations of how bad you are doing. Maybe you’re not funny, maybe you’re having a bad day, maybe the crowd is just a bunch of assholes, but for whatever reason, there’s just no good coming out of what you are doing up there. Every comic has eaten sh*t once in their lives. If you haven’t, you have no reason to get better. Eating sh*t, almost always ends with someone from the crowd just letting you know that you have to get off. Where as the other levels of bombing can fly by with no crowd interruption, when a comic eats sh*t, generally a responsible, or standoffish, crowd member, will do his or her best to put a stop to it.

Generally, if you eat sh*t enough times, you will eventually be forced into the last, lowest level of bombing, which is called ‘quitting comedy’. Some people never fall this low because they just hang out in ‘bombing’ ‘struggling’ and ‘not doing so well’. It’s kind of a tragedy that they never eat sh*t enough to quit. It’s also equally tragic when a good comic has a bad few days, eats sh*t a few times and then quits when he/she should have kept going. But the point is, bombing is way deeper than just a ranking of how you do comedically. It eats at your soul. Bombing is a social event. You and everyone around you has it burned in their mind as they watch. Bombing regularly can be dangerous to one’s self esteem, but it can also make you fearless. It all just depends on how you process rejection. However, for it to make you a good comic, you also have to kill sometimes. For all bomb and no kill, makes Jack quit comedy or in some cases life.

But what we can learn from this, is that bombing is subjective, but can be categorized by its qualities. The key to being a good comic, other than getting your bomb on, is knowing when you are bombing and when you are not. Many comedians will fall on one of the aforementioned levels and still claim that they ‘killed it’. The point at which you stop doing that, you become aware of how strong you really are. And though I’d like to say I bombed in Playa Del Rey, I did, but it was on the highest level. I just didn’t do so well.

Day 300: Bombing my Letterman Audition

Sometimes comedians use the word ‘bombing’ in a way of self pity over a set that wasn’t our best, even though we know we really didn’t bomb bomb…but when I say it here I mean it.  This was probably the worst bombing I ever had, simply because it was painful. Not just because of the complete silence, because I’ve had that before… but because I kept committing to the set that was getting silence, I felt and looked like I didn’t want to be there, and I did it in an important situation where bombing was not a good idea.

It’s my landmark Day 300, and I leave acting class early to go hit the open mics to run my Letterman audition set.  Before I leave, my teacher, Lesly, asks me to do my audition set for the class, I do and it goes pretty well.  I’ve performed for my acting class before and it’s always fun, because after everyone has been scared and yelled at about their scenes for 3 hours, stand up comedy comes off as refreshing.  I leave feeling confident.  I pick up my girlfriend and we go to Marty’s where I run my set over and over again with my buddy Josh Nasar (uhhhh).  After about 10 runs, the words just come out of my mouth effortlessly.  I know the crowd will be small for the audition tonight, so I want to have my set be ready in the most adverse of situations.

We head to the Hudson Theatre, where a crowd of 7 awaits.  The 7 being, the auditioner, who’s seen most of my set before, my girlfriend who just saw my set 10 times, and at least 100 times before this, and 5 comedians, who I know very well, and all of them know my jokes.  Well, here goes nothing.  The whole show no one is really laughing except my girlfriend, because she hasn’t seen some of these comedians before, so it’s like I brought them an automatic laugh track, for everyone but myself.   I go up, and everyone in the room has seen me before, and I’m aware of it, so I check out mentally.  Just do the jokes, hoping that this 7 minutes passes as fast as it can.  I get 0 laughs…from anyone.  And I can’t break character, this is my audition!  So I have to keep committing.  It felt like fighting an uphill battle that wasn’t meant to be fought.  It was awful, just one of the worst experiences ever.  It was like I was giving a lecture.   A lecture on what my jokes look like on paper.  Deconstructing them down to the very letters that make them.  And this was 7 minutes, but felt like an eternity, probably for all of us in the room.  Like comedy hell.

I get off stage and everyone is coming up to me like, what the hell was that?!  I’m like, where the hell were your laughs?!  I guess we both had different expectations of each other.  I mean, I didn’t want fake laughs, but I didn’t want lecture stares either.

But ultimately I can’t blame anyone but myself.  I could have done things differently.  I could have chose jokes that I knew my peers in the crowd hadn’t heard.  I could have just had more fun with my set and been upbeat.  I could have not agreed to doing an audition in that particular location.  I could have not run my set to death beforehand to spoil any possibility of freshness.  I could have acted like none of these things matter and just used a big dose of ‘f*@k it’.  Oops.  You live, you learn.   And this lesson came in the form of a 300th day gift of a bombing.  And it set the tone for an important lesson in comedy that I would continue to learn for 700 more days…the realization in comedy, and maybe in other arts, and maybe even in life..that just when you think you know what you’re doing, you don’t.   You never do.  In fact I don’t even know if I really bombed that hard, it could all be in my head.