About three weeks ago I got a call from a comic friend—he had just bombed at an open mic. He lives in New York, a city of hundreds of open mics full of hundreds of comics just begging for even a couple minutes on stage. He’s a good comic—really funny and a solid writer—but this had been happening to him a lot lately.
Every few months one of my comedy friends goes through this kind of crisis. In the comedy world, we call this mindfucking yourself. If you lose your confidence for whatever reason, the audience can tell, and they don’t like it. The opposite’s true as well. If you feel on your game, that resonates because whatever you're feeling on the inside, you project onto the crowd.
Last week I flew from Albuquerque to Denver for a comedy show featuring Andrew Orvedahl, Nick Vatterott, Ben Kronberg and Denver native T.J. Miller. Wearing his old letterman jacket from high school, Miller was visibly excited to be back in Denver. “Hello to all my friends and family in the audience,” he shouted to uproarious applause. “Actually there’s only about 40 of you I don’t know.” With jokes about weed and Denver neighborhoods, it’s evident that Miller is a child of the 303.
Onstage, Miller recounted this story with rawness and vulnerability, how he started out excited but was ultimately made a buffoon; one slight hesitation on his part and the story would’ve been depressing instead of hilarious.
Videos of Miller's stand-up show how he's constructed a unique absurdist style—but that night I saw something different. He told a story about a friend orchestrating a fake audition as a huge prank. This friend convinced Miller there was an audition for a commercial, put him through the entire process and then revealed it was all a sham. Onstage, Miller recounted this story with rawness and vulnerability, how he started out excited but was ultimately made a buffoon; one slight hesitation on his part and the story would’ve been depressing instead of hilarious. Maybe it’s nostalgia, or maybe he’s contemplating his comedic identity, but that night he traced the trajectory of his career from high school drama class to auditioning as a pro. He showed self-awareness, reflection and vulnerability onstage, and yet remained solidly in control, which made the audience fall in love with him.
Comics sometimes think a personal or embarrassing story is funny enough on its own. It’s not. The audience doesn’t know you, they are not your friends, and they have no context for what you’re saying, so that embarrassing story is only funny if you craft it that way. You see this often at open mics; a comic begins a story but slowly realizes the crowd doesn’t care or feels sorry for them. They lose their confidence and then bam, the mindfuck. Miller navigated around this and has found a way of making the personal funny. He projected his confidence onto the Denver crowd, and that night in his hometown, he nailed it to a sold-out Gothic Theatre.