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.
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: