The Bomb

The Bomb


Every now and again a comedian will drop the bomb.  While not as lethal as the military version, it is devastating to the comic with the audience suffering collateral damage. Most often, it happens in the early years when the comic isn’t experienced enough to avoid it.  This can happen also when the performer thinks he’s got it all together so all he has to do is show up and everything is gravy.  Even the most experienced comic will go through it when the stars simply are not aligned properly.

I have been lucky enough to avoid this scenario for the most part, but there was one show I’ll never forget.  It happened in the early 90’s when I auditioned for HBO’s Def Comedy Jam.  The audition process is something I’ve never been able to quite get a handle on, my nerves take over.  On top of that the audition was held at the Peppermint Lounge in NJ, which is a regular nightclub and not set up ideally for comedy. I had seen the show and knew that I wasn’t the typical Def Jam comic which added to my jittery jangles.  The crowd was 99% black and traditionally, black audiences have little tolerance for anything but a superb performance.  On this night the crowd was out for blood.  Think audition night at the Apollo.  I have no recollection of who else was on the show or how they were received.  I had little confidence I would win them over since my material isn’t based on getting caught while screwing or the difference between white and black folks.  The applause when the emcee introduced me was lackluster, which didn’t bolster me in the least.  It wasn’t long before the jokes I was doing didn’t get their usual response and replaced with a sort of murmur.  I felt the audience was about to collectively turn on me within seconds.  Then I heard it.

“Boooo”. This awful sound came from a table in the middle of the room.

Really?  This is how this is going to go down? I asked myself what the hell was I doing. I felt like when somebody gets covered in hot ice and then they fall apart like a jigsaw puzzle, smashing into littler bits when they hit the ground. One thing a comic cannot afford to do is show fear and I had a dump truck full.  The crowd seemed to delight in the fact that I was bothered by their response and it snowballed from there.


Now it was coming from the basement of their stomach, and I would have felt better if they just shot me with a machine gun, putting me out of my misery. It was a primal, guttural sound that shook me where I live. There was no doubt that their disapproval was real and I couldn’t blame them.  I didn’t have the right attitude when I went out there, I pretty much planned to fail.

I have no idea how long I endured their punishment, but managed to salvage the set with my poem “Your Hairweave Is Causing Me Problems”.  Years later, I still get people who will come up to me with that “don’t I know you” look and they’ll stop me and ask if I was a comedian.  I say yes and they go through a list of shows and when they get to Def Comedy Jam, they’ll tell me they have me on tape at home.  The booker hired me for the second season in spite of the worst audition of my life.

In nearly 29 years of stand up, including 10 years of street performing, I’ve had my share of shows where I bombed.  On those nights you have to go all up in yourself and gather the strength in the reservoir of your soul.  Remind yourself what you are about and get over it. Brother James used to say, “you gotta go through it to get to it”.   Right on.

William Stephenson


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