The checklist I go through during shitty sets

Had the hardest bomb I've had in a while the other night. Sucked. Someone in the back even yelled out "No one's laughing!" Oh, thanks for the update.

Felt terrible. But on the subway ride home I started going over what happened and what I shoulda done differently. And I started feeling like I had done what I could do, ya know? You can't always control the outcome, but you can control the process. And I felt like my damage control steps were what they should have been.

In my defense, it wasn't exactly an ideal room. Some people up front were there for the show but in the back was a chatty birthday party of 12 or so people who were there to celebrate, not watch comedy.

And I knew it was going to be rough as soon as I got there. Host had a tough time. Then first comic did ok but he was loud and yelling and that's just not my style. Then it was my turn.

I was gonna try new stuff but beforehand I decided to go with topics I thought would be most relatable to the room. And I told my quickest jokes. If I was gonna go down, I was gonna go down firing. Nothing worse than telling long, drawn out setups as you feel the air slipping out of the room.

Still, it wasn't going well. The "No one's laughing!" came from the birthday party in the back. I responded with something like:

No one's laughing because I can't tell jokes because you guys won't stop talking. See comedy needs the audience to pay attention too. And this kinda feels like trying to have sex with someone who keeps checking their watch the whole time.

And that actually got a round of applause from the people upfront. The people who aren't talking are the ones who always seem happiest when you try to shut down the yappy members of the crowd. They're on your side because it's their best chance at a good show.

I went back to bits but it was still awkward. I switched to my A material at that point. Still struggled. When A doesn't work, not much else you can do. So I moved on to crowdwork. Didn't go anywhere either. I admitted it was going poorly and got a laugh off that. Hung on for a couple more minutes and finished up.

It still felt like shit. But at least I pulled out every tool I had in my belt. Made me realize I have a subconscious checklist I go through during shitty sets:

1. Are you telling the right jokes for this crowd? If yes and it's not working...
2. Are you telling fast jokes? If yes and it's not working...
3. Are you trying your A material? If yes and it's not working...
4. Are you addressing the situation (i.e. it's not going well) honestly? If yes and it's not working...
5. Are you trying crowdwork? If yes and it's not working...
6. Do whatever the fuck you want.


Danny Solomon said...

I like to skip to #6.

ECN said...

I stop at 3. (Maybe 4... I don't know what exactly you mean by that.) Anything beyond that has the potential to sabotage the NEXT comic's attempt to turn the room around. You have to let the next guy take a crack at it...

Max Reisman said...

I loved this.

Josh Homer said...

"Are you telling the right jokes for this crowd?"

I thought the pros like Rock, CK tell their jokes and bring the crowd on board with them. Trying to please the crowd by adjusting who you are is going to be bad no matter what, if you can't win them by being yourself you can't win them by trying to be what they want.

Derrek Carter said...

Perfect post! Bombing sucks, but it feels SLIGHTLY better when you know you did all you could

Odinaka said...

@Josh I was reading that more as just choosing specific jokes for the audience which is different from changing who you are.

Different audiences resonate with certain jokes more than others so choosing the right one for the crowd can help cut through alot of awkward moments.

At the end of the day you're not sacrificing who you are cuz it's still your material, just showing a different side of yourself.

But that's my read. Can't speak for Matt

myq said...

Regarding the question of telling the "right jokes for this crowd" vs. "bringing the crowd on board" to whatever you want to do...

If you're doing a ten minute set, and you have thirty minutes of material, then you necessarily have to choose which ten minutes of your thirty minutes you're going to do. The crowd shouldn't be the ONLY determining factor of which jokes you do, but it's certainly not problematic to take them into consideration.

It's not adjusting who you are, it's picking which parts of who you are that you want to showcase in the time you have to the people that are there.

E.g. If the crowd seems older and wouldn't recognize some newer pop culture material, do you "not compromise your integrity" and do it anyway, because that's who you are?

I'm certainly not saying to pander. Don't WRITE jokes only because of what you think audiences will like. But when a show goes like this, certainly most of us will think "what is the best joke of MINE that I can use in this situation?"

PS Louis CK and Chris Rock don't really have to "bring the crowd on board with them" anymore, because they have cultivated crowds that bring themselves, already on board for the most part to start with.
And they deserve it, because obviously they worked hard to do what they do and make that happen. But when they were at the level where they were doing shows like Matt is talking about, do you not think that they would take the same options into consideration?

The job of comedian involves being true to yourself AND making people laugh. If one part of yourself doesn't make them laugh, why not try a different part of yourself?

PPS The self is ever-changing anyway. #philosophyandwe'reout

Sam Zayvan said...

I feel like if you're totally carpet bombing and nothing will get a laugh, your best bet is to just riff the entire set. Even if you're riffing is weak and the audience hates you, you will still have more fun than awkwardly doing material. Plus your riffing will be in the moment so that might wake the audience up.

myq said...

Sam, that might be your best bet to have the most fun, but it also might be appropriate to remember that just because the audience isn't laughing doesn't mean that some of the people there aren't enjoying what you're doing.

I'm sure many people have had sets that they thought went horribly, where audience members come up after and say how much they enjoyed it, so even if it seems like nothing is working, doing material can also still have the desired effect of enjoyment, if not laughter.

Not that I'm anti-riffing, or disagree that it's fun or can be productive in these situations as well. In fact, I just made up this whole response. Hope the audience likes it.

Phil said...

Is #4 a good idea? Seems like we comics always have the urge to say, "Wow, this is a huge pile of fail!" ...but as soon as we say that, at that point it DOES become a huge pile of fail.

I've done that, and afterwards comics will come up to me, "Phil, why did you get hard on yourself? It was going fine."

I know it's very un-ALT of us, but I'm thinking it's never good to remind the audience that the show is sucking.

myq said...

I think it's never a good idea to say never. I mean almost never! I mean almost not always!

Sometimes acknowledging a big pile of fail makes it more of one. Sometimes doing that makes it less of one, because it might provide a moment of honest connection with the audience who previously thought you didn't KNOW it was one. Now at least they think you're a decent judge of how things are going, if not a decent comedian. And that can be a foundation to build on.

I think Maron talked about this in one of his podcasts, where he described how he was bombing at Chevy Chase's roast, up until the point where he acknowledged it, at which point that did make a connection enough that he could have a decent rest of the set in his own fashion, salvaging it enough to be edited fine for broadcast. But afterwards, some old guard roast type dude chastised him for doing that, with the same kind of "never let them know you know it's not going well, even if they know."

I think it depends on lots of factors like who you are as a comedian, what the audience's actual experience is, what your actual understanding of what their and your experience is, etc. Probably more things. Is this comment going well? Yes!

Nailed it! Did I? Always! Sometimes? Done!

Phil said...

Or least maybe, you can do that ONCE per set.

If a joke goes bad, you comment about how it bombed, people laugh. If the set is going bad, you make fun of it once, people laugh.

But as soon as you do it a second, third time...it gets ugly. The audience gives you one get-out-of-jail card per set.

Matt Ruby said...

Is #4 a good idea? Seems like we comics always have the urge to say, "Wow, this is a huge pile of fail!" ...but as soon as we say that, at that point it DOES become a huge pile of fail.

Good point. I do think it's a trap that's easy to fall in. I've caught myself undermining sets/jokes in order to seem connected to the crowd in a "I get that didn't go well" kinda way but then afterwards wishing I had just said nothing and plowed through.

And I also think there are shows where the crowd may not be laughing but they're still having a good time but then you bring it all down by trying to be "real."

That said, when shit's going bad and you know it, I think it's worth coming out and saying it. Whenever there's a glaring truth in the room and you ignore it, it feels false to me. But I also wouldn't dwell on it. No one wants to hear a comic bitch for a long time about how it's not going well. Make a comment about it and then get on with trying to turn it around with riffing, crowdwork, more jokes, tap dancing, or whatever.

Matteson said...

I think the important thing about #4 is that it comes fourth. it should be a last resort (I'd maybe even put it after crowd work). Too many people go to #4 too quickly and that's when it works against you, instead of helping the situation. #4 shouldn't be used for sets that are just going a little poorly - that happens and isn't really worth commenting on. It should be saved for when the audience is so quiet you're actually worried a gas leak might have incapacitated them.

Anonymous said...

Great post, great comments.

Josh Homer said...

I think the one thing missing is "Did I connect with this crowd on any level? If not why and what can I do to remedy this?"

If you did not connect then none of the other things will work (crowd work, switching your jokes, addressing the situation).

Kara said...

This is an amazing post Matt!! Thanks for your honesty and thoughfulness. I know this is a year old discussion, but I just Googled comedian and checklist and found this. I'm putting together a "bomb proofing checklist." There are a number of components: environmental, emotional, material, memorization, contractual, etc.

This is for corporate or college gigs, more so than open mics, city spots. I've had hell gigs on the road and am learning from that.

Matt, have you addressed the environmental/logistical/contractual stuff elsewhere on your site? I looked and couldn't find anything.

I thought I'd share my list and see if anyone has ideas to add to it:

-preferred: straight stick mic stand (not the angled acoustic guitar MTV unplugged mic)
- good speakers (keynote speaker quality)
- no ceiling speakers
- confirm age range, gender makeup of audience (AND get idea of income level. I've gotten burned expecting MDs and lawyers and then found blue-collar/no-collar been-through-the-ringer-and-the state-pen crowd. i didn't have enough material/confidence to fully adjust!! Also once did a MOTHERS weekend at Ohio University. Had no idea it would be like have midwestern moms in audience. I would have left out drug and dark stuff.)
- any give-aways (raffle prizes, year-end bonuses) after comic
- no meals served during set - meals eaten, plates cleared by time comedian comes on
- no dance floor separating comic from audience
- chairs for audience (tables as well ideal - get the audience more comfy?)
- confirm expectations for material (clean? what special topics they are expecting?)

Matt Ruby said...

Haven't written that kinda post but there was this one:

Comedy Feng Shui: 10 things that ruin comedy shows

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