good one podcast

Why Sinbad Has Never Bombed

Sinbad Photo: Getty Images

Sinbad is a legend, in more than one sense of the word. Yes, he is one of the greats, but it’s beyond that. Sinbad is a sort of folk hero, with stories about him passed between comedians like myths. It’s the outfits, it’s the fact that he goes onstage with nothing planned, it’s three-hour-long shows, it’s that he told Marc Maron on WTF that he’s never bombed. He’s being present onstage incarnate. There’s no one like Sinbad.

I feel like lucky then that, nearly 20 years ago, Sinbad was this humble comedy journalist’s first-ever live comedy show. Which is why Sinbad is the guest for the 50th episode/season-four finale of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

I know you don’t write jokes, but how would you describe what you do?
When I heard Jerry Seinfeld — who is very analytical about comedy — interviewed, it never made sense to me. I’m the kind of guy that no matter what job I would have had, I would’ve got fired. I just got mental issues. And somehow, that translated over to stand-up. I was able to take that ADHD, which nobody had a name for back in the day, and being all over the place, and when I got onstage, everything made sense. It was like everything got quiet.

I didn’t know you were supposed to write jokes. I didn’t know how people did that. For me, someone says, “Hey man, talk about riding your bike.” That’s how my routine comes. I’ll go onstage and I start talking about riding my bike and it becomes a routine. I don’t have any set formula, other than, “Here’s five subjects I might talk about.” Or I might ask the audience, “What do you want to talk about tonight?”

Are you always taking in things to talk about? People always say Robin Williams was sort of a sponge.
They said he stole. He did not steal. He made your unfunny stuff funny. He made your stuff better. It would be different if he stole your joke and it was the same. He took your sad little joke and he made it funnier. He didn’t steal. He heard things. I have to be careful. I’ll say, Did I hear that from somewhere or did that come from me? Because I listen to everything. If I do a new special, I have to rewatch my other special real quick to make sure I don’t take something that I did.

Your style doesn’t really work for late night, where they expect something tight and planned. Did you ever do late-night spots like that?
Yeah man, I did ’em all. I did all the late-night spots. With Letterman, I used to bring my tape up there and there was, I’m not gonna say his name, but he would say, “You’ll never do the show.” I don’t even know why. I said, “Dude, you know what? One day, you’ll have no choice. It’s not about you. The magic’s gonna happen.”

When I finally got on Letterman, they do a preinterview, and they ask you what jokes you’re gonna tell. I said, “I don’t know.” They said, “Well, Letterman likes to know.” They said, “Even Robin Williams does it.” I said, “That’s a lie. He might tell you one thing and then do another.” He said, “Well, I don’t know if we’re gonna do it.” I put my coat on, I said, “I can’t miss what I never had.” I had my family with me. So I said, “I’m walking out.” They go, “What?” “I’m walking out.” And my brother, who was manager at the time, just gave them a bunch of jokes. Fake jokes. I got mad at my brother. I said, “Man, don’t ever do that again.” He knows I’m crazy. He goes, “Please, please, for me, please.” So I did the show. He asked me one of the things my brother gave him and I just went different directions. I guess sometimes they don’t trust that it can be funny. We had so much fun, he said, “Man, we gotta do this again.” And then I just came back a few more times.

Though you’re improvising, how do you think about a set as a whole? Are you full speed ahead the entire time?
Full speed ahead.

You don’t …
Full speed ahead, man. I remember one time I was onstage performing and a woman said, “You have to stop. I have to get air.” So, I sat down for five minutes and just had a conversation with people, because she said, “Look, I can’t get air.” She had asthma. I said, “Okay, go ahead and get your air.” And I just spoke to her, “You okay?” And I started up again. But those are moments that I love. I love the moments that are real like that. Even just seeing me on a stand-up special is not watching me live. Watching me live, I do two-and-half hours, three hours. Watching me live is like watching a band. It’s like the difference of having an Earth, Wind & Fire album and watching Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s what I want. When you see me live, you got something you didn’t get from watching my special.

Are you worried about phones and audiences being in the moment? There’s companies now that can lock up people’s phones.
Oh yeah. Dude, they did that to me. Dave Chappelle had just been in a comedy club I was at and they passed this little bag around. I said, “Look man, please don’t lock those bags.” I said, “I don’t care if you tape this. I’ll write some new stuff. I don’t care.” I said, “’Cause if you’d rather be on the phone than watching me, I’m not doing something right.”

Do you feel like your comedy is a conversation, then? Do you feel like you’re talking with the audience?
It’s a conversation, but it’s more than that. We’re interacting. I need you. If you’re playing basketball and there are no fans there, you gonna really play hard? There was that one special where they were bragging about how there was nobody in the audience.

The Drew Michael special for HBO.
They said, “Do you need an audience to be funny?” That means you must be scared to death that you don’t have a joke. I’m sorry. I’m just going to put myself out there. There’s this new thing about comics. Either you’re funny or not. If you’re not funny, stop. Just stop. Half the fun is the audience, man. Yeah, I want my audiences there. One female comic said, “I get tired of those old specials, where they show the audience to prove they’re laughing.” It’s not to prove they’re laughing. It’s like watching Woodstock. I want to see Jimi [Hendrix] play and I want to see people jumping in the mud. I want to see both. ’Cause now when I watching it, I get excited.

You want to capture that this evening happened, beyond the material happened.
Why the hell are you doing comedy? Why are you on the stage? What, you’re just better than other people? You’re just, Oh, I’m so deep. I’m so deep. No one gets me. Then why don’t you go sit on a park bench by yourself and talk to some pigeons, man?

Do you get hecklers? Do you care about hecklers?
I love hecklers.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a heckler thrown out. To me, that’s a conversation. That’s not a heckle. If it’s a good one, they’ve been waiting all night to get you. This guy might have been waiting all year. Here’s his one joke. And I gotta tell comics, if a man or a woman gets you, let ’em have it. The crowd loves it. Let ’em get you. Like, “All right man, that was good one.” That’s his victory. He goes home with his victory and you proved that you don’t have thin skin. If I’m dogging everybody else out here, who do I think I am that you can’t hit me back? There’s nothing sadder than watching a comic get mad at a good heckle.

You’ve said you’ve never bombed. But, like any comedian, you’ve had shows where things clicked or didn’t. What for you is a bad show? What is a good show?
I’ve had shows where the audience gives you the most they have. Back in the beginning, you have certain jokes you end with. If you gotta put that joke up in the first three minutes, and all you get is a little laugh, I’m like, Oh, this is gonna be a long night. But I learned to trust. I had one of those nights and they were just sitting there and they were tittering. I walked offstage and this person said, “That’s the best comedy I’ve ever seen.” I said, “What?” And I finally went, “That’s all they had.” I almost said to them, “You know what, I’ll just leave.” I almost walked away. And I said, “Okay, all right. That’s their best.” I’ll never stop. If I’m onstage, I’ll never stop. I’ll just keep moving like you’re having a great time. Now, there are nights where I leave euphoric. We had a good night in L.A. at the Saban Theater. It was a two-and-a-half hour show. It’s one of those nights you wish, Oh my God, I wish I could take that show with me.

There is one show that stands out in my mind. Tierra Verde, Florida. I just got started, ’84. I lost it. The show was just going. And I went too far. I went too far. I was talking to a couple. I said, “Why are you really with him?” She goes, “I don’t know.” He goes, “Really? Really?” And the audience started hating him and he got up and left. It went so far that the guy walked out from his girl. And when he left, I said, “Well, are you better off?” She goes, “I think I am.” I said, “Now, you can chase him or we can start all over again and try it without him.” She goes, “Okay, let’s try.” I said, “We’ll get you a ride home.” I said, “Okay, let’s restart the show.” It was an hour and a half in. I said, “Let’s restart the show without him and let’s act like he was never with us.” And I walked offstage and came back onstage. I said, “Is there a man that finds her attractive that would hit on her a club?” He ends up sitting with her. I said, “I need y’all to be a couple for the show.” And I asked them questions about how long they’d been dating. And they were like, “We just started. We just met.” And I went for another hour and a half. Ten, 15 years after that, they were married. They came to one of my shows. “I married that guy,” she said. “You got rid of the jerk I was with and the guy that came out the audience was a guy that had been watching me for two years. He said he wouldn’t date me because I was dating this other guy.” And I said, “Jesus, man.” That was a night.

How do you know when a show’s over?
When I see them worn out. I’ve seen people fall asleep. I see them in the front row. I said, “Are you done?” “Sinbad, I just gotta go home. I’m having fun, but I’m just really so tired.”

Why Sinbad Has Never Bombed