stand up

Playing With Fire

Recently I shared a video of a hilarious moment from one of my recent shows. I spent a few minutes roasting a guy in the audience. If you pay attention to that clip you’ll see that of everyone in attendance, he was the one laughing the hardest.

As a performer you have to be aware of your surroundings. You need to be able to read the room and know what kind of environment you’re in. When you’re aware of the situation you can start pushing boundaries and taking chances. But it all depends on where you’re working.

The jokes I make at a corporate event are different from a college show. And both of those rooms are way different from the comedy clubs I work when I’m home in Chicago, which is where that clip was filmed.

That video is one of my favorite moments this year. It’s everything that I want my show to be: memorable, hilarious, fun, and totally unique to that particular audience.

Every time I do a show I’m looking for those moments. If someone does something stupid, I’m going to call them out on it. If someone says something funny, I’m going to make it funnier. And if I do something dumb, then I’m going to roast myself. (Case in point: ten years ago I ripped my pants during a show. I proceeded to ridicule myself for ten minutes. The audience loved it.)

As I was making that joke I was watching that dude and making sure he was cool with it. I was also watching his friends and listening to the rest of the room. They were all laughing. If you listen close you can even hear his friend say “This is my favorite!” Those signs were all I needed to know that I was in the clear and we could all have fun together.

Yet, some people reached out to me to tell me I was demeaning to the audience. (Someone offended and outraged in 2019? No way!) They felt I was being rude or alienating the crowd. They seemed to believe that I should perform passively and never push the envelope or have any opinions onstage.

I once heard a performer say that they didn’t do any political jokes because they “don’t want to alienate half of the audience”. Fair point. But, I feel differently about it.

I don’t want to go onstage and only say things that everyone will agree with. I don’t want to play it safe so everyone will like me. I want to go out there, say what I think, and not be scared what you think about it.

I want to play with fire.

Last weekend at my show I made a joke about “impeachment”. I had a couple Trump voters in the audience who started booing. Here’s the clip: “MAGA Hecklers Need Safe Space From Impeachment Jokes”.

After the show one of those guys got in my face and said, “Leave the politics out of it!” (Hmmm, triggered much?) I laughed.

If they had been able to take a joke and not been so sensitive, they would have heard the second part of that bit where I ridicule myself and the whole “resistance” movement. But, they were too quick to boo so I had to double down.

We’re living in really strange times. There’s no nuance any more. Everything is hyper partisan and divisive. It’s exhausting.

I feel it in my audiences. I sense it in performers I share the stage with. It seeps through in everyday conversations, everything I read, and everything I watch. As my wife would say, “Everyone is too woke to joke.”

Here’s the thing: if you don’t like something, then maybe it just isn’t for you. Maybe you aren’t the intended audience. Maybe instead of complaining about it or posting bad reviews you can just go find the things that are intended for you.

If you don’t like a sandwich then don’t tweet about it, just go find a different deli.

If you didn’t like a movie you don’t have to berate the people who spent months working on it from the safety of your blog. Just find a different film to enjoy.

And if you can’t take a joke, then don’t go to a comedy club.

Other Thoughts:

  • I started a new series on YouTube called “STAGE TIME”. I’m sharing fun clips from my shows there now, so be sure to subscribe.

  • I was just on the Eager To Know Podcast. Check out my episode here.

  • Get tickets to upcoming shows.

  • I was talking to someone about a movie I saw recently and they said “Everyone online said the ending sucks so I don’t know if I’ll see it or not…” What a shame our opinions and ideas are so easily formed by stuff we see online. Maybe don’t read other people’s thoughts on a thing and decide for yourself? Recommendation: I just saw “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (not the movie I referenced above) and it was great. Don’t read a review or check Rotten Tomatoes, just go see it for yourself and enjoy.

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: