The Worst Bomb Of My Career

It was one of the worst shows of my career.

It just happened. Just within the past few weeks.

I bombed onstage so hard that you might have thought I’d never done this before. It was ROUGH.

I should have known that it was going to be a disaster from the moment I arrived at the venue. The sound system was broken, so there would be no microphone. The room originally planned for the show had a double booking, so my act was moved elsewhere. The organizers of the event seemed busy and distracted. All signs pointed to a horrible outcome.

The new room was full of distractions. Smoothies being made loudly opposite my performance area, multiple people coming in and out of the room, and large windows behind me with no blinds to shield the sun pouring in from outside.

But, the show must go on. So with no mic and no other choice, I started the show.

Fifteen minutes in and everything was going off the rails. No one was paying attention. People couldn’t hear me or they had an obstructed view. Try as I might, my theatrically trained voice just wasn’t loud enough to command the attention I so desperately needed. I was dying a slow and painful death in front of a room of strangers and still had 45 minutes to go.

I went through my set list in my mind, quietly crossing pieces out that just wouldn’t work in this scenario. “Nope, can’t do that one. Or that one. That won’t work. Oh man, this isn’t good…” I thought to myself, as I realized that I was very nearly out of options.

I looked up at the room. A handful of people were scattered around the area, none of them paying me any mind. And I thought to myself: “Wow, I’m bombing.

Suddenly, everything changed. The second I thought those words to myself: “Wow, I’m bombing” I knew that it was all okay.

Ask any professional entertainer and they’ll tell you they’ve bombed dozens (maybe hundreds) of times. It happens to the best of us. You don’t want it to happen, but it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen eventually and forcing myself to acknowledge it made me realize that everything was going to be all right.

In that moment, I decided to lean into it and “take the L”. I didn’t have another option, so I figured I would just make the most of it. So I started heckling myself…

“Well, this is going about as well as I thought it would!” I shouted into the void, hoping one of the 12 people in the room might respond. One guy snickered from the back, so I called out to him.

“This is the only guy laughing at my jokes…what’s your name, sir?”

“I’m Mike, but shouldn’t you know that since I’m your agent?” he joked.

Without missing a beat, I responded, “Mike, you need to get me some better gigs.”

Two other students laughed from the other corner. One of them yelled out, “Tough crowd!”

“Tough crowd?” I yelled back, “I don’t see a crowd anywhere.”

In that moment, I started to feel in control of the situation. I was still bombing, it was still embarrassing and painful to go through, but I was owning it. I was so aware of the moment that I was able to laugh at my predicament and not let it bother me.

“I’m glad to see my agent agreed to my demands to be here today. I said the only way I would do a show here was if it was in the middle of the day, on a Monday, with no microphone, and that at least 80% of the students had to be facing away from me and on their laptops.”

I almost lost my voice yelling that joke, but it was worth it. Over half the room looked up and laughed in unison. They could see that I was aware of what was happening and we were all in on the joke together.

I made a few more jokes, improvised some different material to finish my hour, then called it a day. I turned to pack up my gear and couldn’t stop laughing. I had bombed but I was still alive. I felt invincible.

As I turned back to grab some props, a student asked to take a picture. I agreed. Then I noticed a small line had formed. People wanted a photo or a poster or had a question for me. All things considered, they had actually enjoyed the show and wanted to let me know. Somehow, I had made a positive out of a negative.

If that show had happened ten years ago I would have spiraled into a deep depression for weeks, regretting my life choices and questioning my abilities as an entertainer. I wouldn’t have been able to laugh it off or find any positive things about it. It might have ended my career.

But now, one decade and hundreds of shows later, I’m glad it happened. I’m glad I bombed gracefully and it didn’t keep me up at night. In fact, once I drove away from that show I wasn’t even thinking about it. It was just another gig on the road to my final destination.

Twenty-four hours later, I was back in Chicago waiting to go onstage. I wasn’t thinking about bombing the day before or questioning my life choices. I was just there, lost in the moment, concentrating on my script and hoping to really connect with that night’s audience.

It was one of the best shows of my career.

Other Thoughts:

  • I love this story of the worst time Bill Burr ever bombed. I couldn’t help but think of it as I was going through it myself.

  • Starting tonight you can catch me at the Chicago Magic Lounge all weekend! Get your tickets here.

  • I’m thinking about starting a podcast. More info on that soon!

  • I spent two miles on my run last weekend wondering how mirrors are made. If you can make it through this stupid video intro, it’s actually pretty interesting.

  • Here’s a clip from a recent show at The Second City in Chicago. Check it out:


I love theatre.

I love the moment when the curtain goes up and a hush goes over the room. I love being transported to another place, escaping my fears and anxieties for a few hours. I love sharing a moment of catharsis with several hundred strangers whom I may never share a moment with ever again.

I love the work that goes into a show - the lighting and scenery and sound and choreography. I love the marquee and the proscenium and the playbill. I love my ticket stubs, all neatly filed away in a box of keepsakes.

I absolutely love theatre.

To me, the theatre is a sacred place. The world sucks a lot of the time but theatre can help us forget about that, if only for a moment. A beautiful performance can transcend barriers and cultural divides. Theatre brings us all together.

I dress up when I go to the theatre. Usually a suit and tie. I block out the night of the show on my calendar and count down the days to the big event. 

I make it my mission to see as much live theatre as possible. I drive to neighboring cities or extend my trips when possible to catch a performance. I even flew to Europe once just to see a show. I don’t want to grow old regretting that I never saw such-and-such actor or singer or comedian or show in person. So I keep buying tickets and I keep going because the theatre is a big freaking deal.

Or at least that’s how it used to be. But lately, I’ve noticed a different trend.

I saw Hamilton last week. Yes, THAT Hamilton. And yes, it was as magical and extraordinary and moving and enchanting as everyone says. It was INCREDIBLE.

I paid $500 a ticket to attend, too. I put a bunch of money aside just for those tickets and turned down work just so I could stay in Chicago to see it. I waited two freaking years to see that show and I freaking LOVED it.

But, there was a young lady next to me who kept looking at her phone and smartwatch during the show. Every few minutes she’d sneak a glance at her phone and I’d notice the glow out of the corner of my eye. It’s really hard to get transported back to 1776 when someone next to you is deciding between emojis.

Why would you pay over $500 for a ticket, only to spend half of the time on your phone?

Are the actors not trying hard enough for you? Is the award-winning score not good enough for you? Are the rave reviews and Tony Awards not enough? Were you not moved by the relevancy of the subject matter and how it connects to our current political climate? Were you not entranced by the use of modern sounds to tell the story of the American Revolution?

What will it take to get you to put your phone down for a couple hours? What will it take for you to be here - in this moment - living for the now?

Nearly every time I see a show someone in the audience ends up being disrespectful. I’m tired of late arrivals and loud talking and people on their phones and people dressing down. I’m tired of other people ruining my experience at the theatre. If nothing else, shut up and let everyone else have a good time.

Look, I’m as connected as they come. In my office I have an iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and iMac all next to my windows. I spend all day working online so I can spend my evenings doing something I love.

And what I love most is to be in the theatre, either onstage or off. So when I’m there I turn off my smartwatch and silence my phone because I’m there to get lost for a while. I’m there to be part of a one-of-a-kind experience that will never happen the same way again.

I love everything about the theatre. Please don’t ruin that for me.

The Right Person

I spend most of my show reading people. Not minds - people.

I’m constantly scanning the audience for the next volunteer. I need a person who is cooperative and seems friendly. They need to be helpful and able to follow instructions. It helps if they’re sober, too.

See, my show is not about me. It’s about you, the audience. I think of you as my cast, your thoughts as my props, and your mind as my stage. So I need to find the best volunteers to become supporting players in this production.

I don’t stop reading someone when they come onstage either. If anything, I’m watching them even more closely.

Are they uncomfortable? Or nervous? 

Am I respecting their boundaries?

Are they able to take a joke? Or did I just cross a line?

I’m always weighing those questions and catering my performance to their subconscious, subtle demands.

Then, I watch for the ultimate cue: Are they ready?

Are they ready for the moment? Have I taken them to a place where they are fully prepared to react?

Will they be amazed?

Then, and only then, will they be ready for the moment of wonder. These things take time, and it all comes down to being a good judge of people.

When it comes to the show, I can be a bit of a control freak. I’ll give you an example: 

During my tour this summer I hid somewhere in the theatre so I could watch people while they entered the room. In Florida, I paper clipped the curtains at an angle so I could peek thru a slit. In Ontario, I hid in the shadows to get a view of people as they took their seats. In San Diego, I widened a pre-existing hole in the drywall. I wanted to get an idea of what kind of audience I was working with before the show even began. 

There’s a point in my show where I try to find one of the smartest men in the room to participate. I want an engineer or architect, someone who is good with numbers and a bit cynical of the proceedings. It’s not supposed to be a challenge. It’s because I want the audience to witness a transformation.

The penultimate show of The Mystery Tour was also the best show of the entire tour. It was perfectly paced and the audience was with me every step of the way. One of the best parts was when I called on a man for the “transformative moment”.

I’d been watching this guy the whole show. He was clearly very smart and also extremely skeptical of what I was doing. It wasn’t a rude skepticism. It was a “I’ll-only-buy-it-if-it-happens-to-me” kind of vibe.

“What do you do for a living, sir?” I asked.

“I work in IT,” he replied.

I smiled to myself. After hundreds of shows, year after year, you just know these things.

The man took a seat onstage and I started to break down his barriers. My script is full of self-deprecating jokes and reassuring gestures to make sure my volunteer knows he is an equal and not an adversary.

Several minutes passed and we’d reached the point of no return: the moment of wonder. In rapid succession his guard dropped at roughly the same rate as his jaw. Then, he just started laughing to himself.

It was incredible. The audience had seen a jaded man walk onstage and visibly transform in front of their very eyes. It had all happened in under five minutes.

“Give him a big round of applause!” I said, shaking his hand as I led him back to his seat.

Under the cover of the applause he looked up at me and said “That was fucking insane.”

I wish I could put that quote on my website. In a way, I guess I am.

My title may be “Mind Reader” but the truth is, it really comes down to reading people. I’m not here to convince you of something supernatural or get you to buy into a new belief system. I’m just here to show you that maybe there’s something more to this than what you think. Maybe the world is just a little bit bigger or more mysterious than you thought it was before the curtain went up.

To do that I need the right person. And if you’re lucky, it might be you.