Spend any amount of time with comedians and you’ll soon realise they all have one thing in common. No matter how successful they are, they all remember their worst experience on a stage trying to make people laugh... and failing.
A wedding reception. No one told the bridezilla I was going to be part of the after-dinner entertainment. The groom’s brother booked me because he thought footy jokes would be fabulous. He asked me to dress in a Canterbury Bulldogs jersey (not long after the rape scandal) because the groom was a HUGE Doggies fan.
60 percent of the audience didn’t speak English. The bride glared at me the whole gig. The room wasn’t set up for comedy. I was so far from the audience, half of them couldn’t hear what I was saying. They kept me waiting for 90 minutes past the time I was booked to go on. I lasted 20 minutes and left.
That gig was nearly 13 years ago and I still shudder when I drive past the reception venue.
My first set was at the Roxbury in Glebe. I thought I would be magnificent and have an agent come up to me after the show to put me in paid work and TV. At least I was confident. Like most open micers, I didn’t have the skills or material to justify it. To this day it is still the worst bomb I’ve ever had.
I started with a cheeky hand on your heart/now you're touching your titties bit – classic. Then moved into a bit comparing God to schizophrenia and Jesus to a hobo – still surprised that didn’t work. After that, I did an alliteration piece about lipstick for vaginas and my big closer: comparing kids to dogs, ending on the fact that you can put a dog down if it gets sick.
It was horrific. Longwinded, edgy for the sake of it with weak jokes and tenuous threads holding it together. Even with mates in the crowd it was mostly crickets. If I ever think I haven’t improved, I just go back and watch that first set again.
Steen Raskopoulos and Susie Youssef
When I was 21, Susie Youssef and I agreed to be the entertainment at a joint 18th birthday party down the coast. We were asked specifically to do some theatresports games... at an 18th birthday party... where alcohol was served... to teenagers. As soon as we turned up, the birthday girl told us to "f*** off".
We persevered and tried to set up chairs, but the partygoers continued to throw them away. Eventually the parents settled them into their place. As we started the first game, the birthday girl stood up, yelled at her mum and stormed out – followed by her boyfriend (who also was sharing this joint birthday).
Susie then, without hesitation, began to sing "Happy Birthday" and we got out of there after two minutes. The mother came out apologising, “I thought she liked drama at school. Do I still have to pay you?” Yes she did, of course she did.
My worst onstage experience was a play in first year where I had terrible gastro, so I spent the first half of the play in a cold sweat, ducking off to spew in an ice-cream bucket backstage. What a delight for all involved.
Second to that was outdoors improv during O Week at university. Improv thrives off an audience, so people walking past you like you're some sort of zoo exhibit is a very disheartening experience. It was paid well, but we used to call it “the price of dignity” and then immediately spend the blood money trying to buy back our self esteem.
My worst stage experience was at some rugby league awards night. I was rather nervous – the setting of the room was not good for any kind of comedy. There was a large gap between the stage and the tables. That felt awkward straight away.
I was told I wasn’t allowed to swear or talk about drugs or mention any rugby league scandals. I bombed. I walked out with my head down in shame and got a cab. As I was leaving, Greg Inglis saw me and said, “I liked it.” I said, “No one else did,” and he replied with, “Maybe it’s a black thing.”
To start off in comedy, my best mate Andy Marks (known for '90s bands like Crow and Lunarcide) and I started a monthly residency at a pub in Sydney's inner west. The first of these was attended by my mum, who let’s be clear, IS NOT A FAN and thinks this whole pursuit is pointless. To her surprise, she actually didn’t mind my stand-up in the first half of the show, but found my work in the second half “too smutty and unnecessary”, which I should put on a poster at some point.
To be fair, though, it wasn’t entirely my fault. For some unknown and bizarre reason, the OWNER OF THE PUB got a little too into my “smut” and ran into the kitchen while I was on to get some cabanossi, as you do. He then proceeded to chuck pieces of cabanossi at my head while I was performing. Strangely, it was not the “comedy gold” you’d expect - just weird and distracting. Then, this piece of work Colin came "onstage” (which was less of a “stage” and more of an “area of carpet”) and caressed my face with the long sticks of cabanossi.
I then did the only rational thing a comic could do in that situation, and proceeded to get on my knees and perform fellatio on the cabanossi, at which point the whole room, led by my mum, let out a collective “NOOOOOOOOO!” That was actually the biggest reaction I got that night, so I refrained and quickly ended the show. You can’t really top “heckled by processed meat”.
It was February of 2012 and I was still pretty new to comedy and didn't really understand/know the notion of trying out a joke little by little. I'd been doing the same routine for a while, so I decided to think up some new jokes for an upcoming gig. I was writing a lot of gym jokes since it was the new year - I thought people would really get into them. I hadn't practised any of the jokes out loud before. Before I left for my gig, where I was about to do five minutes of untested material, I decided to try it out on my brother. I went through my routine and my brother was in hysterics, causing me to be in hysterics. He assured me the routine was "sooo funny" and I left feeling invincible.
When the MC (Simon Taylor, who was really encouraging after I bombed) called my name, I was feeling pretty good. I went out and delivered my first joke about the gym, really hamming up the punchline remembering how well my brother received it. It didn't land. I then delivered a follow-on from the first joke which also didn't land. I then proceeded to do seven minutes of jokes only about zumba to a stunned/deathly quiet comedy audience. Eventually, one guy let out the loudest, most sarcastic laugh I've ever heard so I wrapped it up and ran off the stage.
So I bombed that day, but not without reason. They say you learn more about yourself and the art when you bomb then when you are safe. "They" probably also don't have a sold-out career in stand-up. But I did learn a few valuable lessons: 1. Have a mix of new and old jokes. 2. Don't stick with one theme. 3. Never listen to my brother. Ever.
I was doing an Artshub function a while back for some business-type thing and I was opening the afternoon session with a cheeky 10 minutes. The fact the people in the extraordinarily well-lit room weren’t laughing wasn’t the worst part of the gig, nor was the fact the people who were going to be speaking were all sitting behind me on the stage waiting for their panel to start.
The worst part was when I was halfway through a joke about a ghost – who I mention resembles an entirely fictional “Emily” who drowned, but it wasn’t my fault – one of the speakers stood up, pointed at me and said, “Don’t.” I looked at them and I don’t know what the backstory was, but I decided I wouldn’t, so I stopped the joke and moved on. Still got paid, though, so it wasn’t all bad.
My worst-ever gig was probably an open mic night I did when I first started doing stand-up in Melbourne. I invited someone along on a date, but I did so badly she left halfway through my set. She had to walk past the stage to exit the venue and I saw her mouth “sorry” as she walked past.
We were doing a show at the Edinburgh Free Fringe called Comedy Boxing. The audiences come in for free and leave by donation. So, you get all walks of life coming. During part of the show, the audience is allowed to heckle the performers. Scottish people like to heckle, mostly because they think they're funnier than most comedians.
There was a muscly 60-year-old ex-military Glaswegian man in the front row wearing a fez. The MC announces that the audience can now heckle the performers. So, the Glaswegian man pulls out a flick knife and holds it towards the MC. The MC's response to this was... to bring me onstage. I then had to do stand-up while this crazy man held a knife one metre away from my body. This is free fringe so there's no security or staff to help run the show. So, I got to play a game called Be Funny Don’t Get Stabbed.
To his credit, it was an excellent heckle. I had no adequate response to a life-threatening prop-based heckle. I talked him into putting the knife away and thanked him for his willingness to participate, because it really livened the show up. I had to get a photo with him after the show. He was more than happy to pose for the camera.
I was living in Los Angeles – there's a lot of great rooms there, but there are some shockers, too. And when you’re starting out, you’ll take any room you can. And because LA is filled with so many people trying to make it in comedy, you can find yourself playing to a room where there is literally no one there except for the other comedians who are (a) too busy scribbling their own last-minute jokes in their notebook or (b) not at all interested in giving someone else an unfair advantage by laughing at their jokes. It was an 11pm show in a 30-seat room, with eight people in the crowd and none of them even bothering to look up at the stage!
My mum came to one of my really early open mic nights, against my wishes of course, but she liked a joke I road tested on her earlier that day and she wanted in. So we hit Tuesday night at the Sydney Comedy Store armed with this weapon of a pun: “I once went out with a girl who spoke fluent Swahili, I remember the night we first met... we just clicked.” It’s cute, but I was young and it was a more innocent time for all of us.
So I open with it and get a huge groan, and it knocks the wind out of me early. Team Barrett went all in on this zinger, but the 100 or so salty f***s at The Store stonewall us and I’m on the ropes out of the gates. Mum felt bad, so she throws me a bone from the second row: “Well I thought it was funny,” and I automatically reply, “Thanks Mum.”
Crowd goes crazy. Huge 20-second applause break and then the laugh dies down and like a chump I choose honesty: “No, that’s my actual mother,” and this palpable vacuum of sadness takes over the room. It was so real and so depressing for everyone. I fumbled through some topical Martin Bryant gear, which strangely got nothing. I get offstage, the MC comes back on and says, “Mrs Barrett,” then fires a hand cannon at her and goes “click”.
It crushed. I started doing heroin the next day.
The Stevenson Experience
We were doing one loose and rowdy gig at the snowfields in Perisher, and even before we had got five minutes into the hour-long show the crowd bought us shots out of test tubes, but told us we weren’t allowed to use our hands. Peer pressure won the day as it seemed doing the shots would be the only thing that would appease them. We did it without our hands, but I bit too hard on the test tube, it shattered and I swallowed a ton of glass. The crowd loved it but I thought I was going to die.
Edinburgh is home to some of my best and worst gig experiences. One year I was doing a show in a really rough pub - the type of venue you tell people about and they immediately apologise. It was Saturday night at 7pm, early enough that people were still able to walk but late enough for them to be somewhere between conscious and vomit.
About a second after I walked on the stage, I realised the crowd was filled with four different hen's and buck's parties, all hammered, and with no interest in anything other than shots and laughing about how they were going to cheat on their partners.
I made zero attempts to do material – you try performing to a plump middle-aged man dressed as Snow White or 15 haggard women wearing school uniforms. Instead, I spent an hour talking about all the weddings, found out Greg’s riddled with STIs and Lucy’s a slut, so that was fun. I’m not even sure if it could be called a gig, it was more like a drunken conversation with strangers for an hour.
They actually all tipped a lot in the end, so swings and roundabouts.
Watch the stand up comedy / house party mash-up Flophouse at SBS On Demand: