The Art Of Bombing

improv

Thursday, 11:49am
Tampa Bay, FL
“What kind of music do you play here, Bob?” “Oh, we got both kinds. Country and western.” (Bob, the bar owner, and Jake Blues in “The Blues Brothers”)

Howdy…

Each year around July 4th, I like to post something on the blog about the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The part about free speech remains a protection that Americans enjoy (most of the time)… while much of the rest of the world refuses to even consider the concept.

Even otherwise enlightened joints like Europe have an itchy relationship with free speech.

Hell, we couldn’t get such a protection passed here in the States now.  If it hadn’t been wedged into the Constitution by Jefferson in the Bill of Rights 240 years ago, it would still be an unrealized pipe dream of writers and deep thinkers everywhere.

Make no mistake:  Your freedom to write blogs without government interference… as well as your right to use words like “fuck” to your heart’s content while making your point… is protected (mostly).

And this freedom is what fueled America’s dominance in stand up comedy.

Hey, don’t scoff.  Satire, ridicule, and funny stuff very much qualifies as deep thinking.

In fact, it’s how public opinion gets changed the fastest.

And this freedom has been denied to almost every human who has walked the planet in our history.

So don’t take it lightly.  Your ancestors would have killed for such a seemingly obvious privilege (and both did kill to get it, and die defending it).

The Man don’t like free speech.

Bugs him.  Irritates his sense of authority and moral dominance.

Well, fuck The Man.

For every writer who was or will be jailed for writing the truth (as he or she sees it)…

… and for every deep thinker who has been ostracized or exiled (or beheaded) for daring to challenge The Way Things Are…

… here is my toast to you, on the eve of the anniversary of our country’s bid for independence.

We’re not perfect, by a long shot.  We are, in fact, extremely dysfunctional on most levels — government, commerce, entertainment, Fourth Estate, and on down the list.

Still, I love this rickety old experiment in democracy.

As a writer, it’s part of my job to love and enjoy the good parts.  I owe it to all the poor slobs who preceded me in the gig… ink-stained wretches who could barely dream of the freedoms that writers enjoy today.  (Let alone the amazing stage presented by the Web for eveyone with something to say.)  (And even those with nothing to say.)

Mmmm-whaw!  Big kiss to the Constitution.

Our rights are fragile, as recent administrations have made abundantly clear.

Love them, hug them, nurture and protect them with passion and action.

And, most of all…

… enjoy the hell out of them.

To that end, I am proud to introduce another guest post by my friend and colleague Kevin Rogers.  (That stand-up-comic-turned-killer-copywriter who was also the very first writer to guest-post on this blog a while back.)

I laughed out loud several times reading this post, and I hope you get the same raw enjoyment.

The lessons are good ones, too.

So, without further ado… put your hands together and give a rousing Marketing Rebel Rant welcome to our guest, Kevin Rogers.

Kevin Rogers, everybody.

Take it away, Kevin.

And don’t fuck it up.

[Applause, dropped mic, feedback, lights dim…]

Thanks John, I’m honored to be back.

(And a special shout out to everyone who posted jokes and comments last time. Not surprisingly, there’s an army of sharp wits floating around here at camp Carlton.)

I had such a good time examining copywriting tactics through the prism of stand-up comedy on the last post that I’m going back to the well. Only this time let’s flip the script and observe at the art of bombing on stage…

…and how studying the cause and effect can help you avoid “eating the big one” with your marketing campaigns.

One of my first “hell gigs” as a stand-up comic was a deal too good to pass up…

…$75 to drive 600 miles from my apartment in Clearwater, FL to Gadsden, Alabama for one show in a strip mall country bar called Shit Kickerz – or something ridiculous like that.

(Don’t bother doing the math on that. I was 19 and living the dream. Besides, as you’ll see, negative net profit was not my biggest problem on this gig.)

It was a cavernous strip mall dance hall bathed in black light — turning anyone you talked to into a neon cartoon of eyeballs and teeth (bad teeth at that).

Ten minutes before I hit the stage, there were 11 dudes in cowboy hats wandering around looking desperate and 2 girls with poofy bangs drinking bottled beer at the bar.

If this was the audience I’d driven 9 hours to perform for, tomorrow’s trip home was going to feel twice as long. Every cell in my body screamed: Leave now!

The Art of Bombing

When asked to list their worst fears, most people rank public speaking scarier than death.

I believe it was Jerry Seinfeld who pointed out… “that means most people delivering the eulogy at a funeral would rather be in the casket.”

Makes sense.

A classic bombing is almost as painful for the audience as for the performer on stage. I’ve seen some doozies, too. Total meltdowns where the comic snaps and the audience is trapped in their seats… frozen in seething contempt.

The best are those occasions where the comic refuses to go quietly and remains on stage ranting until he’s completely “walked the room” (a comedy phrase for tormenting the audience into getting up and leaving… table by table).

A few comics (Bill Hicks and Andy Kaufman come to mind) made an art form of walking rooms before sobriety or an untimely demise broke them of the habit.

But the truth is, whether you’re an entertainer, a marketer or just the whacky guy at the company picnic, if you’re bold enough to call attention to yourself…

You’re going to bomb eventually.

In fact, I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t crashed and burned a few times. I want my experts wearing scars, don’t you?

Bombing as a comic will cause you to drink a little more and sleep a little less until your next good show… but it’s a necessary evil. Because each soul-drenching death adds another layer to the armor. Preparing you for future battles.

Bombing in marketing, however, can cost you a life savings. Some entrepreneurs never make it past their first tour of duty.

So here to help you avoid such a fate are…

The 3 Mistakes That (Almost Always) Lead To Certain Death.

1. Misjudging your “message to market match.”

One of the most common scenarios John takes on in his famous Hot Seat interventions is… entrepreneurs with a mixed bag of interests trying to be all things to all people.

Which, of course, causes you to be nothing to nobody.

People like to imagine their experts fixated on solving their problem and not much else. So try not to blow the image for them.

My pre-schooler gets freaked out if we run into his teacher at the grocery store. In his mind, any activity she engages in outside of the classroom is a serious breach of their agreement.

She teacher, him student. End of story.

Your customers see you the same way. You get to be the champion of one niche. So, choose wisely.

If you’re a hypnotist/entertainer selling a video on “fertility through guided meditation”… do not mention anywhere in the same ad – or the same website – that you’re also available to perform magic at children’s parties.

No sane woman is taking fertility guidance from “Bonkers the Clown”. So demonstrate your balloon-twisting skills on a totally different site… under a different name… wearing heavy make-up… and a wig.

2.  Wimping out.

This one is crucial… whether you’re speaking at live events or writing direct sales copy, you’ve got to beam with confidence.

Now, there are some pro comics who play the nervous, insecure or ambiguous character (remember Emo Philips?)… but trust me, it’s only an act.

If the crowd were to mistake that meekness for weakness and become aggressive, they’d quickly see another side to the character.

I once watched Bobcat Goldthwait yank an overzealous audience member out of his seat… drag him on stage by the leg… and kick him back off the stage onto the floor.

He then launched right into another joke with that nervous pitchy character voice… and the audience went wild.

Marketing yourself with confidence doesn’t require you to take on a “Rich Jerk” type persona, but you do need to write and speak with gravitas. Always use an active voice rather than a passive one.

(If you don’t know the difference between active and passive RUN to the bookstore and buy “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.)

Your readers crave leadership.  (Not, leadership is craved by your readers.)

3. Get the crowd behind you BEFORE you take on hecklers.

Most hecklers suck. They’re rude and incoherent and serve no purpose but to interrupt the show.

So for the comic, having to stop the show to tell them, “It’s amazing that out of 100 million sperm, YOU were the fastest swimmer…”

or…

“Hey, man I don’t come to your job and knock the mop out of your hand… can I get back to work here?”

…while good for a quick laugh, is nothing more than a tedious game of Whack-A-Mole.

But, every once in a while, you get a really good heckler. One that shouts out witty jabs at just the right moments (preferably between jokes), and gets a segment of the crowd to rally behind her.

This is a risky scenario marketers also face in this age of Internet forums. The gurus take a beating on message boards… and while it’s RARELY a good idea to respond to the territorial pissings of frustrated wannabes… it can be done to great effect.

The key to success in either situation is to know your final shot before entering the battle, and leading your opponent accordingly.

A few years into my road career, I began welcoming good hecklers because I knew how the game was going to end. And I had a line so good, I could close the show with it.

After lulling the heckler into false confidence, I would feign defeat by saying…

“Look. You’ve been shouting out and disrupting the show all night. We’ve had a little fun with it. But it’s to a point now where it’s unfair to all these good people who paid to see the real show.

So, let’s make a deal. As a peace offering, I’m going to buy you a drink… and all you have to do is keep quiet and sip that drink for the next 5 minutes while I finish up here. Does that sound fair?”

At this point the crowd is touched by the gesture, and the heckler has little choice but to agree. And then I say:

“Great. Waitress… would you bring a vinegar and water to this DOUCHE BAG at table 6!”

Ka-boom! Good night everybody.

Bottom line: You can’t always choose your opponents, but you can always control the battle.

Meanwhile… back at Shit Kickerz…

I had yet to learn any of these survival lessons that night in Alabama. I was introduced to the crowd I described, plus a few more that straggled in unenthusiastically…

…then proceeded to bomb so hard that I literally took up smoking the minute I came off stage. (I had never smoked in my life, but after that – I needed a cigarette!)

Christopher Walken was quoted in the June issue of Esquire. He said:

“When you’re on stage and you know you’re bombing, that’s very, very scary. Because you know you gotta keep going–you’re bombing, but you can’t stop. And you know that a half an hour from now, you’re still gonna be bombing. It takes thick skin.”

I once calculated that every horrifying stage death I endured snipped a week off of the end of my life. (Not to mention the decade of cigarette smoking!)

But I wouldn’t trade it, because the experience makes the time you spend here richer and more productive. Bombing teaches you how not to bomb.

And hopefully this article did, too.

You’ve been great. Enjoy Foghat!

Kevin

P.S. Now that I’ve laid my soul bare, it’s your turn. Tell me about your big bombs, and what you learned from it.

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