Stand-up comedy is more of a sport than an art, argues Jerry Seinfeld. The audience outnumbers the comedian by an impressive number. The relationship can be adversarial – “Why does the comic get to talk while we all have to sit here quietly?”  If the comedian doesn’t justify those circumstances quickly, things might get ugly.  And sometimes? They do.  Here are 4 horror stories about stand-up comics who went through hell--and lived to tell the tale.  

Paul F. Tompkins survives an ice storm

On his Laboring Under Delusions album, Tompkins shares the story of his worst New Year’s Eve ever. The comic had made a lot of cool musician friends at hip L.A. club Largo and one band asked Paul to open for them on that holiday night. 

Just for Laughs

Never open for a rock band when wearing pinstripes.

Tompkins should have known better. Experience had taught him that “there’s something about comedy in front of music that makes people lose their minds.”  But he’d opened for the band at Largo with success, so what could go wrong?  Turns out, everything.

The comic was scheduled to do 15 minutes before the band played its Whiskey A Go Go gig. It started out great.  For five minutes, laughs were plentiful.  But then Tompkins got to minute six.  He says it was like someone threw a switch, with happy faces swiveling to reveal hate.  Shouts from the crowd alternated between “boo,” “you suck,” and “get off the stage.”

But things really went south at minute 12 when the first ice cube came flying from the audience.  Plink!  Then another. Plink!  Soon it was a hail storm, with Tompkins getting kerplunked with ice at least 10 times. Finally, he exited the stage where he was met by people trying to comfort him.  

“Listen. Don’t quit.”  Quitting hadn’t occurred to Tompkins, but he realized that people were suggesting that it was a possibility that he should.

Even worse was when people complimented Tompkins for standing his ground and finishing the set.  Which made Paul realize: “I could have gotten off stage at any time!  Like when the first piece of ice hit me!”  Lesson learned. 

Jerry Seinfeld went completely blank

What keeps funny people from trying stand-up?  Our guess is stage fright.  What if you get in front of that microphone and suddenly forget all of your material?  That’s exactly what happened to Jerry Seinfeld -- and it was his first night on stage.

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What's the deal with paralyzing stage fright?

Seinfeld had meticulously written out his entire first set ahead of time. He’d placed the pages on his bed and rehearsed, a bar of soap in his hand acting as his microphone.  Over and over again, he told Judd Apatow, Jerry ran the jokes out loud until he had them “memorized, cold.”

He couldn’t have been any better prepared.  And yet when he got on stage?  “It’s gone,” Seinfeld remembers, a comedian’s worst nightmare. “I can’t remember a word. I stood there for about thirty seconds saying absolutely nothing, just standing there, freaking out.”

The audience just stared at Seinfeld.  Finally, some of the routine started coming back to him -- but just subjects, not the jokes themselves.  “This is absolutely true, I’m not embellishing this at all, I stood there and I went, “The beach… ah, driving… your parents…,” and people started laughing because they thought this was my act.”

Turns out Kathy Griffin is not Cheri Oteri

Kathy Griffin cops to always bombing at corporate gigs.  She also can’t resist corporate money.  Can you see where this is going?

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We're not quite seeing the Cheri Oteri resemblance.  Maybe if we squint?

She accepted a job that was described as playing a banquet room for a “classy benefit.”  Upon Kathy’s arrival, organizers introduced her to a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease for whom the event was organized.  This was only a minute or so before Griffin was set to take the stage.

“Oh, I’m looking forward to seeing you perform!” said the man. “I really miss you on Saturday Night Live.”

Record scratch.  “That’s nice,” Griffin replied, “but I was never on Saturday Night Live.”

At this point, the sound guy took a closer look.  “Wait a minute!  You’re not Cheri Oteri?”

“No, I’m Kathy Griffin.”

The sound guy threw up his hands and walked away. “Ah, great.”

Cue the curtain! Griffin took the stage to find herself not in a banquet room but something more resembling a fairgrounds, with dirt floors and a gunfight show not far away.  The crowd was confused.  Griffin … didn’t look like Cheri Oteri.  What was going on?  The comic went into a flop-sweat panic.

It gets worse. At one point, a kid climbed on stage next to Griffin and began singing “Swanee” while dancing the ol’ soft-shoe.  No one made a move to stop the child, who kept on singing away. Finally, Griffin snapped. “Can somebody get this f***ing kid outta here?”

A TV mom comforted Jon Stewart

Stewart was well established on Comedy Central when he was invited to perform at the reopening of Radio City Music Hall, a gig that in his estimation would provide the largest crowd to whom he’d ever played.

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Stewart Comedy Rule #17: Never, ever follow f***ing Billy Crystal.

It was a star-studded night, led off by Billy Crystal rising up on a platform from the stage floor. “He’s leading the charge,” remembers Stewart. “F***ing crushing it, destroying the room.” The night was going great -- until Jon took the stage. 

For one of those reasons no comic can ever understand, the air went out of the room.  “What was impressive about it was, you would think the law of averages says that if you have a room full of five thousand people," said Stewart, "some of them are going to laugh at some point at something, even if it’s just something they whispered to their friend.”

Instead, Stewart was met with total silence.  Nothing, not even a sneeze. The comic was dumbfounded.  Finally, mercifully, his set ended and Stewart slinked off the stage.  He turned and looked to find Shirley Jones, best known as the mother hen on TV’s The Partridge Family.

Screen Gems Television

When Mrs. Brady isn't available, Mrs. Partridge will do.

“I don’t know Shirley Jones,” says Stewart. “She looks at me and doesn’t say anything; she just opens her arms up to give me a hug. It was one of those, like, There, there, poor boy.”

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