Ten years ago I got an email from a man I had performed with during a variety showcase. This guy criticized my act and condescendingly told me how he could have done it better because of his “years of experience” and “expertise”.

At the time I was just trying shit out onstage in hopes of getting better and finding my voice. I was young. I had no direction or style. I barely had any stage time under my belt. I was just minding my own business and here was this guy invading my inbox with his “holier than thou” attitude.

I was devastated. And upset…and angry…and shocked. So I spent the next 24 hours crafting the perfect response, sent it off, and thought to myself: “That’ll show him.”

I never heard back. But that guy’s words echoed in my brain, haunting me for weeks afterwards. And gradually I started to make changes to my show just to move on and get that email out of my head.

Even though his ideas were horrible and I didn’t have to prove myself to that guy, it still bothered me enough that I went out of my way to appease a person I’ve only seen one night in my entire life. Unbelievable.

Flash forward to this summer and a similar experience…

An audience member emailed me to give some unsolicited advice about my show. He was cordial but slightly demeaning, telling me that I shouldn’t do certain things because he didn’t like it.

My first instinct was to laugh. Seriously, who emails a performer to tell them to change their act? If I don’t like something I just move on and assume it wasn’t for me to begin with…

After that, I started thinking about how to respond. I needed to be firm, but polite. I wanted to hold my ground and explain myself. But then I caught myself and had a wonderful realization: “I don’t owe this guy anything.”

I realized that it was a horrible decision to let one person dictate the direction of my show. No single person should have a say in my material, my wardrobe, my style, or my approach to performance. The only person who decides where I’m going is me.

It took me a decade of shows and thousands of comments, messages, calls, and e-mails to understand that, but when that thought came into focus it was crystal clear:

“No one else gets to determine the direction I’m going in.”

As I was sitting at my desk, pondering that email, another alert came in. It was another email, from a different audience member who had been at the same exact performance. She wrote:

I was at your Friday night show. I was visiting my in-laws and suggested an adult night out for the six of us for dinner and your show. I was slightly nervous planning this evening, because what if the show was a flop?!?! The most difficult to please person said to me on the way out, “this was a winner.” Yay for you and me!! Ha ha! I loved that you got so many people involved in your show, made it personal and interactive. You are witty and engaging and I was sad when it ended! Days later and we are still talking about your act. Well done. I’ll have my eye out for you to come to my area. Best of luck with your career - you do fantastic work!

Talk about perfect timing. That was all I needed to hear to know that I was on the right path.

Oh, and I only responded to one of those emails…but I’m sure you put that together already.

Other Thoughts:

  • Comedian Gary Gulman has been sharing brilliant tips of twitter all year. (Coincidentally as I was working on this post this week he posted this tweet. Glad to see I was thinking on the same page as one of the greats.) If you’re looking to be a better writer/performer or just enjoy good stand up, you should probably go follow him.

  • All upcoming shows are posted here.

  • Are you subscribed on YouTube? I have some awesome video projects coming up soon.

  • Here’s a killer photo from a gig last week at Stony Brook University in Long Island:

Move On

Fact: The more you put yourself out there, the more criticism you will receive.

Some of that criticism will be useful. It will be helpful and needed. It will make you think and make you work harder. It will make you better.

But the other criticism? That will be nothing but negativity. It will be from people who don’t get what you’re doing and make no attempts to try. Call them haters, naysayers, your parents, whatever. They will knock you down because they can and nothing you do will ever please them.

Not all criticism is useful. I’ve had bad reviews, poor feedback, and negative comments that bothered me for days.  I didn’t learn anything from them. They didn’t help me improve my craft. They didn’t inspire me to better myself. If anything, they just made me feel horrible.

Once I was even greeted by a reviewer before the show who was very clearly not excited to be attending.

“I hate magic shows,” they told me.

I was on edge for the entire performance, worried they were going to give me a horrible review. Luckily they were kind with the write-up, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

One reviewer wrote that “Mark Toland is at the top of his game” and my show is a “MUST SEE” only to give me 4 out of 5 stars. It was good to know that when I’m at my best, it’s still only an 80%.

Honestly, I don’t care about the reviews. It’s nice to have a pull-quote or an award or a five star rating to add to the poster, but that’s not why I’m onstage.

I’m doing a show for other people. It’s entertainment. I want people to be completely enthralled for my entire performance. I don’t want them looking at their watch or texting their friends. I don’t want them coughing or shifting in their seats. I want their undivided attention so I can transport them somewhere else for an hour.

That’s not to say that a below-average review doesn’t affect me. It absolutely does! But I’ve learned how to deal with criticism so I can move forward and keep progressing in my career.

Negative feedback is expected and uncontrollable. The more you put yourself out there, the more you forge your own path; the more criticism you should expect to receive.

If you’re doing it right then you’re going to stir the pot. You’re going to provoke a wide range of reactions. The best thing you can do is to not respond.

No matter what happens, don’t acknowledge your criticism. Don’t complain, don’t argue, don’t fight fire with fire. There’s no need to go on a tweetstorm or write a long rant on your fan page. That looks petty and unprofessional.

I’ve faced more rejections than I can remember, been turned down on more projects than I can name. For every gig I’m booked for, another 20 events go in a different direction. But I refuse to let those failures keep me from succeeding.

Ignore the criticism. Shake it off or find someone you can vent to in private. Then move on and get back to work.