How Failure Fueled Top Comedians
You just had the worst stand-up set of your life. Not a single joke landed. You needed a linen closet full of towels to soak up the flop sweat. The kindest heckle you got all night was “You suck!”
Congratulations, pal -- you’re on your way to comedy success!
Bombing is an essential part of a comic’s life. Heck, Jimmy Fallon has an entire YouTube series devoted to our most accomplished comics talking about the time they absolutely bombed. No comic escapes this experience. Not one.
“Failure is vital,” declares Mel Brooks. Wipe away those comedy tears and Mel believes your fiascos will make you better as a person and as an artist. “I think it’s important to fail, especially between the ages of twenty and thirty. Success is like sugar. It’s too wonderful and it burns up very quickly. Failure is like corned beef hash. It takes a while to eat. It takes a while to digest. But it stays with you. Failure may not feel good when it happens, but it will always sharpen your mind.”
Let’s embrace the schadenfreude and revel in the corned-beef-hash disasters of some of our favorite funny people.
Like many comics, Rogen’s worst experience wasn’t his first one. (That’s why first-time comics have the guts to go on a second time.) But he was still pretty dang young -- only 16 years old! -- when he was set to audition for Just for Laughs, Canada’s biggest comedy festival. He was about to go on stage when his manager broke the news: “Hey, you were supposed to be next but Jerry Seinfeld is dropping in. You’re gonna go on after.”
Seth: Is that bad? Manager: It could be good!
It wasn’t good.
“The small crowd went BERSERK,” remembers Rogen. “(Seinfeld) was preparing for his special I’m Telling You for the Last Time, which is basically him telling all his best, most famous jokes. He annihilated to a degree I didn’t really realize was possible.”
Rogen couldn’t believe his rotten luck. This was supposed to be a showcase for amateurs! And as suspected, the crowd wasn’t ready to go back to newcomers when Rogen was called to the stage to follow Seinfeld.
“To say nobody laughed would be an understatement. It felt like they were taking away laughs I had previously gotten. It was negative-laughter. To this day, I remember standing on the stage, the crowd so quiet that I could hear the electric hum of the speakers, and thinking, That’s not good!”
The worst Rock ever bombed came in the early 1990s. Fresh off getting cast on Saturday Night Live, Rock’s cockiness was at an all time-high. Martin Lawrence, himself a big name at the time, was his opening act. Rock was in his dressing room when he heard a ruckus that sounded like “a fight. I thought a riot had broke out.”
Well, kind of. It was a laugh riot, courtesy of Martin’s killer act. “I had to follow him and it was the longest, most painful (set),” remembers Rock. He only got about halfway through his allotted time “before I was just cursing people out. ‘Well, what do you think is funny?’”
Rock says he never forgot “the ass-whupping that I got that night. After that experience, I had to rethink my whole life, just my choice in even being a comedian.” He went into the night “a cocky bastard,” but came out humbled. From that moment on, he says he never assumed he would do well on stage ever again.
Spoiler alert: He did well on stage a few thousand times after that.
Silverman never had a lot of stage fright, making her family laugh as a kid with a precocious use of profanity. At her “hippie high school,” she frequently got up at twice-a-week assemblies and told jokes without fear.
She wasn’t even a senior in high school when she visited big-city Boston and took her first stab at an open mike at Stitches Comedy Club. The set went great -- jokes about high school and being flat-chested (which she insists she was at the time) landed and she was eager for more.
But there wasn’t much of a comedy scene in her hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire. So she approached the owner of a local music venue and asked the owner if she could open for one of the bands. The owner said sure thing.
“That night there was a table packed with drunk people in the back, and whenever I would deliver a punch line, they would all shout supersarcastically, “Ha ha ha ha ha,” and then mega-straight-faced, ‘Hilarious,’” says Silverman.
The self-deprecating Spade is full of stories about horrific performing experiences.
In a high school variety show, Spade was part of a comedy dance number set to “Macho Man” that climaxed with Spade’s standing backflip.
“For no reason,” he says. “Mostly just to show off, actually.”
You can guess how this ends. An hour before the show, Spade practiced his flip and “landed on my FACE . . . yes, folks, all my weight, all on my face.” Blood went everywhere and Spade’s teeth were stained with stage paint. “I dropped to one knee, aaaaaaand . . . black out.”
But a smashed-in face didn’t stop Spade from pursuing his career in stand-up. A few years later, he was in Los Angeles where he managed to land an audition spot at The Improv. Notoriously selective owner Mitzi Shore would be watching to determine if Spade was regular material.
Louie Anderson told Spade he was on in twenty, so he hit the bar to prepare for the set. “Only now, the stress was starting to get to me and my head started pounding,” Spade remembers. So he threw back a couple of aspirins, sealing his doom.
“This situation was so stupid, yet I remember every detail,” he says. “I had only about an inch left in my vodka and grapefruit juice when I tried to chase down my dry old-school aspirins. Well, they didn’t go down. And I choked. Then I ran to get water. Then I tried to hawk it up because one was now stuck in my throat. Then, somehow, the aspirin moved up into my sinuses and was burning. I sniffed and hawked and after a few minutes it came flying loose in a massive loogie.”
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome David Spade!
“Now I realize I lived through this f***ed-up sitch, but at the time I had to change gears really fast and do the most important audition of my life.”
As you can imagine, Spade tanked and Mitzi passed.
One of Jost’s biggest comedy disasters took place at the site of most comic debacles: Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, New York.
Jost was booked to perform at noon in a cafeteria. (Pro tip: Never accept a comedy gig at noon in a community college cafeteria.) But the show ended up being in an empty room next to the cafeteria “with ten folding chairs, a plastic table, and a microphone.” The organizer waved in about seven kids who clearly felt sorry for Jost, then gave his introduction:
“Hey, guys, this is Colon Jast, and he’s gonna do some improvs for you! Oh, and we’re putting out pizza on this table directly in front of the microphone, so whenever you want to come up and take a slice, just go for it. All right, sweet! Now give a big Finger Lakes welcome to…Colon!”
Jost began his awkward set, interrupted five minutes in by the promised pizza. After a protracted pause in which “the audience calculated how rude it would be to grab a slice while I was talking,” the floodgates opened and the feeding frenzy began.
“One girl grabbed a slice and whispered to me, ‘Hang in there, it’ll be over soon,’” says Jost. “Little did she know I had forty-five minutes left.”
To make things worse, the room’s window overlooked the actual cafeteria, whose occupants could smell the free pizza. “This led to a steady stream of football and lacrosse bros walking in front of me and digging through pizza boxes until they found the pepperoni.”
And when the pizza was gone? Students looked at Jost like had hoodwinked them with empty boxes.
“A lot of my jokes ended with, ‘Sorry…’”
Panning for Gold
Whether it’s stand-up, improv, or some other mutation of comedy, “you’re going to fail at first,” says writer, director, and Second City alum Adam McKay. “But you don’t have to be Oscar Wilde on every take. You can also be Frank Stallone on certain takes.”
The key, argues comedy writer Dave Hill, is embracing your fiascos. “I was fine with failing and being a complete moron,” he says. “I think a lot of people in comedy have a slight concern about not being willing to be completely foolish. But it helped me to not care that much.”
And just because an audience isn’t laughing doesn’t make them right. “You have to stand there and bomb for three years and think they don’t get it,” says Steve Martin. “When I started out, it was the thrill of not getting laughs. The thrill of making them go, “What?” more than getting laughs. I thought, Well, the least I’m doing is blowing their minds.”
That’s why Tina Fey values her Chicago improv experience more than, say, learning the craft by writing for the Harvard Lampoon. As an actual performer, “you will be heckled, or, worse, you will hear your own heartbeat over the audience’s silence. You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back put her gum in a napkin.”
“What I learned about “bombing” as an improviser at Second City was that bombing is painful, but it doesn’t kill you. You will still be physically alive when it’s over,” says Fey.
But what about bombing on Saturday Night Live, where a bad sketch might live on YouTube for decades?
“You’re going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever—your golden nuggets. But you’re also going to write some real sh** nuggets. And unfortunately, sometimes the sh** nuggets will make it onto the air,” admits Fey. “You can’t worry about it. As long as you know the difference, you can go back to panning for gold on Monday.”
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Top image: TBS