Sanjay Manaktala is a stand-up comedian who was instrumental in starting the comedy scene in India when the UK Comedy store also entered the country in 2010. Since then he’s helped hundreds of comedians figure it out, and is also the host of the iTunes and Spotify charted Birdy Num Num podcast, because life begins after Engineering. In this post, he talks about the weekly struggle of comics who have to deal with doing badly on stage.
Updated: Jan 2019
As I write this post it’s 11PM on a Wednesday night.
I’ve just returned home still wearing the suit I put on a few hours earlier when I was filled with hope and optimism. Only now I’m about to toss it in the laundry bin and dub it my “bad luck suit.”
This was probably my 200th corporate show, for a group of software managers, and man oh man….did I eat shit.
Bombing as a comedian is one of the worst parts of the job.
Stand Up Comedy Is Hard
Comedians are an interesting bunch in that we don’t really have any discernible talent.
A musician can strum the guitar with immense precision, a singer or athlete have even more obvious gifts but with comedy (and part of the reason I got into it myself) the talent is less tangible. After all, you’re just a guy on stage talking into a microphone.
What could be so difficult?
So you give it a shot.
You visit a local open mic, listen to the schmucks ahead of you and slowly start to feel those nerves tingle as your name gets closer to going up.
Flash forward a few hours and eventually….
And you bomb some more.
And then you realize, as someone who has done this for close to six years now….you’re going to bomb a lot.
Comedy is by all accounts (based on the lexicon it uses) a very passionate profession. Although it’s been said many times before, the proof is in the terms themselves. When you do well you either “kill” or “destroy.” Or as my friend Comedian Praveen Kumar once said when I asked him how his show was, “Machaaa, I killed but didn’t destroy.”
Inversely when you do badly you “died” or “bombed.”
For the purposes of this post let’s just stick to “bombing” so this site gets flagged for all the wrong reasons. And since I’m in a depressing place re-evaluating my career after my almost routine once-every-three-months shit-eating show tonight, let’s talk about it.
I’ve probably bombed on stage more than I’ve not bombed.
I remember hearing a friends story about how he did so well his first few times on stage. He hadn’t realized the reason was that a big chunk of his friends was supporting him from the audience, and the first night he performed without them he died hard.
The promoter walked up to him, placed a hand on his shoulder and said “Congrats bro. Now you’re a comedian.”
Bombing is as much a part of being a comedian as going to the gym is for an athlete.
It’s completely normal, expected and happens to everyone, from the first time performer to Chris Rock testing out new bits. The problem with comedy is that you need an audience to practice. In fact, the game itself is the practice.
A musician can practice a song a 1000 times before making it flawless, and the same is true for various other art forms.
But with comedy, your mistakes happen live and in real-time.
What might be funny amongst a group of friends or as a really popular tweet, will not be verified or shut down until you do it live for a group of strangers.
No matter what shortcuts you try the sooner you accept bombing as a routine hazard of the job the sooner you take steps to minimize the pain and maximize the benefits of not doing well.
STORY: In Bangalore, we’ve had a room Praveen and I started four years ago at Urban Solace (a small friendly coffee shop) in which we’d perform for two people.
YES, TWO PEOPLE.
Now the room is run weekly with a steady audience and you know what?
A majority of comics who have graduated through that room went on to do wonderful things and continue to do so.
Early in our planning we could have thought, “Nobody comes here, this is a waste of time.” But instead, night after night, week over week, we figured out it wasn’t the audience not wanting to support us, but it was the comedians not knowing how to hold the audience’s attention.
And eventually, week after week, year after year, things turned around. Come by any Wednesday, and see a comedy scene in full bloom, with years of history now behind it.
Good shows make you good. Bad shows make you better. Shitty shows make you great.
A pilot doesn’t spend most of his training flying the plane on autopilot, and a well-seasoned comedian has likely spent way more of his or her time dealing with crap than reveling in fan appreciation about how funny their blowjob story was.
Whether it’s building the thick skin needed to deal with hecklers, bartenders using blenders, crowd noise or trying to convince 50 drunks who prefer to watch sports that their first tinder date story is much more interesting, a comedian must be ready to deal with anything.
Back to the pilot analogy, I’m going to assume that 80% of a pilot’s training isn’t on autopilot but on what to do when things go wrong and comedy is exactly the same.
When you watch a comedian like a Bill Burr or Louis CK talk about women or traveling, they didn’t just magically get selected as the random white dude to talk about these things for a collective conscious.
They’ve dealt with all of the above and then some, night after night and have masterfully figured out a way to deliver a message through a swarm of drunk and apprehensive message blockers that have earned them the stage and audience they command.
When you bomb as a comedian, you overcome quite a few things.
- Stage fright.
- Course correction.
- You leave the stage feeling like a pile of dirt, but after a few hours or days, you quickly realize it’s not the end of the world and regroup.
It builds the mental fortitude necessary to survive in this business of constant rejection and swings and misses. All of the above is realized much much faster of course if you can learn from it properly and….
Disarm the Bomb and Get on With It
It’s comforting to know that bombing is commonplace, and everyone bombs.
It makes going through this comedy journey a lot easier, no matter what stage you’re currently in. But understanding why you bombed, uff….that’s easier said than done.
Was I too nervous? Too fast? Too slow? Was it the audience? Were the jokes too dirty or not dirty enough?
These are all questions you’ll ask yourself with fellow comedians at 1AM in some dingy restaurant eating unhealthy food as you wallow in self-pity.
But they’re extremely helpful in making you a better comedian. As you answer these questions one by one, you learn to spot the causes of these issues at all future shows and eventually, you bomb less. Let’s take a look at each:
1) Were you too nervous? Or too fast/slow?
I still get nervous, even after over 1000+ times on stage.
Maybe I’m performing in a new country and not sure if they’ll get my references, or the show is being filmed, or the jokes are just too new and I’m not confident enough in their delivery.
Or that girl I like is in the audience and it’s going to chip away at my timing and pacing since I’ll be checking her reactions to see if I’m winning her over, which I’m so clearly not. Either way, it’s another part of the job.
One of the easiest ways to spot this during your act is to notice if you’re stuttering or mumbling your words.
The more you do this, the audience subconsciously loses faith in your setups and your timing suffers. Another way to spot this (and learn from it) after the fact is by recording your set. A comic once told me that they film each performance and watch/listen to it immediately in traffic on the drive home.
When you do this, especially after an open mic, you’re actually performing twice that night (the logic being since you were most likely going to perform the exact same routine the next open mic night, you’ve done this by listening to yourself and now you’re going to adjust on the next show). Plus we have so much time before and after a show as comedians, not watching your set is almost inexcusable since you’re sitting there waiting to go up anyways. (Same is true for not memorizing your set and going up with a piece of paper, but more on that another time).
2) Was it the Audience’s Fault?
IT’S NEVER THE AUDIENCE.
I live in India, a place that sometimes can feel like 30 countries mashed together each with different languages, foods, customs and a whole slew of unique comic references depending on which state you’re in.
Punjabi’s may like a certain type of jokes, South Indians might prefer another type, and then the foreigners in the crowd are just happy they’ve found a place that is crowded and not on lonely planet.
And despite all of that, I’m here to remind you again, IT’S NEVER THE AUDIENCE.
I’ve done shows with my super American accent, in Hyderabad, for 400 Canon salesmen who didn’t speak a word of English.
If you don’t believe me, the video is here.
And man oh man, was that a bad show.
But despite everything, it’s never really their fault.
They’re just a group of people who happened to be together at a given intersection of time and space (Star Trek reference woo woo) and you happen to be the comic.
It might not be the perfect audience, but early in your career, you will see very hostile or quiet rooms get turned around in almost magical fashion by a comic who is up for the challenge and knows what he or she is doing.
Maybe all your jokes are about sex and dating and the audience is filled with Aunties & Uncles.
Or maybe you do a whole set on corporate life and marriage and you’re catering to a bunch of 16-year-old college-bound kids who know nothing aside from Game of Thrones and video games.
Either way, your job is to make a group of strangers laugh and until you command a huge theater of fans who are identical to you, you first need to learn how to make them all laugh.
Take any show you can get and be ready for any crowd. Try to perform for people who aren’t like you and watch the other comedians who are performing and take stock of what works.
Not blaming the audience is the first step towards correctly reading the audience.
And being able to read the audience (e.g. Do they want dirty jokes? Are they tired of dirty jokes? Maybe they don’t care about jokes but love the crowd work, etc..) is one of the most important skills in your comedy arsenal.
3) Maybe you just sucked bro.
It’s important to make friends as you push through the ranks.
They help you enjoy the highs and march through the lows.
And as comedians, we have a lot of fun doing it. Before tonight it had been a few months since my last good bombing when I performed in Surat with comedy friend Vipul Goyal.
The crowd wasn’t ideal for me and I didn’t scan them enough to realize that. I don’t speak Hindi but I could have done stuff that was a bit more in line with their lives rather than stretch the references to see if they got it.
After a less than stellar performance, I walked backstage and Vipul asked me (with an evil smirk hiding behind his curiosity) “How was the show?” I told him it was alright, and that at least I had fun.
To which he replied “Nice, but the audience should have fun too no?”
Either way, it’s helpful to remember that in comedy you’re always learning as you go.
You will have different types of bombs as you progress through your journey:
- The new material bomb,
- the nervous on a new stage bomb,
- the on-purpose open mic bomb, whatever it might be.
But more often than not, it will be because the joke isn’t funny.
Remember this, and keep reworking your act.
When a joke works 9/10 times you can be sure the joke is fine and it’s just a matter of finding the right crowd. But if you’ve done it twice and it bombs on a real show…it could just as easily still be the joke and you simply lucked out those first two times.
Some Final Thoughts
The best comedians have really good bomb stories, and that’s part of the reason they’re revered as the best comedians. When it happens to you, just remember it as another part of the job.
Embrace it with a smile on your face and thank your lucky stars it’s happening now than when Seinfeld is in the audience, and you’ll be ok.
Some other pointers I didn’t get a chance to talk about:
- Don’t focus on the one guy not laughing to the extent it takes away from those who are laughing with you. Disappointing 10 percent is better than disappointing 90 percent.
- Cut it short and deal with it. Watching a comic unravel on stage is not pleasant for anyone. If you’re bombing, finish your set early. Give the emcee adequate signs (e.g. Put the mic stand near the center of the stage) and wrap it up, ending hopefully on whatever laugh you can muster.
- Get back up on stage as soon as possible. Whenever I bomb, I quickly try to find an open mic later in the night I can go “wash off the bomb.” It helps my mind get back to a positive place and resets the comedy heart to deal with the career again.
Enjoy your comedy journey and happy bombing.