No matter where they are in their career, one thing that all comedians have in common is the ability to take the worst moments in stride. Part of succeeding in comedy is learning to take the unpredictable rhythm of successes and failures and making sense of it on the dance floor. And by dance floor, I mean stage.
When your job is to make people laugh, everyone assumes it’s a treat all the time, but the lows can be pretty brutal. Every bomb can feel like a personal affront to you as a person, and every missed role a sign from the universe to quit already. Of course, it’s highly unlikely the universe has any time to pay attention to your comedy career, which means that you shouldn’t let those low moments stop you.
I talked to comedians across various levels of their career to get their worst comedy moments, including getting a gun pulled on by an audience member to accidentally exposing one’s genitals on stage. So next time you hit a new low, just remember that we’ve all been there. Because misery loves company, and apparently, also comedy.
“Getting paid to dress up as a bumble bee and ‘swarm’ the Today Show in promotion of Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie with 300 other broke idiots is a particularly disheartening moment when you’re an aspiring comic – and also terrified of bees. I remember getting chewed out by a ‘Bee-Team Leader’ and watching his fuzzy antennae bounce up and down as he yelled at me for not being enthusiastic enough about the 23 degree weather and 4am call time. That’s one of those NYC moments where you start to aggressively daydream about marrying well and becoming a soccer mom back in the Detroit Suburbs.”
“I had just moved to New York City and decided to smoke up before a show. The audience was light, maybe four or five people, but they were into it. However, the weed turned me into a rambling manic and by my third joke I had walked everyone. Every last audience member. I remember looking out into an empty theater, realizing I was all alone, and thinking God had vaporized them to spare them for my awful material. Even the host left the room. I don’t know how long I was up there telling jokes to no one, but I don’t smoke before shows anymore.”
“October 21, 2015. Yuk Yuk’s in Vancouver. I’m waiting to go up when the feature tells me there’s a nightmare drunk in the front row. ‘Fucking late show Friday night,’ I mutter. I get on stage. It’s going well enough. I see this dude I think is passed out and start shitting on him, assuming he’s the drunk the other comic was talking about. Halfway through my riffing I hear, ‘He’s not drunk! He’s got Muscular Dystrophy you fucking asshole!’ Horror. I look through the darkness to see that the person I was shitting on was in a wheelchair and realize they had thrown out the drunk guy before I got on stage. To make things even more uncomfortable, the guy in the wheelchair started defending me to the woman who called me out. ‘Lay off him! He’s my favorite comedian!’ My heart sunk in my chest. And the worst part about it, I still had thirty-eight minutes left of my set. After the show I gave him a tee shirt that said ‘St. Germainiac’ and left without making eye contact. I still get chills when I think about it. The club’s mozzarella sticks were good though.”
“The low point in my comedy career is constantly changing. It’s like asking someone your worst heartbreak. The worst heartbreak seems to be the most recent one. For a while it was when an improviser approached me after a standup set and said, ‘Have you thought about getting back into improv comedy?’ Devastating. Currently, my low point was when a girl I was dating started swiping on Tinder while I was doing a set.”
“Once, after audition, the casting director stopped the camera and said, ‘Okay, thanks, Nikki. I totally see what you were trying to do there. Have a great day.’”
“I was asked to do an old-folks home for $50 one time. It was at one in the afternoon in the south suburbs of Chicago. All my jokes at the time were about sex and weed and party stuff because I was afraid to talk about anything else. My friend went before me and had a few great moments so I was hopeful. When I got up there, all I saw was my Grandma. Like 50 Grandmas. Just 50 sweet, old faces. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t talk about that stuff. I just kept doing set-ups and then trailing off instead of doing the punchlines. It was horrific. I did 15 minutes and the only sound I could hear was the sporadic pump of an oxygen machine here and there. After the show one of those sweet old faces walked up and said ‘Young man, we’re old. We like it dirty. We’ve seen it all and we want to hear dirty.’ I haven’t censored myself in front of old folks since.”
“A mid-30s, straight-off-the-golf-course finance bro heckled me throughout my entire set, in what appeared to be a way to impress the woman he was on a date with. After my set he found me at the bar and told me he ‘didn’t really like’ the person he was with and asked me on a date. I told him ‘Only if you promise to ask out someone else while we’re on the date.’ He looked confused as I walked away.”
“At this point, I’ve had hundreds of bad auditions. I think I realistically still bomb one out of four of them. And this is far from the craziest or worst, but it’s the first real stinker, and that’s probably why it has stuck with me: One of the first acting auditions I was ever asked to do was for some new Liftetime TV ‘doctor show.’ It was going to be their version of ER or Grey’s Anatomy. I had never done any dramatic acting and I had no business even auditioning for the show, let alone the lead role. But I was asked, and I somehow got it in my head that if I just memorized these lines and said them with a straight face, I could be the young George Clooney they were looking for! So I worked for an entire day on the three short scenes they sent me. And I felt good. I took the train to the audition, talking to myself the whole way like every maniac actor does. Losers. I read with the Casting Director while her assistant ran the video camera. We were supposed to read three scenes. After the first scene, they said thank you very much, it was nice to meet me. ‘We’re not gonna run the other two?’ They said they saw what they needed and thanks for coming in. I said, ‘Ok, thanks for having me, see you on set!’ because I needed to crack a joke and I was too dumb to know that every new actor/comedian cracks that same stupid joke. Silence. As I walked out of the room, the Casting Director turned to her assistant and I heard her say, ‘That. Was. Terrible.’ Then the immediate click of the door closing behind me. Tune in next week and I’ll tell if you I got the part!”
“My company’s Christmas party culminated with a private burlesque show at The Slipper Room in downtown New York. Once the show began, I started bragging to the CEO about how I could murder this room if they put me up. (Note that at this point, we had all been drinking and drugging for about five hours.) Sure enough, he convinced them to let me perform. I got three sentences into my first joke when almost everyone in the room started heckling me. There were about 150 people there. This eventually devolved into me repeatedly accusing them of being cokeheads and ‘big time pieces of shit.’ This went on for about 15 minutes before I took myself off stage. Surprisingly enough, this would not end up being the reason I was fired.”
“It’s hard to say what my WORST is – I feel like I’ve done every bad show you can do. Probably the most fun one was opening for Aaron Carter at a college. They asked me to do 45 minutes before an Aaron Carter concert. That was about 42 minutes too long. It was brutal but like all comedy, a fun memory after I was about three months removed. Also, tonight as I write this I had to yell at a woman onstage and then spend 15 minutes explaining how shows work once I got off stage. So… it’s always changing.”
“I’m performing in a comedic musical called You’re A Good Man, Scott Brown playing the titular role. There’s a number in the show where I talk to the audience and strip down to hot pants. One night, the crowd is particularly quiet. I decide to really give the hot pants number my all, save the show. I do spins, sing my heart out. I deliver the breakdown to an older lady, laying it on thick. The audience explodes with laughter. Yes. ‘Kaufman, you were born to do this.’ I throw in an extra spin for good measure. My cast member looks at me wide-eyed. ‘Dude, your ball is out.’ I look. Testicle, singular, hanging outside my shorts. I had stuck it in an old ladies face, I had done a 360 spin. I hadn’t saved the show. I was not born to do this.”
“I got my period on stage once, but I was killing so I just let it go. Nobody seemed to mind/notice. Then there was the time I shit my pants while getting a standing ovation. I just walked out backwards.”
“It can be hard to pick out the worst moment when there is such a distinct variety of terribleness, but I will always remember doing a show in Pennsylvania, coming off stage, and having the booker call me over to say ‘Hey you’re really bad. That was really bad. Wow! You’re from NYC and I expected it to be very good, but that was very bad.’ What a delight!”
“I was about two years into the New York comedy scene. We did a show in Bay Ridge at an Italian restaurant, which was very well lit and in the middle of a full dinner service. The guys with the TV credits went up first and got the hell out of there, so it was on me to close the show. During my set, an older gentlemen in a very nice suit strolled into the show ‘area’ and sat down at a table, a stunning girl 1/3rd his age in a gold dress on his arm. I ribbed him a little and everyone was having fun. He then kept talking. I created a monster, so I naively ribbed him some more. And he was LOVING it! ‘Har-Har-Har! Keep it up! Keep it up!’ he shouted. And what do you know, I was killing! I mumbled something about him looking like Joe Biden and he started slamming the table, ‘That’s fuckin’ funny! Get me one more time and I’ll get you!’ he said, and started waving his gun around. Uh-oh! Looks like he was the only one killing. I was too young and dumb to be scared so I just said, ‘Do you have a gun right now?’ though we all knew the answer. I mumbled my way to breaking the most tension I’ve ever seen at a comedy show and got the fuck off stage. Soon to be cornered by the man in the suit, ‘You’re fucking funny! You’re staying for a drink.’ And then I grabbed the nearest comics around me and said, ‘Hey fellas… we’re staying for a drink.’”
“It was my second time emceeing and my first out-of-town gig. I greeted the audience with ‘How you guys doin’?’ Instead of applause, I heard a single voice say ‘We don’t have a waitress.’ I sheepishly went into material and bombed spectacularly. At one point I paused for about 15 seconds. To top it off, when it was time to bring up the first comic I drew a blank. You could have asked me who the president was and I would have had no idea.”
“So when I was first starting out my mom really wanted to support me. In fact, she booked me on a gig. It was a private event for women on women’s day. I was like 17 years old and didn’t have any jokes on women. The event was during the day, in someone’s backyard. There was a microphone attached to a tiny speaker but the chord was so jumbled up that I had to stay right next to the speaker the whole time. There was no stage and the audience was standing right in front of me. I started to do my set and within seconds everyone is just staring blackly at me as if I stole the microphone and crashed a party just for women. About two minutes into my set a woman grabs the microphone from my hand and announces, ‘The person driving a 2002 white Honda is blocking my car. I can’t move my car unless that person moves their Honda so please meet me at the front door. I repeat…’ Then she just handed the microphone back to me. I did maybe like three more minutes. At this point the only people not talking over me are the servers. I wrapped up my last joke, told everyone thank you, and drove away in my white Honda.”
“I once hosted a show at a restaurant and the owner said that we all (me, feature, headliner) had to be very clean. The idea of what is ‘clean’ varies greatly from one person to another and one room to another, so to be safe, I was squeaky clean and the audience absolutely hated me for it. I basically did 20 minutes of eating shit at the top of the show and then I brought up the feature. When he was onstage, I went to the bar (separate from the showroom) to get myself a drink and as I walked into the crowded bar, I slipped and absolutely ate shit and fell onto the floor. I think of that show as the night when I ate shit not one, but twice.”
“When I was 19 years old I was booked on a standup show in this run-down dive bar just outside Northeast Philadelphia where I was only allowed to perform if I was accompanied by my parents. Three minutes into my 10-minute set an audience member yelled ‘Tell a good joke!’ and then a few other people started booing. It was really overwhelming and upsetting while I was on stage, but the saddest part of that debacle happened later in the night when I was home sulking in my bedroom. My mom walked in, saw me with my hands covering my face, and then she said ‘Brandon, I’m not going to lie to you. You fucking sucked.’ Then she left my bedroom.”
“I was a fresh comic who got some easy and early laughs for the first five minutes of standup I wrote – including the support of a great local Black comedy club in Los Angeles. The owner invited me to participate in a comedy showcase of mostly Black comics (and my random Asian ass) and my race jokes bombed SO HARD. The network suits were just NOT feeling me. What’s worse was the host, a Black woman, got back up after I finished my awkward set and said, ‘I’ll see you for my appointment at the nail salon, Jenny.’ Ugh. Let’s just say: when you showcase, be sure you are ready. And don’t disrespect a Black comedy club if you don’t know how to handle race issues in your act. Lessons learned.”
“Early in my standup life, I was asked by a friend to perform on a charity show. I’d just done the same five-minute set the week before and killed, so I was pretty sure I was a comedy savant. Who were those chumps who have to go to open mics anyway!? Flash forward to the event: it’s all big-name comedians and me with irrational confidence. Until the moment I start bombing… and then get heckled… and then panic by ignoring the heckling and just speeding through the rest of my set to zero laughs. I was mortified (and humbled).”
“One time I performed in a casino, in what’s called the Push, which is where people go after losing all their money and decide to kill themselves or go home. Needless to say, worst bomb ever. But, my whole family was there, even my grandma who passed away shortly there after, but was still proud of me. Taught me to always just try my best.”
“A couple years ago I did a road gig in Delaware with Ian Fidance and Rob Cantrell. Before the show started I went to the bathroom and some dude was taking a shit and didn’t lock the door. When he walked out I was still waiting to get in. I politely said sorry about that (like some sort of woman taught by the patriarchy to apologize for things that aren’t my fault) and he just gave me a nasty look. Ian opened up the show and the dude was a bit talkative and then as soon as I got brought up he started talking more. Besides the comics, no one from the venue was doing anything so I called him out as the guy who I walked in on taking a shit and explain to him that he shouldn’t give nasty looks and that if ‘I walk in on you in the bathroom because you didn’t lock the door, YOU’RE the pervert.’ It was at that point that he stood up and took a swing at me, but was so drunk that it was literally slow motion. I moved out of the way, he continued, rambling, and was finally asked to leave by the venue. By that point, my time was about up.”
“I performed standup at a 50th wedding anniversary, the audience was old and cantankerous. The ‘host’ (a drunk family member) was killing with hack jokes, but right before bringing me up he says ‘Carol loved standup and would’ve loved this, as you know she died five years ago… put your hands together for Anthony O’Connell!’”
“I recently did a show at a large, private, Christian university in Texas for 1,100 students. I could tell some of them were uncomfortable because I’m gay and at the end of my set this girl yelled out, ‘You Suck!’ and the auditorium gasped. It took me a second to realize what she had said, but the camera that projected my image on the side screens caught all of the emotion going through my face. I came back with, ‘That’s not what your mom said. Yeah, I fucked your mom and I’m never calling her again.’ I was told I would never perform there again.”
“In 2009, I was one fourth of an ongoing tour called The Beards of Comedy. We were all based in or around Atlanta and chose that name because we all happened to have beards and thought of it as a sort of parody of hook. We did no material about beards or any beard-centric comedy; we just thought it was a funny name. All that being said, when someone from the NYC Beard and Mustache Championship contacted us and offered to pay us to perform at the annual event in Williamsburg, BK, we were more than happy to take the gig and the money… mostly the money. I was the first of us that had to do a set, which was about three hours into the event. 1,000 people were packed into a capacity 800 venue. Everyone was hammered. I was supposed to do 20 minutes of standup after a bluegrass/rockabilly band, a ZZ Top cover band, and a mustache competition. The MC butchered my intro, paraphrasing whatever BS credits no one would know anyway, and failing to mention that I was a comedian (kind of important). Right off the bat, the 600 people toward the back were completely tuned out or ordering beers. The 400 or so toward the front were still wondering what I was there to do without a costume or an instrument. I told a few quick jokes and finagled some laughs, more or less by way of trickery. Someone realized a few minutes in that I was a comedian and yelled, ‘Tell a joke!’ To which I replied, ‘You remember when I was talking and then I stopped and people laughed?…That was a joke.’ I thought I had won over the crowd, and I was so, so wrong. People were heckling five or ten at a time. I was only five minutes into a 20 minute set. I strapped in and braced myself for 15 minutes of 1,000 people hating me (I couldn’t risk not getting paid). About three more minutes of chaos ensued before the MC walked right up to me and asked, ‘What you wanna do?’ I said, ‘If you’re saying I can bail, then I’ll bail. I just wanna make sure I get paid.’ He then said, ‘Let me make an announcement real quick.’ He then informed someone that their car was about to be towed and said to the DJ, ‘Hey DJ, play that Wilson Phillips song. Andy and I are gonna dance!’ I immediately told him, ‘I’m not a fuckin’ monkey. Not dancin’.’ And walked backstage where five or six bands were visibly cringing, a ZZ Top cover band member patted me on the back and said, ‘Fuck em all.’ To this day, that’s the only phrase I use when consoling a comic who just bombed.”
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
If you enjoyed these comedians’ stories about their worst moments, then you might like The Worst Show, a live comedy show where comedians share their worst stories around different themes. Join Teresa Lee and Ali Vingiano at Nerdmelt Theater on April 2nd, 2016 for the 420 Edition of The Worst Show, where comedians will share their worst drug inspired moments in honor of the happiest month of the year.