mentalism

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:

What's Next?

When I first moved to Chicago in 2011 I didn’t know anyone here. I spent the first year struggling to get my name out there and find gigs. It was a year of trial and error, with way more failures than successes.

For some reason, that autumn I decided to put together a run of shows at a small theatre near my apartment. I would be self-producing and performing four shows over four weeks. I spent hours canvassing the surrounding neighborhoods with posters and flyers, inviting strangers, and trying my best to get the word out.

But on opening night we only had 7 people in the audience. It was a massive disappointment. I was embarrassed and discouraged and began questioning everything that had led me to that point.

The next day, I got an email from WGN TV wanting to feature me on their morning show the following week. As a result, the next three shows were packed and I felt like I had gotten my first small break in Chicago.

It was also the first experience of many that taught me to push through a discouraging situation. From that moment on I’ve always remembered that when things get challenging there’s usually something positive waiting around the corner.

Since that first show I’ve produced a different run of shows every year since. Always a new show, always a new venue, always a learning experience. I’ve done shows in wine bars, gymnasiums, basements, restaurants, small rooms, and bigger theaters. I even put an international tour together, formed out of my favorite pieces from those shows.

This year, against my better judgement, I decided to do my longest run yet. Every Wednesday for the past six months I’ve been performing in Lincoln Park here in the city. It’s always a challenge to build buzz for a show and keep that momentum going, but I can easily say that this has been my most successful run yet.

We sold out for much of the summer, got featured on Windy City Live, WGN, multiple times on WGN Radio, and reviewed by nearly every major publication in Chicago. The show received rave reviews and even won a Chicago Theatre Award, perhaps one of my proudest accomplishments to date.

Every run of shows has been building up to this point. Every small audience, every misstep, every frustrating producer or theatre staff I’ve worked with. Venues have closed or changed management mid-run. There’s no guidebook to this, especially when you’re producing the show yourself. As a result, I’ve made more mistakes along the way than you could possibly imagine.

I’ve never been the kind of person to let failures stop me. If anything, they just make me work harder and keep moving forward. Each show has taught me something new and I can see a noticeable improvement in my ability as a live performer.

Next Wednesday will be the final performance of this run of shows. I couldn’t think of a better end to the run than having closing night on Halloween. If you haven’t seen the show yet, there are still a few tickets available here.

After next week I’ll never do this show again, so don’t miss your chance to experience it for yourself. In the meantime, I’ve already started writing the next show and I can’t wait for you to see what’s next.

Connection

Something I struggle with a lot is where my chosen profession fits in the world. At best it seems entertaining and at worst it feels silly and trite. But there’s one thing I keep coming back to that keeps me from quitting. 

Connection.

The key to my success as an entertainer has been finding a way to connect with my audiences. I’m not talking about laughter or applause. That’s definitely important and I want those things, too, but I’m talking about something more specific.

When I connect with an audience member it means that they saw themselves in my work. It means they found some kind of underlying message or truth that resonated with them more than any mind reading demonstration ever could.

It’s taken me years to realize this, but once I did I’ve felt more fulfilled and more successful in my career than I ever did before.

Think about it. I bet that your favorite movie or book or song probably connects with you in an utterly profound and personal way. It may have a beautiful melody or a hilarious plot, but the truth is you probably found yourself saying “That is so true!” or “I thought I was the only person who felt that way!”

That’s what connection is all about.

The best inspiration for what I do never comes from within the confines of my art. Rather, I look outside my discipline to find people (much smarter than myself) with ideas that apply to my chosen art form, too. The great thing about seeking inspiration is that the answers you seek are already there - you just have to keep looking.

And I’ve been looking in some really unique places.

Legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham has a great interview where she talks about connection. It’s worth a watch just to hear her perfectly sum up why art matters and is so important.

“There is always one person to whom you speak in the audience. One.” she says.

In an interview with Seth Meyers, tennis icon Billie Jean King compares being on the tennis court to being onstage in a theatre. I’d never thought about it that way before.

“It’s about the audience,” she comments. “My job is to connect with them, so they go home at night and say ’That was unbelievable!' They connected and they want to go back.”

When I feel especially low or wonder if what I do really matters, it always helps to think of those quotes and remind myself that it can be very important, as long as I connect with others.

Anything I do onstage has one main set of criteria: it has to be about other people. It’s all about the audience. When your work is in service to other people you can’t go wrong.

When I set out to write this blog I wasn’t sure what shape it would take. Originally, I had two goals - to be positive and to post every week - but, over time, a third goal emerged. 

Somehow I found a way to make the experiences of being a mind reader about more than just performing. Now my main goal is to take what I do and find a way to connect it with you.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have written me to say “Wow, I read your blog post today and it really spoke to me! I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately and really appreciated your thoughts.”

That’s the connection I seek and, I feel, the secret to being successful in anything you do.