What Led to My Worst Show in 20 Years?

As things have reopened, I’ve managed to work a few paid shows and test stuff at open mic. This last weekend I had my first week at a comedy club in about a year consisting of 3 days and a total of 5 shows, but the late show Friday was the worst paid set I’ve had as a headliner and one of the top 3 worst sets I’ve ever performed.

On Thursday, we only had 8 people in the crowd, so my set was shortened. For the first show Friday, we had some guest sets, so I did about 40 minutes. During that one I found myself struggling to automatically know which joke came next. I’d written some new material in the last year and hadn’t fit it permanently into my set. Still, first show Friday was relatively fine.

For the second show, I faced a perfect storm and only made things worse for myself. Here’s how:

The second show on Friday is almost always the toughest show of the week at a club. People are tired from working all day and they’ve typically been drinking for hours. Add a full moon, and you’re going to get a tired, drunk crowd who might not be used to being out and about that late.

My friend Reggie Edwards absolutely killed it for 10-15 minutes before me. No matter the demographic, Reggie can pull of a great set.

I didn’t take any of these things into account and went up like it was just any other show. As I was being introduced “He’s published 5 books and tours clubs and colleges…” I heard my first heckle, “Read us a book…” It wasn’t that loud or direct, but it threw me off and I wasn’t even on stage yet. I also had to replace the mic condom with a new one and didn’t do that very smoothly. This means I got on stage and didn’t speak write away. A major error. In the opening moments of my set, I let the crowd recognize silence—a complete juxtaposition from the last 10 minutes. Unless you’re a master who they’ve come to see, that’s hard to overcome.

I noticed right away that my jokes about teaching weren’t hitting very hard. I should have jumped straight to the edgier side of my act. I work pretty clean, but I do have jokes about sex which I should’ve gone straight to. I tend to do my sets in the same order so I can remember what’s next and because there are several callbacks that depend on ordering. As I learned the hard way, a drunk crowd doesn’t want to back up and learn about the frustrations of teaching.

When laughter is decreased a comic has less time to think about “What’s next?” and “Where do I go from here?” Those thoughts led to more silence which eventually led to drunk people taking it upon themselves to fill it. I was asked where I taught and told them, and the drunkest table there happened to be from the neighboring rival school. Why high school sports rivalries matter to grown adults in a comedy club is beyond me, but alas, they made a big deal about it.

The first third of my set was still okay, considering. But around the midway point the checkdrop happened and I never recovered. The guy who was laughing loudest on the “good” side of the room was no longer listening. He must’ve inspected every drink on his receipt because he wasn’t even watching anymore.

Around this point I did a darker joke which usually hits, but they somehow took offense to. Moaning is common (and has been since around 2012 for some reason), but I wasn’t even getting the “Oh no he didn’t!” moans. I got a response of “We’re legitimately offended.” On a late show Friday? Yes, somehow.

I made things worse by jabbing back at tables. I had a couple walk out from the front row after I made fun of the woman when her cellphone went off. Who still uses ringers? They made a 5-star production of getting up, putting coats on, finishing drink, and slowly walking from near the front across the room. I know from experience you can’t start a new joke while this is happening as the crowd is more interested in them. This was with about 5-10 minutes left in my set. I did my book promo half-assed figuring no one was going to even look at me afterwards (I sold one that show), and then finally got the light, did my closer to minimal laughter, got off stage, put my mask back on, and swore under it for the next 5 minutes.

As a comic, when you have a bad set, acknowledge it. If you act like a bad set is normal, the club will know you’ve set the bar too low or you’re used to failure. I’ve had plenty of great sets in that room over the last 15 years, so it’s not like it’s the end of my time there. One of the servers even joked with me about it. I recovered last night and was happy with both sets to cleanse the palate. I talked with the manager and we rehashed what I could’ve done differently. He understood that we’re all a little rusty during this period as well.

So let me summarize what I could’ve done to avoid this catastrophe:

  1. Taken the stage more aggressively.
  2. Adjusted setlist to get to dirtier stuff right away.
  3. Avoided edgier jokes that might produce moans or turn people off.
  4. Reduced time in between bits to almost nothing (plow through the set if you have to).
  5. Ignored drunk heckles. It became me vs. them instead of them seeing me as one of them.

It was a learning experience for me, and a warning for you. So if you’re doing longer sets and you haven’t been working much lately, run through that setlist until you’re back into auto-pilot on which joke comes next.

As comics, we tend to dwell on the negative. During a great set, we notice the one person not laughing. During a great week, we remember the one show that didn’t go as well. I’ve got to move on as I have two one-nighters the next two weeks. I couldn’t even get myself to make a video about all this. Venting and writing about it was therapeutic. Pretending it didn’t happen would only give it a chance to happen again.

For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, available in paperback and ebook. (And help me get my self-esteem back!)