These are my Top 5 Bombings on Stage or maybe I should say My Bottom 5 Performances on Stage. There’s been many more, but these are the ones that truly stand out, the ones that sit in your gut for a week or two afterward and make you question why you started doing comedy in the first place. Enjoy!
5. Snickerz, Fort Wayne, Indiana – September 1999 – The name alone should’ve told me it was gonna be a rough week. I had 5 shows and the first 4 shows the response was at best tepid. That’s where the audience doesn’t laugh, but you don’t get heckled and everyone avoids eye contact with you after the show. However, the last show it all came crumbling down. About 10 minutes into my 30 minute set, a guy with a big bushy moustache (he looked like the Jagermeister guy) shouted, “Git funny!”
Now this was before Larry the Cable Guy’s Git R Done, so this guy was a true maverick in the heckling world. The heckle “Git Funny!” is really bullet proof because there is no response, except to try harder and thus dig a deeper hole. I was not booked back at this club.
BRIGHT SIDE: No real bright side to this bombing story except to say the club closed a couple years ago.
4. Tribble Run – The Pacific Northwest – 10 days in July 2002 – First Tribble is the last name of the guy who books a series of poorly routed one nighters in the Pacific Northwest at various bars in front of audiences who seem unaware there is a comedy night. I had just come off of doing the Craig Kilborn show (AKA the Johnny Carson of my generation) so I was pretty hot stuff. In addition it was my birthday week, so the universe would seemingly be on my side. Instead I bombed every night. It’s one thing to bomb, but then to have to get up early the next morning and drive 6 hours to the next bombing is another.
I remember on the drive up to the gig I actually drove thru fire and saw a deer get hit by a car, I should’ve turned around then, but I didn’t. One night in Newport, Oregon halfway through my set I told the audience if you like my act go to the left side of the room and if you hate my act go on the right side…THEY DID! It was pretty evenly divided, one guy actually straddled the line and would move back and forth depending on what he thought of each joke. This might make for a good game show. I was pretty beaten down after 9 straight nights of bombing, but the last night in Astoria, Oregon in a hotel lounge I didn’t bomb and that’s all I needed to keep going...10% approval.
BRIGHT SIDE: I never did another Tribble run, but I definitely developed a thicker skin and I drove through fire, so that’s pretty cool.
3. The Rave. Milwaukee, WI. May 1997 – I’ve shared this story a few times, but basically I worked with Pauly Shore at a rock club in Milwaukee. I opened with a song I sang in Spanish (Viva La Gente – Up With People) and encouraged the audience to sing along. I was in my Andy Kaufman phase and the boos began to rain down. I was supposed to do 10 minutes and that’s what I did. The audience actually got tired of booing me. I left the stage after doing my contractually obligated 10 minutes and Pauly’s manager said to me, “What the hell was that?!?!” I replied, “Comedy?”
BRIGHT SIDE: The next night Pauly had me open for him in Appleton, WI. The response from the audience was again tepid (there’s that word again). But after I brought Pauly up to the stage he said, “Give it up for that guy. They booed him in Milwaukee, but I think he’s hilarious.” And that’s how Pauly Shore saved my comedy career.
2. 4th & B. San Diego, CA. June 2002 – This was another big music venue and everyone got in free. I had moved on from singing the song in Spanish and was now singing a song about a potato. (as an artist you have to grow.) My friend Dan went to the show with me and sat in the audience. Before the show he struck up a conversation with the folks next to him and told them I would be opening the show. They were impressed. I opened strong and Dan said the people next to him were laughing and nodded to him. Then I lost the audience. I told a street joke where I purposely screw it up… the audience didn’t get it and were very vocal about it. The people next to Dan actually moved away from him…I was causing second hand bombing. I got off stage and the manager of the venue said, “What the hell was that?!?!” I could now confidently say, “Comedy?”
BRIGHT SIDE: The check cleared and the venue closed due to failure to pay rent.
1. Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. Montreal, Quebec. July 2004. New Faces. This is the gig every young comedian strives for and there was so much importance placed on it. If you did well, fame and fortune awaited, if you bombed you would be ostracized from the show business community…okay not really, but at the time that’s how it felt. I remember from the start the set didn’t go well. I was told the band would play anything you wanted, I said, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. I should’ve known better than to ask French Canadians to play country music because it was just a cacophony of sounds.
If it was me now I would’ve made fun of it for a few minutes, but at the time I was too nervous and just dove into my 7 minute set like a robot…it didn’t go well. The next day all the New Faces got reviewed everyone received a number…my number a BOMB. The icon of a bomb not even a number like they had to bring in a graphic designer to draw in a bomb. Followed by the line: “Definitely not Milwaukee’s best.” I was devastated.
BRIGHT SIDE: I remember I was so bummed. I went to the after party that night and a friend of mine introduced me to some agents and they wouldn’t even shake my hand. A couple nights later I was walking to Andy Kindler’s show and Mitch Hedberg saw me. I hadn’t worked with Mitch in a couple years, but he called out, “Tom Clark!” I was blown away that he remembered me. He was walking with those same agents and Mitch introduced me to them and said, “This is Tom Clark. He’s hilarious.” Mitch waited for them to shake my hand and they did. Mitch’s review was all I needed to keep going in comedy. I’ll always be thankful to him.
1. Focus on the people that like you.
3. Follow Through on Everything
4. Get Paid
This seems obvious, but once you finish a gig sometimes the hardest thing to do is get paid after. I had one acting gig where they promised me $500 and after doing the gig I only received half the money. After avoiding my call I went to the production company’s office and asked for my money. They showed me an invoice for $250, but they had clearly crossed out the $500. Luckily I had a copy of the invoice with the amount not crossed out. I ultimately had to contact the advertising agency who booked me and they forced them to pay the remaining amount. (you can watch the video here. I'm the British soldier dancing at the end...it made zero sense.)
I had another company that had been re-airing a comedy set of mine over and over. I went to my union and nothing happened. Then myself and another comic filed a lawsuit and after 5 years we all got paid. Unfortunately comics still work for this company.
Save your contracts and all the paperwork. If they don’t give you paperwork ask for it or make your own and have them sign off on it. For bigger paying gigs always ask for a deposit that will cover your expenses and then some if they cancel.
As frustrating as it may be to not get paid on time or have a check bounce give the person the benefit of the doubt. I’ve seen comedians get upset and post on social media about what a jerk the person is and watched any chance of them getting paid go out the window. It’s happened to me, but I always try to be understanding and I’ve been lucky enough to always get paid.
5. Sometimes you're just not ready.
I’ve experienced the frustration of not being accepted to a comedy festival or booked on a late night show and sometimes you’re just not ready for it. They’re not wrong, they know what works for them. The only thing you can do is move forward and continue to get better.
6. Be a good worker.
It goes both ways if you want respect from club owners, bookers, etc. be reliable. Be someone they don’t have to worry about. It’s your responsibility to get to the gig. If they want you to work clean, it’s up to you to deliver. Don’t give them an excuse not to book you.
7. Deliver a product you're proud of.
I remember when I started out, I’d hear a lot of comics when I was starting out saying they hate their acts. I never wanted that to happen for me. There was a time when I was on the road a lot I started to understand how that can happen. You’re doing a lot of shows and the venue grades you and the grade is given to the booker. If the owner doesn’t like you or your act you’re screwed, so sometimes you end up playing it safe and just play your greatest hits. That’s not how a comedian grows. I remember working with Mitch Hedberg and he told me how when he was starting out he’d know at the start of the week he’d never be booked at the club again because his act was so odd. But he stuck with his vision and became very successful. I was lucky to find venues that liked what I did (even when I wasn’t the best) and they stuck with me.
8. Invest in yourself.
This is something I wish I had done more early on in my career, but I’m glad I’m doing it now. I used to teach stand up comedy through a theater and the theater would get most of the money. Now I teach independently and rent the space on my own. I assume all the risk, but I also reap all the reward. The same with shooting my stand up special, I could’ve waited or hoped someone would come along, but decided to do it on my own. Doing things independently gives you more a sense of control.
9. Do things on your own terms.
I was also lucky to start off in Milwaukee where there were very few comics at the time. No one told you how to do comedy, which was good and bad. Good because it allowed for creative freedom (I sang about a potato, pretty groundbreaking stuff) and bad (I once told jokes shirtless with a wrestling mask on, never acknowledging my outfit.—bad idea.) Succeed or fail on your own terms, that way you’ll never have regrets.
10. Do everything.
Act, write, sing, dance. One thing that made my comedy career easier or at least more enjoyable was that I was doing multiple projects: improv, acting, stand up, volunteering. If one thing wasn’t going well, one of the other things would be. They say stand up requires a singular focus, but I think to be truly happy it’s important to be well rounded in your life and enjoy what you do. Don’t limit yourself. Focus on what makes you happy, not just success.
About a year ago Steph and I started working on our own web series called "The Clarks" with a very talented director and editor named Matthew Gossin (www.editormatthew.com). It's been a great way to use our creative energy, do our own thing, plus work with our very talented friends. After less than a year, our latest video "Neighbors" was featured in the Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com) and between Facebook and YouTube we got over 10,000 views! Thanks everyone for sharing our videos and you can watch all of them below.
Also I'm excited to announce I'll be independently producing my own hour special on Wednesday, May 10th at El Portal Theater in North Hollywood. More details soon!
There’s so many things that you have taught me over the years. I wanted to share the top five with you.
1. Sometimes You Get the Crappy Toy – I remember when I was a toddler I used to bring all my stuffed animals into your room and throw them on the bed. I remember you always let me have the “cool” stuffed animals (looking at you talking monkey) and you’d always take the not so “cool” toys (looking at you Raggedy Ann & Andy). You never complained and always went along with whatever crazy scenario I made up. It’s probably what made improv easier for me. You always said yes and let me be creative.
2. You Gotta Stand Up For What’s Right - I remember when I was 8 years old. We took (my brother) Tim to pick up the newspapers for his paper route. As we waited in the car one of the toughest kids in our grade school showed up. He was 13 going on 30, he had a full on mustache, smoked and I think he was on his second marriage. He was upset that day because one of the other newspaper carrier’s owed him money. So he took that kid’s wagon and began slamming it repeatedly on the ground. This was his payback (he was like a 13 year old Tony Soprano). As we sat in the locked and completely safe automobile, you got out and began YELLING AT HIM. He wasn’t someone you messed with let alone yelled at. Not even the nuns at school messed with him. Before I knew it you had stopped him from slamming the wagon. I remember as you walked away Jerry called you an asshole. Without missing a beat you said, “Have a nice day!” You returned to the car and I thought you were a super hero. You stood up to him and luckily there were no repercussions toward me nor my brother…he knew better.
3. If You Get Knocked Down, Get Back Up Again – You were a social worker in one of the most dangerous schools in Milwaukee. When I was 12 you got mugged twice within about three months, but you always went right back to work. You never blamed anyone. You had a job to do and knew it was more important to help people then to give up. You remind me of the old saying: “Never let the bastards wear you down.”
4. You Gotta Dance – When I went to college I told you I wanted to play college football. You said the only way I could do it was if I took dance lessons at Arthur Murray Dance Studios. I thought it was ridiculous, but I did it. I’m not sure I became a better dancer, but I never miss an opportunity to dance…for better or for worse.
5. Take the Road Less Traveled – When I started in stand up comedy, I got the opportunity of a lifetime…to open for Pauly Shore (trust me that was a big deal in the 90s). I opened for him in front of a crowd of almost a thousand at a rock club in Milwaukee. I got to the stage and after about two minutes was booed mercilessly…right off the stage. I was devastated and lost what little confidence I had. You weren't a big fan of me pursuing comedy, but a few days later you came into my room and handed me a scroll (yes a scroll). In beautiful calligraphy you had written the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” The lines that you really emphasized were:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
At the time my act was pretty weird. I sang a song about a potato for God’s sake. You told me to stick with what I do because I’d be happier in the long run. Two years later I sent a tape to Comedy Central with the aforementioned “Potato Song.” The intern viewing the tape was blown away by the weirdness and commitment I had. Like it or not...you caused my comedy career.
Mom, there’s so many lessons you taught me over the course of my life. Most of all you and Dad taught me to be a good person and for that I will be forever grateful. I love you!
On this date 2 years ago, my wife, Stephanie, and I did a live reading for a sitcom pilot we wrote. In August of that year we shot that pilot over the course of 10 days. After we finished it, I realized I had to learn how to edit and we had a friend of ours, Scott Passarella, add some music (www.scottpassarella.com) and voila we had our pilot.
I am so proud of what we accomplished and couldn't have done it without all the talented actors involved including: Lynne Stewart (Always Sunny, Pee Wee's Playhouse), Olivia DeLaurentis, Kelly Holden-Bashar, Lauren Pritchard, Sydney Heller, Willis Turner, Kimia Behpoornia, Drew Cullinan, Drew Droege, and Mike Rose. We managed to shoot the whole thing on our own for under $1000. Anyways check it out and share it if you don't mind. Without further adieu here is...Oak Park!
OPEN ON: ACTING CLASS - 1994
I remember my first foray into any sort of performance was an acting class in Milwaukee. All I remember was the acting teacher made us crawl on the floor and pretend we were lions and when I read a scene he said I needed speech therapy. I was off to a great start. One of the ladies in the class thought I was funny and suggested I go to ComedySportz in Milwaukee. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was introduced to some amazing comedians and was taught by Dick Chudnow (part of the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker crew) and later Dan Harmon (from Community & fighting Chevy Chase). I was awkward and goofy and was told by someone I reminded them of some guy named Conan O’Brien. I had no idea who he was talking about and at first I thought it was an insult. It sounded like a name you’d make up when you’re trying to do an Irish accent (Hoity toy I’m Conan O’Brien!). I checked him out and I loved him! He was everything I was, but much better.
CUT TO: 1998
After a few years of doing both improv and stand up I started getting better, not great, but not horrible. I was interviewed by the local news about Conan O’Brien’s Five Anniversary Show. The interview is below if you want to watch it, but essentially I said I’d love to be a writer for Conan O’Brien.
I performed at The Chicago Comedy Festival that same year. I was still awkward and goofy, but now it was on purpose. I embraced who I was. Following the festival I was told that the booker from Conan wanted to see a tape. I had no idea what the hell I was doing, so I sent a tape of me singing about a potato and a joke where I screw up the whole thing…it was ten minutes long…not exactly a tight five. I never heard from the booker and unfortunately first impressions last a lifetime.
FLASH FORWARD TO: JUNE 2009
Conan got The Tonight Show job and moved to LA. There was a new booker on the show who knew me! I put together a solid 7 minute set and sent it to the booker. He liked about 3 minutes of it. I sent another set in November and he approved a 5 minute set, but would need to see it performed live. It took a bit, but on December 20th, 2009 I recorded an amazing 5 minute set…perfect for late night. I sent it to my manager to send to the people at Conan and then on January 7th, 2010 it was announced that Jay Leno would be returning to The Tonight Show. I was crushed…probably not as crushed as Conan, but it was pretty devastating.
Conan eventually returned to TV on TBS, but I was pretty discouraged and for whatever reason I just didn’t want to go through the process again.
CUT TO: JANUARY 2015
I got married to the wonderful Stephanie Phillips and she encouraged me to submit again, but I just felt what was the point. I went back to Milwaukee to see my mom as she had moved into hospice care. People kept telling me my mom wouldn’t make it, but I refused to believe that. She’s a tough lady and the one who encouraged me to continue to do comedy when I hit one of my lowest points...
CUT TO: MARCH 2015
My mom was getting better. One night I came home and found her up late watching Conan. She knew of him, but hadn’t really watched his show on NBC because it was on so late. There she was watching the show and laughing. She said, “He reminds me of you.” I set my mind at that point that being on Conan’s show was my mission.
In April I sent in a 6 minute set. Two weeks later I got notes back that the booker liked 3 minutes. After 2 months I sent in my second set…and nothing.
I waited 2 weeks, then a month, then six weeks and nothing. I thought I was done for, but my wife encouraged me to resend it. Wives are always right…turns out Conan had been on hiatus and my e-mail got lost in the shuffle. I soon found out my five minute set was approved, but I still had to shoot the five minute set just to make sure it all flowed. Finally on August 28, 2015 I got the set I needed. I owe so much thanks to The Improv in Hollywood, Jason Love, Bill Devlin, Ventura Harbor Comedy Club and The Comedy Magic Club for letting me put together this set in their rooms.
Two weeks later I got the news…I had final approval. I would be on the show (hopefully) before the end of the year. At this point my mom was in much worse shape. She could barely talk due to a stroke and I could barely understand her. Her 92nd birthday was October 12th and I was hoping she’d be able to watch me on Conan and see me fulfill my dream and her dream (okay her dream was for me to get my Master’s in Social Work, but this was probably a close second).
I’ll leave you with these words from the man himself because it really sums up my journey and life itself…
“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.
But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you…amazing things will happen.”
- Conan O’Brien
Truer words have never been spoken. Thank you Conan!
WATCH THE SET: HERE
Back in August 2013 I had a small part in a movie. It was a major movie release and was actually supposed to be Jonah Hill's directorial debut. The part I had was a 2 line role as a Concerned Citizen about an alien invasion. That's one thing acting classes never teach you is how to audition for a 2 line role. My theory is to always try to tag the scene with a quick, funny line, not too much, but just enough. I rehearsed with my wife and she gave me the idea to toss in the line I say at the very end. It went well in the audition and a few days later I heard I booked the role.
The scene took place in a crowded and very hot gymnasium at Van Nuys High School. I sat behind Nicholas Braun and Vanessa Hudgens. Just before we were about to shoot Nicholas said to me, "I watched your audition, it was really funny." That was such a nice thing to hear especially from one of the stars of the movie. Also, Josh Fadem, who is a very funny stand up & played Tina Fey's agent on 30 Rock is also in the film. He's the zombie with the glasses in the trailer and is very funny in the film. He was also super supportive and shot this photo while they were shooting. I call it my "Glen Close Moment."
We shot the scene and I did the lines as scripted without the line from the audition, but Robbie Pickering, the director, said do the line like you did it in the audition. I did and I give credit to Robbie for being so detail oriented and remembering something so small. It somehow found it's way into the trailer. The movie will be released October 30, but only to limited markets, but if you can see it, please do. I can't say enough good things about how comfortable the director and the cast and crew made me feel on set. Enjoy the trailer, I pop up at about 1:22 and I get to awkwardly yell at Denis Leary. I should add this trailer is NOT SAFE FOR WORK...there's some naughty words in there...but not from me. So without further adieu, the trailer for Freaks of Nature
On May 31, my dad threw out the first pitch at the Brewers game. A lot of people asked me how it came about, so thought I'd share the tale. It's definitely a case of , "If at first you don't succeed..."