This collection of writers at Fancy Boys Club all have one thing in common: stand-up comedy. Some of us perform (or have performed) it. Some of us produce (or have produced) it. All of us love it. Or have loved it and then hated it and then loved it again. Relationships with comedy can be very complicated.
I’ve been lucky enough to be performing stand-up comedy for over 12 years now. How am I as a comedian? I’m… ok. There are nights when I have amazing sets and nights when I bomb. Most sets lie somewhere in the middle of those.
Comedy is about, above all else, managing expectations. Sometimes nothing goes your way and you’re wondering why you ever decided to step onstage in the first place while other nights you can’t imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else than on a stage. So, you have to find a way to temper the highs and the lows and get a nice, comfortable middle. That’s easier said than done when talking about someone’s passion. There are some people who just cannot do that.
Anyone who has done stand-up comedy long enough can remember their worst set. It’s something that can haunt them, but also motivate them to do better. My worst set came when I bombed in front of over 600 people when I was opening up for Heartache Tonight, an Eagles tribute band. I think about that set so often that I have turned it into a joke, partly to take some of the sting away from how bad I did, but mostly as a reminder that no matter how bad things are going for me onstage, it will never be as bad as when I did twenty minutes in front of a packed house that met me with stone cold silence.
(And stone cold silence is the absolute worst. There have been nights where the audience won’t stop talking and just ignore me. While that’s absolutely frustrating, I can live with that. There are simply nights when the audience is telling you, “No offense, but we would rather be doing something else than listening to you.” But silence… man, that’s fucking killer. Silence is an audience saying, “We’re listening to you, and we hear you… but we reject that anything coming out of your mouth is funny. And this is how we’re letting you know.”)
Comics share their worst bombs all the time. It’s how we bond through our misery. And I have heard a lot of horrible stories. None of them, however, are worse than I set I witnessed firsthand. Without telling you the story in full, there is no way to describe how bad this set was or what that set meant to me.
The funny thing was, the jokes weren’t so bad.
Let’s get into a little background.
This set happened in 2007. I had been doing stand-up comedy for a little less than three months. I was chubbier than I am now; just a clean-shaven dweeb wearing comic book t-shirts going up and talking a lot about cheese and whatever else I could swing together as a joke.
One night, I was at an open mic when I met a man named Dave Odd. Dave saw that I could bring friends out to an open mic and asked me if I wanted to compete in a comedy contest. Then, he saw that I could bring people into a comedy contest and offered me my first show. I mean, I would like to think that he also thought I was funny.
So, I was off to my first show. Was it in a comedy and cultural hotspot? Morris, Illinois is not considered either of these things. Also, the venue was a little peculiar. I don’t know how to describe this place other than to way it was a place which sold clothing and other things with rock and roll logos. It was like a Hot Topic… with a stage… and a place to smoke hookah… and a bar. But not a real bar. A bar that sold breakfast cereal. It was a weird place.
That night, five other comedians and myself went to bring laughter to Morris. We were all promised a percentage of the door, and when we arrived, the venue was excited. They kept telling us how the shows were filled to the brim every month. We were psyched.
Then everything went wrong.
So, here’s the problem with me telling you this story.
I don’t remember the name of the comedian it happened to.
I’ve been trying to remember the guy’s name. I’ve been racking my brain for YEARS. I’ve talked to other comedians that I know were there. I’ve asked other comedians on the scene. No one remembers this dude’s name. Everyone remembers the story I’m about to tell, which is good. It means I wasn’t hallucinating.
I remember him being a nice guy and I remember finding him funny.
I just don’t remember the dude’s name.
As we got closer to showtime, we waited for people to come.
And we waited.
I’m guessing about 4 people were there when the show started. And the comedians started to get bummed out.
This comic I don’t remember was starting to get more and more upset. You see, he came from Waukegan, so Morris was a long way from his home. However, he had heard about how popular the show was, so he knew that his percentage was going to be a good amount of money. So he got a hotel. And drove a hundred miles. To do a show for four people. As the show started, you could see that he was starting to realize that he’d be losing money tonight. A lot of money.
You saw his shoulders slump. His head fell. This was clearly a defeated man. But I didn’t have an idea how bad it would get until he got onstage.
This comedian got onstage and began his routine. There is a skill that comedians have to use where they can compartmentalize a bad day and be able to entertain people. This guy did not have that skill.
His eyes were a blank stare. He was deeply sighing. The pauses between his sentences got longer every moment he was onstage. People were still laughing because the jokes were ok.
And then it happened.
This comedian, in the middle of a sentence, just stopped speaking. Then he stared at the crowd for a second. Then walked offstage. And got in his car. And drove away.
And I never saw him again.
We all thought that it was part of his act. That eventually, he would turn around. But we saw his brake lights as he hopped on the highway. I still thought he might come back. But he never did.
It would be the last time anyone ever saw him in a comedy capacity again. I mean, not to be morose, but that was the last time I ever saw him. So, you know… I hope he’s ok.
I hope he’s doing well and is enjoying his job and his life and all of that stuff. But, I also know that every now and then, when the lights go out right before he’s about to fall asleep, he thinks of that night. It’s the ghost that follows him around.
And it always will.
(POST-SCRIPT: After he left, maybe 8 to 10 more people came in to watch the show and the rest of us had a pretty fun night. I made about $30, which covered my gas and Wendy’s. For me, weirdly, the show was kind of a strange success.)