John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

Jeni, Maher, Seinfeld, Shandling on Bombing...
Ajaye, Anderson, Degeneres on Hecklers...

by John Cantu ©

During my recent hospital stay, I kept my mind off my pending brain surgery by reading a review copy of Franklyn Ajaye's Comic Insights.   This is a MUST READ for anyone serious about stand-up. I have been touting Larry Wilde's Book The Great Comedians for years.    Franklyn's book matches it.

Are You a Beginner Bummed on the Fact That You Are Bombing So Much?

Here's something I wrote December 1, 2000 in a CCD essay titled "Mistakes Newbies Make."

Putting WAY too much emphasis on the audience response on any given night: I talked to one comic, whose performance I had enjoyed, after the show and he said he had been feeling a little off since the last few shows hadn't been going well. I asked, "How many times have you performed?"

"About 12 or 14."

I said, "Your first 100 times on stage don't count. It doesn't matter if you do good or bad because you are so new you really can't tell why the audience is laughing.

"You don't have enough experience to put any one performance into perspective. Were you really good OR was the audience really good? Were you really bad OR was the audience really bad?"

Here is what I wish someone had told me when I was starting out: Your first 100 times on stage don't count. The first 100 times is just what is known as stage time. Don't try to analyze what's funny or not funny because you are simply too inexperienced.

So, to hell with it, have courage - just get up.   If you get up on stage and stay on stage for a minimum of 5 minutes YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED.


Don't worry about laughs at this stage of your career. You don't have enough skill and experience to control the audience yet. That's like trying to learn how to drive and win the Indianapolis 500 all at the same time.

Do this. Get some sort of book or diary or journal and write down #1. Then for that entry, write the date (date and month and year) and the venue name and how long you did.

Then try to evaluate your set objectively.

  • "I was funny or I was not funny" is not objective.
  • "They laughed at four jokes, groaned at two and were silent the rest of the time" is objective.
  • Also note these kinds of things (this will help you discover your best audiences):
    • Was the audience mostly male or female? Age- oldest - youngest - median age?
    • Mostly blue collar (working class) or white collar (office type workers)?
    • Mostly sober or drunk?
    • Did you get on early (first third of show) about midway or late (last third of show)?
  • Note whatever other observations make sense from your perspective and goals.

These are factors that REALLY affect how you material is received. It is not a simply matter of "I am funny or I am not funny."

DO this for each performance. And for your first 25 times, don't make your goal getting big laughs at all. Your goal should be to simply get on stage, not chicken out and take the total time allotted to you without going overtime and stealing time from a fellow performer. Do this each time for your first 25 times on stage and consider it a success regardless of laughs or lack of laughs.

For your next 25 times from 26-50 now try for one laugh. Try to get at least one person in the audience to laugh once. Yes, just one person, one time.

For your next 25 times from 51-75 -now try for two laughs. Try to get at least two people in the audience to laugh once. Or one person to laugh twice.

For your next 25 times from 76-100 -now try for three laughs. Try to get at least three people in the audience to laugh once. Or one person to laugh twice and one other person to laugh once. Or one person to laugh three times.

You will more than likely suck your first 100 times on stage - that's why so few people succeed in comedy because they can't endure those first 100 excruciating events of public humiliation.

Only after 100 times on stage, if you are still playing to complete silence should you seriously think "maybe I WAS meant to be an accountant."

I started doing stand-up at age 27. In three years I went from terrible to mediocre. It took me till age 45 to fully find my comic voice.

Another issue - dealing with hecklers "For years I have told comics - 'leave hecklers alone - ignore them.' "

I would toss a heckler out in a heartbeat from any club I ran - most pro venues do this, but low rent venues and inexperienced club owners sometimes won't because hecklers often are dropping a lot of money on booze.

Let's look at these two issues from interview snippets in Ajaye's Comic Insights.

Bombing at the start:

Richard Jeni (page 106)

Ajaye: "Were you that comfortable when you first got on stage?"

Jeni: "I sucked. The first whole year I was quitting every day. I'd go to the guys and say, 'Should I be doing this? 'Cause I suck and the audience doesn't like me.' "

Bill Maher (page 156)

Ajaye: "Did you bomb much the first year?"

Maher: "Of course. I mean how can you not bomb the first year? I don't know how anyone can get laughs even the fiftieth time.

Jerry Seinfeld: (page 198)

Ajaye: "How can a beginning comic avoid bombing?"

Seinfeld: "You can't avoid it when you are starting 'cause you don't know what's going on. For example, you don't have the experience that you are talking too fast or that you're talking in a rote fashion instead of the present moment."

Gary Shandling (page 210)

Ajaye: "Did you bomb much when you started out?"

Shandling: "For the first five years."

Ajaye: "Are you serious? How did you hang in?"

Shandling: "I thought that was part of how I grew as a person, being able to survive that.

And what is the pro's consensus on hecklers in Comic Insights?

Franklyn Ajaye (page 38) (From his Journal for Playboy in 1989) Monday October 24 Houston "I did a one hour and fifty minute show - the longest set I've done in ages. Plus I had two hecklers. My first tactic with a heckler is to ignore him.

Louie Anderson (Page 55):

Ajaye: "How do you handle hecklers?"

Anderson: "Very quickly."

Ajaye: Have you had any lingering hecklers who have ruined the show?"

Anderson: "I've had hecklers who have ruined shows, but I leave. See when I go to a club, I find out who is the doorman and I sit down with him and I ask him if there is anything he needs from me.

"And then he usually asks if there's anything I need from him. And I'll say the one thing I need is as soon as anyone heckles me I want you on him."

Ellen Degeneres (page 96)

Ajaye: So you wouldn't respond back to them?"

Degeneres: "No. I try not to be mean to people. Unless they really aren't just getting it. Because I just think they don't know any better. They don't know it affects your rhythm and where you are and everything. But usually there are bouncers to take care of that."

NEXT: Bullfights and Fool Fights