How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?

If you think it’s painful to watch a bad standup set, imagine how it feels for the comic on the stage. It happens to everyone, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I asked some comedian friends of mine to describe their worst sets and what it felt like when it was happening. Buckle up!

Nick Thune
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
I went down in flames in SF. 07. (Make sure it’s pronounced OH-7) Most of it is blocked from my memory, but I remember the absolute embarrassment I felt the moment I realized I wasn’t capable of succeeding. Took a while to regain confidence after that. Before every set for the next month or two, I would have flashbacks. I would wake up in the middle of the night, remember what happened, and stare at the ceiling for hours contemplating new careers.

I’ve had bad sets here and there since then, but none like that. I hope that’s a once in a lifetime experience.

Theo Von
Two years into comedy, I was eating multi-cock at an Alligator farm of a college in northern Florida. The crowd literally booed me off the stage. Little did they know, I had to come out and perform six more times between acts, as I was MCing the overall event, a Battle of the Bands. After the fourth band, me returning to the stage became a bit of its own. I will never forget the looks on the faces of those privileged white and mixed kids booing me. Many years later, I released a child eating alligator on their state to get back at them. Wonder what ever happened to that gator.

Julian McCullough
We’re supposed to say we don’t care when we bomb. I do care. I hate it. Bombing is hot sweat.

Greg Dorris
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
I did a show in the back of a bowling alley in 2013. The host of the show was a two-foot-tall marionette puppet that dressed and spoke like Pee Wee Herman on bath salts. A few minutes into the show, a four-year-old boy wandered into the venue, sat in the front row, and stared at me–expressionless–for the rest of my set. When the puppet heckled me in the middle of a punchline, the little boy took the puppet’s side.

Brandon Wardell
I did a show at the French embassy hosted by a drag queen for some reason. Everyone else on the show was a musician except for me. When I was introduced, the host was like “Ok folks, give it up…for Brandon,” and then I had to walk out and literally be like, “Hey guys, I’m, uh, about to do standup comedy now. He didn’t mention that but, uh, I’m doing standup.” That set a weird precedent and then it was all downhill from there. I was 19 and none of my jokes about cum or rap were hitting with this crowd of people wearing suits and dresses. Also, my friend Tyler was there wearing a Quicksilver shirt and basketball shorts, literally clothes you would jack off in, at an event where everyone was in suits. That was the redeeming aspect for me.

Moses Storm
When I first started doing standup, I made a promise to myself that I would never say no to any show. I had to cash this promise in a couple months later, because I got an offer from a night club promoter to do 30 minutes of standup in a night club in West Hollywood on the Fourth of July at 9pm. It was a pretty bad deal going into it, but I figured just no one would be there because it was prime firework hours. Whatever, I’ll do it. Plus, it’s the first time I’m ever doing 30 minutes of standup. So I show up to the club and it’s way worse than I thought. It’s jam packed full of people that have been day drinking and the DJ is blasting dubstep. So I go up to the booth and I’m like, “Hey I’m supposed to be doing standup tonight.” The DJ says, “I don’t know anything about that, but I’ll put you on after this song.”

So before I can even get to the makeshift stage, the DJ cuts off the dubstep and says, “Alright everybody. Now this guy is gonna do some standup.” Then he leaves the booth without even saying my name. I maybe get halfway through my first joke before people start having the loudest conversations with each other. Like, I can’t even hear my own voice it’s so loud. Then I made the mistake of asking the audience what they wanted to talk about. People immediately just started heckling me with obscenities. Then there’s a girl in the corner that’s half bullying me and half trying to help. She yells out, “You know, your problem is that you’re doing straight jokes in a gay club.” That was the least of the issues. So finally I’m like, “I’m just gonna leave. Who cares? I’m getting paid $15 and no one is listening.”

Before I can get off stage, I spot some friends of mine that had come from out of town to watch me. They walk in and get a table right by the stage and have never seen me do standup before. So I have to finish the rest of the 30 minutes for these out of town friends that are just trying to be polite. When it was finally over, I left right away and didn’t even get my $15 check from the manager’s office. The best part is that my friends from out of town have never come to see me again. I’m sure they think I’m the worst comic ever.

Jeff Wild
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
I’d say there’s a particular moment within a set you’re bombing that hurts the most. Say you try out a new joke and it’s a little punny or silly–and no one laughs–the room’s quiet. Which is fine…but then you’ll hear a girl (usually a girl for some reason–but could be a guy) let out a disappointed “ohhh.” It’s almost like a sigh. It’s not a groan. It’s a pity sigh. And within her breath you can almost hear her thinking, “Now, I feel bad for this guy.” And the rest of the room heard her sigh, too, and now they don’t respect you. It’s hard to recover from, especially for someone already brimming with self doubt anyway. Maybe that doesn’t happen to other comics and I’m exceptionally terrible. But that sigh–it’s worse than silence.

Dani Fernandez
I completely and totally bombed my ass off during a big showcase. It was my first ever showcase and I knew there were “execs” (that’s what people kept saying) execs, execs! The execs are out there! I was pacing in the green room and making other people nervous for me. The host, who had seen me perform before, introduced me as “stupidly funny,” and honestly that night I was very much one of those things. I remember I didn’t slow for laughs, which, with how nervous I was rambling, didn’t matter because there were none. It was an absolute blur. A terrifying blur, one in which I could make out the majority of the faces in the audience and many other comics whose expressions can only be described as “wow.” Wow she is not good. Wow she is bombing. Wow she sucks. Wow.

Halfway through, I realized, “Fuck it, I’m not going to get this.” And that made everyone laugh. I ended my set with making jokes about how awful I had just performed. I left the stage smiling, but honestly felt like I had been socked in the stomach. I messaged my friend to check to see if he was in the audience and he replied, “Yeah, I was there.” Great. I remember that night vividly because my car battery died and I had to call AAA at 1am, then I cried in my car because Hollywood is a beast and knows exactly when to crush your soul.

The next week, I performed at the same club. Same time, same set. This time, just for fun for It was great! Why couldn’t I have just done that the week before?! Some of my coworkers were even there and I could see them laughing during my set. Where was this calm, collected person last week?! Probably because it didn’t matter. I had already bombed my ass off in that room and nothing could be worse than that moment seeing comics I knew–and some of my friends–see me eat shit. This new show was a breeze. I wasn’t auditioning or showcasing. It didn’t mean anything. And so I was just me.

Jeff Dauler
My first “real” bomb was when I doing a bit about the confederate flag that I had worked out at in-town Atlanta clubs to great results. But now I was in the ‘burbs and for whatever reason I didn’t think that the bit would be received differently. It was.

People actually crossed their arms and leaned back. I remember getting hot and my brain just switching to auto-pilot and the words coming out as muscle memory. I also remember looking up and seeing my fiancée way in the back of the room with a look of horror on her face.

I powered through and went into a safe and easy dog versus cat hack bit and sort of got them back. Then ended my set early and got out of there.

Kate Berlant
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
There’s nothing I love more than a deeply clarifying bomb. Bombing is death and it is life. It is my religion. I don’t have a story, but I have those feelings. The purpose of life and of standup is not to avoid bombing.

Elliott Morgan
As someone who has never bombed on account of my abundant talent, I can only take a guess as to what such an experience might feel like. Hypothetically, I imagine it feels like an existential disconnect from life itself. It does not feel like death, as the old adage, “I’m dying up here!” goes. Rather, it is the death of all worth living for. It is an encounter with nothingness, and nothingness in an eternal, soul-shifting sort of way. Of course, I imagine that’s what it’s like. I’ve never bombed.

Guy Opochinski
When I tell the story of my first time bombing, people inevitably seem to say something about “crickets.” The truth is, when you bomb, it’s so uncomfortably silent that crickets would be a welcome noise.

Saragh Adams
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
The worst thing is when you’re mid-bomb–you know the jokes aren’t working (and will get worse) but you can’t abandon them because you’re a committed professional and also you can’t remember your other jokes right now–and you glance out at the audience and see your friends’ faces frozen in sympathetic, pained half-smiles. That is the moment I feel true shame. And then coming down from the stage and hearing them say “good job!” and “I could never do that!”, in high pitched, overly positive voices. Worst!

Cornell Reid
When you’re in the middle of it, it feels like there’s nothing you can do. Nothing you’ve said has ever been funny, yet you have to keep on talking until your time’s up. It never feels good to get in front of a large group of people and have them all tell you that you suck. It’s like when you buy someone a present and you’re super excited to give it to them, and when they open it they fucking hate it. Then you realize they’re gonna feel the same way about the other seven to eight presents you have.

Aaron Chewning
Bombing makes me feel like Jack on the Titanic. Things are going great, I’m happy and I’ve got my nude sketches in tow, when the iceberg crowd says, “Oh hell no!” They watch me slowly sink into an ocean of damning silence while refusing to make any room whatsoever on that big ass-floating door of career validation.

Spencer Hicks
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
My worst gig ever was a corporate event for an oil company’s Christmas party. I was supposed to do 30 minutes, clean. There was a buffet, and no one cared or listened to anything I was saying. In the moment, your mind is racing trying to think of ways to turn it around, but from an audience point of view, it probably takes forever for it to end. I think bombing is probably like a near death experience; everything is fast and slow at the same time. I thought about quitting comedy…then cashed their check.

Kate Froh
I did standup for the very first time as part of a prank show I made in 2014. I lost a challenge segment and my punishment was to perform seven minutes in front of a sold out club with an ear piece in. Three comics sat in the green room with a mic and fed me lines that I had to repeat word for word. The point was to humiliate me so, I’m sure you get the picture. I got very, very drunk on tequila while I watched the comics go before me to try and calm my nerves. When they called my name, I could barely walk up to the stage. My “material” included, but was not limited to: Bill Cosby, farts, fisting myself, yeast infections and a recurring Asian porn star impression. The video of my set is up on YouTube and the show was broadcast across Asia (of course). I turn red just thinking about it.

Pete Cornacchione
I know when I’ve worked on a joke and feel I’ve cut all the fat and the wording is perfect…I know it’s going to hit hard. No doubt, this one is going to bring the crowd to their knees. Then, I get up and deliver it just like I had planned aaaaaand…crickets. A lot of people try and blame the audience like, “These guys don’t get it!” But in reality, it’s you that doesn’t get it. Your jokes are awful. Move back to Ohio.

I’ve seen people bring friends to shows and they were so bad the friends left during the set and were like, “Hey, if you see so-and-so tell him my dog died or something and I had to go”

Jamie Woodham
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
I can tell you what it feels like to bomb in areas of the south where most people don’t even know the difference between standup and sketch comedy. It feels like you’re doing standup to a room full of disinterested cats. It’s one thing to throw out a joke and find out the audience doesn’t think it’s funny, but it’s another when you throw out joke after joke and you’re basically like, “I don’t think these people get how comedy works.” It usually just feels like they wandered into a bar, ordered a drink, then looked up like, “Hey, looks like some kid with a microphone has an announcement to make.” So overall, I’d warn any aspiring comics to steer clear of Tuscaloosa if most of their set consists of jokes on Ancient Egypt and “Boy Meets World.”

Brian Hope
I bombed one night many moons ago (I still bomb–it’s just that this was when I first started), and after the show a guy came up and said, “You think you’re funny making fun of the handicapped?” He wanted to kick the shit out of me. I had a couple beers before going onstage and made fun of two guys in the front row–I didn’t realize that one guy was mentally challenged and the other guy was his helper. As I was being threatened, I kept thinking, “Isn’t it good that I didn’t notice his disability?” I didn’t say that though, I just kept apologizing. I felt awful. Absolutely awful.

Brock Wilbur
When I first got into comedy, my biggest influences weren’t comedians as much as they were storytellers. Especially those over-priced DVDs that Kevin Smith released for years of his Q&A sessions around the world. I, unfortunately, thought that’s what standup could be: long stories that just delighted audiences because they were quirky. I never thought about the fact that Kevin Smith could do this because he was a beloved director who made several beloved movies–featuring famous actors–and that was the only reason Kevin Smith could spend 45 minutes on a story and have an audience follow him. So when I got started, I just dove in with long, rambly bullshit. One of my biggest, best first shots at comedy was a slot opening for a much bigger comedian who trusted me to come out and do my best. I thought I was doing that. I was wrong.

I came out to a room of maybe 300 people who were expecting–and rightfully so–a series of setups and punchlines comparable to the style and professionalism of the big name comedian the room had come out to support. Instead, they got a twenty-something dude who told the longest story imaginable. It’s my greatest bomb of all time, but it was also a manageable disaster. The room didn’t destroy me. I heard, throughout, bursts of laughter. Some people, though unprepared, joined me on the stupidly long journey. So I didn’t stop.

In the end, I murdered a room with an overly personal tale about nothing. I’d never fuck up like that again.

Thomas Towell
How Does It Feel To Bomb A Standup Comedy Set?
My first open mic set was three minutes long and all I got from the audience was a single “Ha!” by someone in the back of the bar. I think I was grinning the whole time because of how little response there was. I remember speaking, waiting for the audience to react, but only hearing the sounds of the bartender scooping ice or coughs here and there. I felt more relief than humiliation because I had stopped (in that moment) being afraid of failure.

Russell Hainline
I did standup on the East Coast for a couple of years before moving to LA. I was never especially good at it, like many people in their first couple of years doing standup. One night, I decided to be bold–I’d killed the last couple of times up, so I thought I’d go to an open mic and do nothing but new material. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. It was one of those nights where someone clearing their throat would echo around the silence pervading the theater. A shy kid in the front row, age 12 or so, started to laugh at one of my jokes but covered his mouth to stifle it. I said to him, “It’s okay, buddy, you can laugh at that.” A heckling voice in the back cried out, “We’ll laugh when you say something funny.” That got a bigger laugh than any of my new material.

I hadn’t really ever dealt with bombing on this level before, so when this heckler was thrown on top of it, I panicked. I started making fun of the heckler–he was bald, he was wearing an oversized Philadelphia Eagles jersey, etc. I took out my frustrations on this guy for a good 30 to 45 seconds, which is an eternity on the mic. At that point, the heckler spoke up again…and I realized, to my horror, it was a man *behind* the guy I’d just spent the last minute barraging with insults. Now, the entire audience was against me. I said “that’s my time, thank you,” walked off the stage, and immediately left the venue.

It took me half a year to build up the courage to face an audience on stage again. To make matters worse, I occasionally had my girlfriend record the show when I was trying out new material…so I have the whole thing on tape somewhere. I’ve yet to watch it. I’ll put it in a time capsule so that, after I’m dead, generations of young new comedians can learn from my mortifying mistakes.