The worst feeling I ever had onstage

I've bombed plenty of times. But the worst feeling I ever had onstage was during a set at a show about a year ago. I went up last and had a few drinks before going up onstage. It was a small room, loose set. I decided to abandon my set list and wander.

Was going ok when I decided to go into a longer, personal bit I have. Got to the end and told the big payoff line, a callback to a joke I did earlier in the night. I leaned into the punch and waited for the laughs.


Then I realized something. I never told the other joke earlier in the night. I was doing a callback to a joke this crowd had never heard. Whoops. Tried to come right out and explain the gaffe. "That joke works a lot better when I tell the earlier joke that..." Just dug a bigger hole. I escaped alright but felt like a schmuck inside.

I usually try not to drink too much before sets and shit like that is why. I also vowed to be more vigilant about callbacks after that. My sets change so much that I don't do a ton of 'em. But now I always try to make sure I get the "establishing" joke in early.

(One benefit to that: I've noticed there's a sweet spot for callbacks. If the original joke and the callback are too close together, they don't get as big a laugh. The audience needs to forget about the line for a bit so it's more of an a-ha moment when you bring the line back.)


Anonymous said...

I was just thinking about this type of thing after my set Sunday night at Bar 4. I definitely had a few too many drinks in me and I didn't properly explain or verbalize some of my jumping-off points, then my take on those things just seemed weird because the metaphors weren't clear. It was a good reminder (for me) to take it easy on the drinks pre-show.


Abbi Crutchfield said...

I was NOT drunk, but choked so bad I started crying on stage. RG Daniels is my witness. I don't think any of you can top that.

Josh Homer said...

Why do comics drink on the job?

Matt Ruby said...

Josh, perhaps it is because they like to drink?

Also, some people are more fun/interesting/looser after a couple of drinks. I don't buy the school of thought that everyone should always perform 100% sober. Stanhope = Exhibit A.

Josh Homer said...

but most comics are not Stanhope, not even close. There are some comics who can be great drunk, like Yannis. Those are exceptions, not the rule.

Matt Ruby said...

True. My .02: If your set is about precision and exact wording, drinking is a bad idea. If it's about being loose and in the moment, it might be alright.

Anonymous said...

Plenty of people drink before they go on and normally it's not a problem. I drink because I work 9-6, then take the train and fight crowds to get to whatever show, so by the time I get there, I need something to loosen me up and transition me into after-work mode. Same reasons a lot of people have a martini or glass of wine after work.

Abbi, did you seriously cry on stage? Holy crypes that's brutal. I'd love to hear the story, though.

odinaka said...

"I realized something. I never told the other joke earlier in the night."


This happened to me not too long ago so the memory is straight hilarious now. Very painful then. Thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

I don't get the fascination with callbacks. I think callbacks only work when the referencing joke and the joke being referenced are both earth shakingly hilarious and they have a genuine connection with each other. Oftentimes I feel like comics are forcing a reference with a previous joke just to look clever.

As for drinking on stage, 3rd hand gossip tells me that a lot of comedy clubs won't book Stanhope because if he doesn't drink the exact right amount, he can't do the stream of consciousness comedy he is known for. He either gets too drunk and acts like an idiot, or he doesn't get drunk enough and open up enough.

So that's what I know.

My name's Josh Guarino said...

I've had some amazing sets after a few drinks and some horrible ones when I was completely sober. I usually like a drink or two before a set, but I wouldn't say it definitely affects my set one way or another.

That said, we have one of the few careers were you can drink on the job. So let's tip glasses with the musicians and poets and air traffic controllers of the world and enjoy our unique freedom.

Or not. Seltzer is good too.

(Just not for me.)

Kent said...

Matt, the missed callback hasn't happened to me, but it sounds absolutely awful. I'm sure some of us know the (apocryphal?) story of the headliner in a similar situation.

-Feature act riffs on the background skyline, points to a building saying "I lost my virginity in that room."

-Headliner comes on stage, says "I fucked a kid in the ass in that room!" Audience loves it.

-The comedians also love the joke and do it every night EXCEPT

-The feature forgets on the last night, so the headliner goes up, unprompted, and starts his set by pointing to the painting and saying "I fucked a kid in the ass in that room!"... to silence.

Anyway, the worst feeling I've ever had is the long bomb. I know we've all bombed, but for how long? I once did a 30 minute set to occasional titters while my cousin who was visiting from out of town sat uncomfortably in the front row. There's really nothing like the realization, 3 minutes in, that the next 27 are going to be no different.

Richard said...

I'm curious as to why you would have a joke whose setup sounds pretty long and whose punchline is entirely dependent on a different joke.

Matt Ruby said...

Richard, it is a storytelling-ish bit. (Someone recently told me it seemed similar to something Birbigs might do.) Thus there are many punchlines along the way. It was just the last one at the end that relies on the callback. It's a good way to push the whole thing over the top.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ Kent: LOL at the term, "Long bomb". The next time that happens, I'm going to write a blog post called Long Bomb Silver.

@ Selena: I was buckling under the pressure of a set that was my last before an upcoming road gig--a gig that would be the 2nd feature spot I had ever had in my life. I was way too relaxed about it, not having created or memorized a set list (I'm soon to be paid! I'm the big time). The first few minutes in I started to get frustrated for flubbing words. Then I told groups of jokes out of order. Then I got pissed at not remembering how to tell a certain joke. A siren outside was followed by an unclever ad-lib, then back to me floundering to silence. I bent forward at the waist, and when I stood back up I was crying. The last thing you see on the tape is me begging, "Turn the camera off!" (Did I say tape? There is no tape). Jeremy Schachter followed and said, "You'll be fine. But whatever you do at the club, don't do THAT again!"

The club gig went fine.

myq said...

There's a difference between drinking and being drunk, also.

It's just important to be aware of your personal prime operating situation, regarding number of drinks, or anything else (like amount of tears to shed on stage).

@Anonymous regarding callbacks:
The fascination with callbacks is that when they're good, they can be great.
The downside is that when they're forced, they can seem forced.
(Like anything, good riffing is enjoyable, bad riffing is boring. Good jokes are positive, bad jokes make people feel bad.)
Both Attell's album and more recent HBO special have specific callbacks throughout that really work. Because Attell is great.

In conclusion, sometimes drinking isn't a problem.

PS I fucked that building's ass.
Call-back-door action!

Anonymous said...

I'll spare you the details, but let's just say that outdoor gigs in the middle of the afternoon are not the greatest environment for comedy... especially, when there are only 25 people in the "audience"... and all of them are comedians... and you go on first... and you are directly under a flight path for the airport next door (if you think a cell phone ringing in the middle of your set is annoying, try having your punchline stepped on by a jet engine coming in for that long, slow burn landing)... there was also a sign at the front of the building reminding patrons that they could not bring firearms onto the premises... I probably should have just turned around and went home right then but I figured, "What the hell... we all end up with these stories sooner or later." At least, I went home and wrote a joke about the experience so... good times... that's the magic of comedy... also, I would like to point out that the "captcha" word for this post was "cringer"... that sums it up pretty well.

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