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Thursday, September 12, 2013

On bombing

About six months ago, I began performing stand-up at open mics around London. Things were going well. Each set had represented an improvement on the previous one, with even the first not completely lacking merit. Certainly, I wouldn't consider myself to have ever 'bombed'. That was until Tuesday night.

Several established comedians have talked about their own experiences of bombing. I once heard John Mulaney - a writer for Saturday Night Live and one of my favourite contemporary stand-ups - describe an early break supporting Mike Birbiglia. He approached it with, what he thought was, 20 minutes of rock-solid material. The set was greeted with silence. Others have claimed bombing is an essential part of the development process. I am sceptical. Did Mulaney really perform to silence, or was that simply relative to his expectations? And while bombing may be an essential part of developing, it is also an essential part of failure. I write this, therefore, partly in the hope that it will be therapeutic for me, and partly in the hope that, should I ever find success, people in the position I am currently in will know I once, unequivocally, bombed.

Last week, in a room of 20 or so stand-ups and a handful of impartial observers, I did my fifth gig. Some people believe other comedians make for the toughest crowd, although in truth, this is not a theory I subscribe to. My opener - a kind of surreal practical joke - was received well, and from there, things bubbled under nicely. Eventually I delivered my closing 30 seconds, which - in the words of another comic - "killed". It may not sound like much, but I suppose that's my style: rather than write jokes or even stretch plausible premises to ludicrous extremes, I attempt to gradually unravel the ridiculousness of genuine occurrences, treating the occasional guffaw as an added bonus before I reveal the big pay-off. Performing at Edinburgh and entering the BBC's New Comedy Award suddenly seemed like realistic ambitions.

The next rung on the ladder was trying the material on a larger audience. I knew of a venue that offered, not only this, but 10-minute spots to the best-received acts. I was desperate to get one. Still glowing from my success, I emailed the promoter at the larger venue, asking for a spot. He informed me all the pre-booked spots were taken but I was welcome to try for a 'walk-in'. At 6:45 on Tuesday night, I arrived outside the venue, by which point, I was ambivalent. England were playing Ukraine in a crucial World Cup qualifier, which is something I had not accounted for when I sent the initial email. Usually this would be pivotal, but I convinced myself the benefit of building momentum by performing two gigs in quick succession should take precedent, while I also had a bit on Breaking Bad and was worried future plot developments would necessitate a rewrite. Nonetheless, I hoped the promoter would be unable to find room for me, and the decision between watching the football and taking to the stage would be removed from my hands. It was not to be.

I had performed at this venue twice before. The first time, my set dissecting the fear of appearing racist was enjoyed by a few and fatally misinterpreted by the rest, but the second attempt (you can see a clip below) had gone well enough for me to be optimistic. With regard to the comics, it was a strong night. I was scheduled to perform sixth in the second half, which is a kind of spot I am not familiar with. Newer acts are often placed later in proceedings so they can take advantage of the warming-up done by more experienced performers, as well as the likely inebriation of the crowd. That's the thinking, anyway. Following the midway interval, people began to evacuate the room, taking with them a lot of the energy. The fifth act in the second half - one before me - bombed. Worse than I'd ever seen. She wasn't without flaw, but turning to a friend, I suggested the audience could have been kinder. I believed it - she got a raw deal. That's not to say, though, that I was expecting the same treatment for myself.

I improvised an introduction for my biggest laugh of the night, before struggling to untangle the microphone from its stand. This forced me to twice repeat part of my opening set-up in that way which can be funny, but, on this occasion, apparently was not. I then briefly engaged with the audience, and this provided me with my first indication I was losing them. I don't think I got beyond the front two rows, but in each, I could see only bored faces, gazing around the room. My punchline fell flat. Even the usually guaranteed laugh that follows the performer's acknowledgment his joke hasn't worked was not forthcoming. I continued, shaken enough to mess up the delivery of my next line. That's no excuse though - not for unerring silence. It was almost as if the audience was unwilling to forgive me for the aforementioned 'practical joke', despite its innocuous resolution. This section was a write off.

I ploughed on towards the coda, thinking, if I could just reach it intact, I might be able salvage something from the evening, but much like laughter, silence is contagious. Familiar faces I'd expected to see chuckling along wore expressions as blank as the rest, and opportunities for a positive response faded ever quicker. "BUBBLE HIM" bayed the audience, in reference to the M.C.'s decision to spray acts with a bubble gun once their time was up. They could have just wanted to see bubbles, but it felt more personal. I then, for some reason, turned to the M.C. and asked for the chance to finish my set. I knew it wouldn't get any laughs - the time for laughs had gone - but... well... it killed last time. And what did I have left to lose? Pride? Not enough of it. I blurted out the few remaining words I could remember and left the stage feeling totally ashamed. "Give it up for Adam Benjamin!" the M.C. shouted. "That was only his fifth gig!" The worst kind of condescension. "Fuck you," I thought. And it was my sixth.

The next act managed to eke enough laughs from the crowd to prepare them for the headlining professional, who likewise got as much as could be expected from the evening, and that was that. I hurriedly left the venue, afraid someone would otherwise approach me, and waited a few metres from the entrance while my friend got his stuff together. "The crowd didn't seem to have much of an attention span," he later asserted. "They just wanted one-liners." And maybe he was right. Maybe, though, I just wasn't good enough. Maybe the room of comedians who had enjoyed the same material a week ago had particularly low standards. There's no way to tell.

It was a long journey home, but actually, I didn't feel bad about it for anywhere near as long as I thought I would. A bite to eat and I'd decided, the best thing to do was get back on the horse; return to the warm, comforting cocoon that hosted last week's triumph and let them remind me I can do this. Get it out of my system. Had I learnt anything though? From possessing a set that killed one week and bombed the next? How could I have? The material was either great, terrible or something in between - I knew that before I'd written it. Perhaps, though, next time I bomb, I'll be able to handle it better. I'll be able to hold true and give myself a chance of winning the audience back, instead of fluffing each subsequent line and ending all possibility. Still, it will be while before I'm prepared to show my face around the larger room again.


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