I’m walking onstage at a casino’s comedy club in State Line, Nevada, which feels just as exotic as the name implies. It’s the third night of a five-night run in the middle of the snowiest January since 1982 — which, coincidentally, seems like the last time the decor in here was updated — and the club’s roof has leaked and flooded the venue. So this show is taking place in the exhibition hall next door: a 500-person capacity room, with 30 people in it.
Casino gigs are a rite of passage in comedy. It’s common practice for casinos to hand out free tickets to guests — usually drunk — who busted at the tables. The idea is to keep them happy, but it’s a false premise; funny isn’t money, and the crowd knows it. Plus, it makes me feel like a consolation prize. But between the pay, food vouchers, and access to the sauna, I can’t really afford to turn it down.
I take the mic, thank the host, and recite my standard opening statement: “My name is Allen Strickland Williams, and I’m gonna tell you 23 jokes.” Or, depending on the length of the set, maybe “47 jokes,” or “17.” I started doing this early on, because the vast majority of my set is comprised of one-liners, as opposed to longer observational bits, stories, or act-outs, which are far more common. I realized that I had been throwing audiences a curveball, and I wanted to give them warning — and make sure my first few jokes didn’t die on the vine while people were catching on. Sometimes, my opening line will get a laugh. Tonight, there are none.
No problem. I wind up and deliver my first joke. “I’m originally from Florida.” Beat. I like to wait here because sometimes a particularly exuberant crowd member will let out a “Woo!” — to which I always reply, “Um, no,” to let them know that what I’m going to say next will be less than complimentary. Tonight, there’s no interruption, so I go on.
“A lot of people don’t understand what Florida is really like, so I have this analogy I like to use to explain it. If America is the Walmart, then Florida is the McDonald’s inside the Walmart.”
I wait for the laughs to roll in. They don’t. I scan the room. It’s pitch black, but I can tell there are enough warm bodies to warrant some sort of response.
In the control center of my mind, warning lights begin to flash. That’s because this moment is important. What happens after telling your first joke is a flashpoint for the rest of your set, making it one of the most exhilarating experiences in show business. It’s like that moment at the top of a roller coaster’s initial ascent, after the monotonous clicking of the chain pulling the cars up the track abruptly stops. But on the ride, we know what comes next. There’s a sharp intake of breath, a steep drop, happy screams.
On stage, there is no such certainty. I tell my second joke, which builds upon the first. “I’m from Jacksonville, Florida. That’s like the bathroom inside the McDonald’s inside the Walmart.”
Someone coughs. Not exactly the response I was going for.
This is the part where I start cursing myself for not going to law school. I crafted this series of one-liners into a cohesive bit from its disparate parts during my first few years of doing stand-up, and typically it works well as an icebreaker, the way you strike up a conversation with a stranger at a party by asking where they’re from. Also, it’s a gradual build on one topic that tunes the audience in. But the audience is dropping out.
I spend the remainder of my 25 minutes onstage telling joke after joke to no response, in some strange existential circle of hell reserved solely for comedians.
Desperate, I go all in with the third part of the joke. “Jacksonville is interesting, because it’s the northernmost part of the state of Florida, but it’s actually super southern in nature. I grew up around rednecks. I was raised Southern Baptist. But if I ever say that I’m from the South, and someone from Georgia or Alabama hears me say that, they always say, ‘Florida, that ain’t the South.’” A beat for the big finish. “Do you know how bad your state has to be for the South not to want it?”
The only response comes from the air conditioner overhead, which seems to be asking, “What in the hell is going on?” I wish I had an answer. I know better than to lash out at the crowd. And you can’t leave the stage and expect to get paid. I recall a quote from Rodney Dangerfield, “Just keep going like a tank.” So I spend the remainder of my 25 minutes onstage telling joke after joke to no response, in some strange existential circle of hell reserved solely for comedians.
The sound guy mercifully gives me the light to show my time is up. I wish it were a light at the end of a tunnel, because I very much want to die. I go backstage, questioning everything about my career and my talents. The next comic avoids eye contact with me as he takes the stage. I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t want my stink on me either. I watch him go onstage, where he proceeds to fare exactly as I just did.
You bomb quite often in the first year or so of doing comedy. The upside is you learn how to deal with it. You tell yourself it wasn’t that bad. You get really drunk and forget it happened. After you’ve been at it for five years or so, you gain your footing. Your writing progresses, along with your stage presence. You can guess what will work before you even take it onstage, and you learn how to sell jokes that may not have landed when you were green.
But bombing never really goes away. Michelle Wolf’s set at the White House Correspondents Dinner — as well as it played on TV — didn’t get the love it deserved in the room, with its awful acoustics and awkward seating and hostile crowd. Comedy is subjective, a never-ending search for that elusive “perfect” show. And even when you’ve found it, the thrill begins to fade as the next show rises on the horizon.
After the show, instead of drinking and looking for trouble, I decide to go back to my hotel room and feel sorry for myself. I listen to a recording of the set on my phone, trying to piece together what went wrong. The jokes sound exactly the same as they always do. Did I look…unfunny? Too ugly to be onstage? No, that’s crazy talk. Was it the crowd? I wish I could say it was all their fault, but I’m past the point of blaming the audience. Unfortunately.
I look at the clock. It’s a few minutes after midnight. And I realize — here’s the punchline — that it’s now technically my birthday.
“Well, well, well,” I say to the comedian in the hotel mirror. “Happy birthday to me.”