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6 Comedians on Their Most Embarrassing Bombs

And how they feel about them now

05.05.17
comedians feature may 2017 man repeller

 

We all fuck up from time to time, but for comedians, fuckups are much more acute and immediate. They know they’re bombing as they’re bombing and so does everyone else. Comedy is an industry notorious for putting its most celebrated names through decades of awkward silences; bombing battle scars are practically a rite of passage. Anyone who gets through it is a hero, if you ask me. That said, I can’t think of anyone better suited to laugh it the fuck off.

I asked six stand-ups and comedy writers to tell me about their most memorable bombs. I was curious (and just straight-up nosey) to hear how they think about them now, having gained successful footholds in the industry. Their stories are equal parts heartwarming and hilarious, but above all, they’re a helpful reminder that we’re not defined by our mistakes. Or better put: we are. I think that’s comforting.


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Marina Cockenberg
Marina is the Director of Digital for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and has been in comedy for eight years.

Tell me about a standout memory from earlier in your career that still makes you cringe or laugh or both.

At my first job in comedy, I was approached by my boss with the opportunity to be a part of a stand-up showcase at SXSW. I was feeling very “say yes to the universe!” and agreed, only casually mentioning that I had never done stand-up before in my life.

I’d grown up performing theater and had some experience writing and acting on the web. I assumed that stand-up would be natural amalgamation of the two. I jotted down some funny stories I thought I had and got ready for my stand-up debut with a kind of naive positivity I refer to now as “sweet baby idiot.”

I walked onstage and immediately starting bombing. Any place I had hoped for laughs during my bathroom mirror rehearsals was met with complete silence. The single “ha!’ I got was when in a moment of pure panic, I made a weird face at the end of the joke. I had always been confident onstage, but within 45 seconds I was red, sweaty and my entire body was violently shaking.

How did it feel at the time and how does it make you feel now?

I was mortified. I walked off the stage and directly to the nearest bathroom stall, where I called my mom crying. I hadn’t expected to tear the roof off, but I had gone into the experience feeling like comedy was something I was good at. Now I thought, “Am I actually…terrible at this?”

It’s more of a comedy battle scar now, because I see the mistakes. I was truly bad. And while it’s great to embrace opportunities, you don’t get points for running off the cliff. I could have asked for help. I could have prepared by going to open mics in the city. I could have invested in a parachute.

What does that moment mean to you in hindsight?

I’m thankful for that moment now. You’re not going to make it through comedy, or life, without a little gut-punching embarrassment. Once you’ve bombed, that looming prospect of failure feels less intimidating. You can work harder and get stronger and keep going. You already failed. You’ll fail again, but you’ll be okay.


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Hallie Cantor
Hallie is a comedy writer and has worked on projects like Netflix’s Lady Dynamite, Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer and NBC’s Maya & Marty. She’s been in comedy for six years.

Tell me about a standout memory from earlier in your career that still makes you cringe or laugh or both.

After my freshman year of college, I interned at CollegeHumor, the comedy site where I’d later work for years and make great friends and write a lot of comedy I’m proud of. At the time, though, I was 18 and EXTREMELY socially awkward and nervous around all the cool and funny writers in their 20s (as opposed to now when I am only VERY socially awkward and nervous.)

I also had no idea how to write a comedy article. Here’s one of the first ones I wrote during my internship. You can kind of see what I was going for, but it’s all over the place and just not that funny. And I was definitely trying too hard to match the bro-y tone of the site at that time, instead of writing in my own voice.

Anyway, I was devastated when the commenters ripped me apart with scathing comments (which have sadly since been deleted) like “meh” and “you look like Lance Bass.”

How did it feel at the time and how does it make you feel now?

It felt terrible! Now I can laugh at it, because I am much better at writing jokes. I still probably look just as much like Lance Bass as I ever did though. But that’s okay! He is a handsome man!!!

What does that moment mean to you in hindsight?

I’d like to say it taught me not to care about the comments, but that’s wishful thinking. If anything, complaining with the other interns about the comments showed me that being vulnerable can help you connect. It also showed me how valuable feedback from more experienced writers can be. Taking advice from the older writers I was afraid of took my articles from “embarrassingly bad” to “solidly adequate” by the end of the summer. It was probably the start of my understanding that writing is a craft that you can keep sharpening your whole life.


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Mary Houlihan
Mary is a comedian, artist and animator.

Tell me about a standout memory from earlier in your career that still makes you cringe or laugh or both.

When I first started doing comedy, I was of the belief you need to perform 10,000 hours, go to four open mics a night and perform as much as possible in nightmare venues to get good FAST! I was also living with my parents at the time — it was, just in general, a very cool time — so not only would I take New Jersey Transit into the city every day, I’d also go to any weirdo comedy night at like, some rando bar on Route 17 or whatever.

I did a stand-up contest at a movie theater in Orange County, New York where the prize was just to perform at the movie theater again. I did another contest at an Irish pub where, at 23 years old, I was the youngest person competing by a solid 15 years. Another time I performed at an Italian restaurant in Haledon, New Jersey and got paid $20 plus a big plate of eggplant parmigiana over linguine. There too, I was 20 years younger than the other comedians, and 60 years younger than most of the audience. I remember there was a guy performing that night whose stage name was “Johnny Hollywood.” I googled him just now and there is another Johnny Hollywood who seems really nice, so I don’t want to slander his name. Let’s just say that this Johnny Hollywood was very alpha, and giving everyone at our table pointers. I told him he should check out some of the open mics in the city, and he told me that real stand-up doesn’t happen in NYC, which I just don’t think is true. The host was very nice though, and the eggplant parm was magnifico.

How did it feel at the time and how does it make you feel now?

I remember that, even at really bad shows, I was still determined and felt confident I was getting better. I feel grateful now that there’s more of a scene for the kind of stuff I do, and that I’ve found my voice. It’s cool that I used to be someone who desperately performed for pasta and now I put on my own shows and people want to come to them.

What does that moment mean to you in hindsight?

It is cool that I cared so much, but I feel like I could have made better use of my time if I wasn’t so focused on this weird macho mythology about how to get good at stand-up by working every kind of room. At the end of the day, I want to be able to do whatever the hell I want on stage, and I’m very okay with the fact that it’s not gonna be everyone’s cup of tea.


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Blair Socci
Blair has been a stand-up comedian for five years. Check out her monthly show Nacho Bitches with Corinne Fisher at New York Comedy Club on May 26th at 11:15 pm.

Tell me about a standout memory from earlier in your career that still makes you cringe or laugh or both.

Okay, so one of the worst bombs I’ve ever had was at Bar Matchless when I was about two years into comedy and doing the show for the first time. Matchless is Michael Che’s old weekly show with Nimesh Patel and Mike Denny. It’s one of those cool, New York shows I had always wanted to do. Anyway, it can be a difficult room with a polite, listen-y type of Greenpoint crowd. As soon as I got on stage and started telling my jokes, it was just immediate silence. And at that point, I didn’t have enough experience to change it up and try to get them with crowd work, so I just panicked and kept going full steam ahead with my material, like Thelma and Louise when they drive the car off the cliff to their death. What a nightmare!

How did it feel at the time and how does it make you feel now?

Oh man, I was so mortified. I thought I was gonna cease to exist! I legit wanted to set myself on fire. I just remember there being a whole line of dude comedians in the back watching and in my petrified head I was like, “They’re probably loving seeing me bomb!” Which is a crazy thought to have because everyone bombs but, in fairness, a dude I had just ended things with was there that night and I could truly feel the joy and satisfaction pulsing off of his body. You’d have thought he just won the lottery. He was jubilant!

Looking back on it, it’s funny how serious you think these things are at the time but then you learn that none of it really matters because you have a million more sets ahead. Now that I’m more comfortable as a comic, my friends and I can laugh at each other when we’re bombing (unless it’s like a late-night set or audition or something, that would suck big time). I had a bomb the other night that was so bad I just kept thinking about how hard my friends would have been laughing if they had been there to see the carnage.

What does that moment mean to you in hindsight?

I would say that moment shaped me in that I never want to perform in front of someone who has seen me naked ever again. JK. Every bomb shapes you. Every failure makes you stronger and wiser in all facets of life. If you’re not bombing at all, you’re not a good comic because you aren’t taking any risks or trying anything cool. If you’re bombing all the time, you’re also not a good comic. You suck and should quit. JK again. The goal is to have a high success rate mixed with a few inevitable bombs that are unavoidable because you’re pushing yourself and trying to grow. It’s also important to try to not operate from a place of fear. Every time I bomb, it makes me work harder and really assess what I need to improve on. You gotta bomb sometimes bitch!


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Shalewa Sharpe
Shalewa has been a comedian for eight years. You can follow her @silkyjumbo and check out her album “Stay Eating Cookies” on iTunes (or Amazon, Spotify, Pandora or SiriusXM).

Tell me about a standout memory from earlier in your career that still makes you cringe or laugh or both.

I started doing comedy in Atlanta, which sometimes meant telling jokes in places that weren’t built for jokes. God bless the general manager of any sports bar who looked around a half-filled room and thought, “Yeah, stand-up comedy during the playoffs is a good idea.” So many levels of delusion.

I was doing a show at a sports bar located in the outer reaches of metro Atlanta. I’m not sure if it was playoff time, but the game was definitely more important to most of the patrons. The producer managed to get the television in our section turned off. There were people facing the stage and ordering food. Things were looking good.

The first couple of comedians performed and the audience seemed to not like them. I could only go by the way the audience ignored the comics and talked loudly amongst themselves. After a while, it was my turn. I hit the stage as the hot wings hit the table. Somehow, I was ignored HARDER than everyone else. I kept talking, because that’s what I was supposed to do.

Suddenly, a few people laughed. Then more people. I got excited. They weren’t laughing at the expected times — like at punchlines — but they were still laughing! Then somebody pointed behind me. I turned around. There was a kitten crawling out of the speaker.

The show producer used his own PA system, which he stored in his garage. Also in his garage was a litter of kittens. One of the kittens climbed into a speaker and (I’m assuming) slept all day until halfway through my crappy set.

The audience loved it. I made a half-hearted pussy joke and got my first laugh of the night. At the end of the show, the host announced that the producer’s wife had found a home for the kitten and the audience cheered.

How did it feel at the time and how does it make you feel now?

I felt utterly defeated. I kept saying, “What am I doing? Like, for real, what am I doing?” And to be honest with you, I don’t know if I currently have the skills to deal with a kitten in a speaker.

What does that moment mean to you in hindsight? Do you feel like it shaped your career or who you are at all?

At that time in my comedy life, all of my jokes were METICULOUSLY planned, so I was unable to “go with the flow,” as it were. Since then, I’ve done many shows where I had to rely on my wits. I enjoy doing that. In some way, this helped me get looser, when has helped my joke writing. I can’t be sure if it has shaped me. I am a baby in this stand-up game; everything I encounter is shaping me. But I’d like to think I’d come up with a better “pussy” joke now.


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Giulia Rozzi
Giulia Rozzi has been a comedian for 12 years. Listen to her podcast, Hopefully We Don’t Break Up.

Tell me about a standout memory from earlier in your career that still makes you cringe or laugh or both.

It was my first time emcee-ing on a road gig. There were three shows and, while the first two were great, the audience just didn’t like me at the third. At the end of my set, when I said: “You all ready for a fun night?,” an older man yelled, “I will be once she gets off the stage!” I lost it. I started making nonsensical jokes about how I was going to follow him and his wife to their hotel and tell them jokes all night. Then I realized he had a hearing aide and he’d been whispering to his wife and hadn’t meant for me to hear him. Worst part was, I had to get back on stage 20 minutes later to intro the headliner.

How did it feel at the time and how does it make you feel now?

It felt shitty, especially because I lost my cool. Now I laugh at the memory — it’s nice to see growth.

What does that moment mean to you in hindsight? Do you feel like it shaped your career or who you are at all?

I learned to not ever blame the audience. Sometimes a crowd is going to connect with you and sometimes they aren’t, but it’s the comic’s job to entertain, not blame and shame. I think a lot of comedians experience this when they start. But eventually you realize you just have to keep trying to win them over. And if you can’t? Gracefully accept that not everyone is going to like you.

Photos by Edith Young.

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  • Abby

    Slightly related story that I assume is part of some comedians embarrassing moments: I was once walking down the street and speaking to my husband at a perfectly normal, not loud volume about how, while I appreciate the guts it takes to try to make a room full of people laugh professionally, I don’t generally find stand up funny and wouldn’t want to attend a stand up show with him. I mentioned that a stand up comedian has never made me actually laugh out loud.

    A random stand up comedian who was I guess walking behind us? literally chased me down to tell me how wrong I am and that she could change my mind if we went to her show that night. She went ON and ON about it when I was just trying to get my starving ass to brunch.

    We did not go to the show. I do not like being randomly accosted by strangers and now dislike stand up even more. I deeply enjoyed this article, though!

  • Kattigans

    If I were to come back in a next life, I would want to be a standup comedian. I love Louie C.K and his show Louie. Just the general spirit of that show, with Louie performing and sometimes losing out on the audience, is so good. I can think of so many stories I’ve heard or moments in life where I’m like this scene needs to be written about. I wish I had that talent.

  • H.

    Ironic how ‘unfunnily’ these stories have been retold. With a few exceptions, these are just rehashing the ‘plot’ of a story. Humour and insight are most delicious when they get to the overlapping motives and reflection. Give me some human truth! The funniest part was your idea for this story Haley. You’re super funny! Do you ever think about writing a novel? Funny writing is such an art and it is definitely one of your gifts.

  • Patty Carnevale

    “sweet baby idiot” is so dead on and, as with all eloquent human truths, should be a nail polish color.

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