magician

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:

Failure

My first big performance was a huge disappointment.

I was in first grade when I found out they were holding auditions for the school talent show. They shouldn’t have made the announcement in the morning because I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. All I could think about was getting to do magic in front of the whole school.

I remember bursting through my front door and calling to my dad, “I’m going to try out for the talent show! Will you help me practice?”

He helped me read the rules for the audition, then we pulled some tricks from my shelf of magic props and headed downstairs. He plopped down on the couch and patiently watched me as I stumbled through my makeshift performance.

I had asked my friend Tim to perform with me. He was the only other person I knew who liked magic as much as I did. So we worked on our tricks nonstop, hoping we would get a spot in the talent show.

A week later, I packed my props into my backpack and left for school. The big day had arrived. I was more nervous than I’d ever been before.

All of the hopeful performers were ushered into the gymnasium. We sat in clusters around the room as each of our names were called. People sang and danced and hula-hooped and did skits. I heard the other students playing outside and wondered what my friends were doing. For a split second I zoned out - and then:

“Up next are Mark and Tim, the magicians!”

I heard my name and suddenly I couldn’t stop shaking. Luckily, I had my friend Tim to back me up. We walked to the front and began our performance.

Our showstopper was a numbers trick. I wish I could remember the exact trick but I’ve mostly forgotten. All I know is that when I went to reveal our prediction, my principal just looked up at us with complete disappointment.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t my number.”

We were crushed.

Something had gone wrong with the trick. I had failed in front a hundred other students and embarassed myself. When they called the final acts, our names weren’t on the list.

When I got home, I shoved my props on the shelf and swore I hated magic. I told my dad I didn’t want to do any tricks ever again. When I calmed down and wiped the tears away, I went outside and shot some hoops to calm down.

Then I heard a voice. It was my dad saying I had a phone call.

I walked inside, said hello, and was surprised to hear my principal’s voice on the other end.

“Mark, I have an apology to make. I messed up your trick. When I got home from school I tried it again and realized I made a mistake. You were right and I don’t know how you did it!”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We want you and Tim to be in the talent show. Can you guys do that?”

Of course I said yes, then hung up. I’m sure I screamed at the top of my lungs or something of the sort. All of our practice had paid off.

Not only did we get to be part of the talent show, but we actually ended up getting to be a featured act at the entrance of the school. As everyone entered for the show Tim and I were there in the lobby doing tricks for anyone who would watch. It was easily the greatest night of the first six years of my life.

If it wasn’t for my dad’s encouragement or my principal’s phone call, I might not be writing this essay. You might not be reading this post. And I might not be a professional mind reader.

Some of life’s lessons are intuitive, some are learned, and some are just downright lucky. I’m not sure where this one falls, but what I do know is that it’s impossible to fail if you never quit.

Mark and Tim's Magic Show.jpg

The Tour Is Over

That’s it. The tour is over.

I performed 35 shows at six festivals in six cities and two countries. Plus, I also performed the show another 30 times in Chicago to get it ready. 

So, what did I learn?

First, I can do this. All on my own, without a manager or agent or publicist. I consistently sold out theaters and built buzz without a big budget or team behind me. That’s how the best shows at fringe festivals do it. They have a good product and they work tirelessly to get the word out. 

Second, this is exhausting. There was a stretch this summer when I didn’t sleep more than two hours a night for over 10 days. Albeit, I was leaving festivals in the middle for corporate gigs then returning to finish my run. But, my insomnia was at an all-time high and I struggled to stay rested. Coffee remains my best friend.

Also, I found the show. It was like the statue of David, encased in stone waiting to be chiseled away and revealed. (Although, it isn’t remotely close to being a Michelangelo-level-masterpiece but I really like the metaphor.)

Somewhere between New York City and Orlando, I found the message. It’s not a mind reading show - it’s a show about mind reading. Over time it’s become a manifesto for everything I believe in, using mind reading and storytelling to express a single idea.

Some people got it, many did not. I learned not to worry about reviews because most writers didn’t understand. As long as the review was positive it would help fill the seats, even if they weren’t fully capturing the essence of the performance. I realized that once I sent an idea out into the world it stopped belonging to me. And I had to be content knowing that I had done my best to express myself, even if no one got the point.

Another thing I learned is that it’s easy to get pigeon-holed at a festival. You have to choose a performance genre because people want to know what to expect. But if you aren’t careful, people can get confused in a hurry.

So often the press would insist on calling it a “magic show”, even though I never use that expression. I could sense that the only way to get people to see my show was to choose the “magic” category, even though it was clouding the expectations of my audience. People would come expecting a standard magic show and I did my best to convince them they were seeing something unique and better.

Common feedback was something along the lines of “I usually don’t like magic shows but this one is different!” followed by a solid recommendation. That comment taught me two things:

1. I’m on the right track.
2. Too many magicians have similar shows and haven’t worked hard enough to appeal to a broader demographic.

Recently a performer was discussing a (in my opinion) cheesy prop online. HIs comment was “There’s a time and place for everything. I try to give the audience what they want.

I prefer to do the opposite.

I think about what I want to do and I consider what I want to say. Then I write my show to convey my own personal truth. The hardest part is convincing the audience it’s what they wanted all along.

By the end of the tour, the show was doing exactly that. My audiences were raving and I ended up winning a total of five awards in the process, including “Best of Fringe” (NYC), “Audience Choice” (NYC), “Pick of Fringe” (Orlando), “Critics Choice” (Portland, ME),  and “Outstanding Magic or Mentalist Performance” (San Diego).

I feel like all the rehearsing and writing and traveling and performing and dreaming finally paid off. I’ve spent the better part of the last several years crafting this show from the ground up and I’m so proud of it. But it’s time to bid it farewell.

I have other things to say and more, possibly better, ideas. If I don’t explore them now and force myself to create something else then I’ll never grow as an artist. I don’t want to settle for something just because it works. I want to evolve and change onstage, just as I do in the real world. 

So, I’m already writing the next show and will be presenting it for the first time at the Chicago Fringe Festival in two months. Then I’m taking the show on the road.

For as long as I can remember my biggest goal has been to do a full-blown theatre tour around the U.S. I’d like to say it’s time to check that goal off the list but I’m not ready for that just yet.

The end of this tour is only the beginning.