Every comedian has jokes that he or she believes didn’t get the laughs they deserved or tweets that didn’t get enough faves. Defending the Bomb gives a comedian the opportunity to explain one of these failed jokes and make the case for why it’s actually funny.
Dave Ebert is a multitalented actor and comedian. As an MTV2 repertory player, he appears on Guy Code, Joking Off, and Not Exactly News. He does sketch at UCB’s monthly Maude Night with his troupe One Idiot. And sometimes he does standup, which is where this anecdote of the most painful bomb of his career comes from.
Do you have a joke that doesn’t work?
Oh, brother. I could build a ladder to Heaven out of all the jokes I’ve made that don’t work. I do have a specific one. It’s not even the worst a joke has bombed, but it’s the most historic in my life of how bad a joke has bombed. I don’t do a lot of standup, but I do it, and I’m not the worst. People do laugh. And I do write jokes, I don’t just go up there and improvise and jerk around for ten minutes. But I got into it like five years ago. I did this show at Times Square Comedy Club, before it was Times Scare, a year-round haunted house. So I wrote a set and started workshopping it. I knew I had to have like 10 or 15 minutes for this show, and I didn’t have any, so I used that as motivation to hit all the open mics I could. Eventually I worked out this set that was pretty good, and I had this last joke that sometimes I’d put it in and sometimes I wouldn’t. If I was feeling really good I’d put it in. It would kill with certain groups. So I got up to do this show, and I was having a pretty good set. I felt really good, especially for being such a young comic. Everyone is laughing, none of them are my friends. I figure I must be really funny. I get to the end of my set, and the joke was, “gay marriage has just been passed in New York State, so now if you’re a ‘confirmed bachelor,’ it just means that you’re really bad with people.”
And the reaction was very similar to yours now. I realized, first of all, “confirmed bachelor” is not a very popular term for a gay person now, because it’s not the 1920s. People don’t really say “confirmed bachelor” anymore. My mom does, but my mom is very weird. So what I thought was common lexicon from my mother was not. And I guess in the past when I’d convinced myself this joke worked, it’s because people were laughing at the fact I thought it was a joke. So I told it at the end of the set, and silence. And I was so new to being rejected, I was like, “guys, you don’t understand, that was my ringer, you’re all supposed to be laughing right now!” I thought that might get me some sympathy laughs, and it did not. So I left the stage quietly.
I should mention it was so historic of a bomb that the best man at my wedding told it in his best man speech as an example of why I should always stay humble. Because I thought that was a joke. So not only did I experience that joke failing at my first big comedy show, I also got to experience that joke failing at my own wedding.
A lot of the people I’ve talked to for this, there isn’t always a clear-cut reason why a joke doesn’t work. But this one is very specific: “confirmed bachelor” is kind of an obscure term that not everyone knows. Did you ever try it with a different phrase?
I do have this firm belief that everything is funny, you just have to find the appropriate context for it. So in that way, you can make any joke work. Depending on how you deliver it, how tongue-in-cheek you are, how committed you are, you can wring the laugh out of the room. There are comedians who just say words funny. So I can do the work and make this funny. But at this point, I’m scared of it. It’s my own Waterloo. It’s the Alamo of my comedy career. I have other jokes to make, I don’t need to try to make this one work.
In the course of preparation for this interview, I found video of precisely this set. Did you know it exists online?
Yeah, I know.
Can I post it?
Shit, man. I’ve got a good life now. It can’t possibly hurt me at this point.
It’ll show how far you’ve come.
Yeah, this is my “It Gets Better” campaign for comedians.
(Photo: Jordan Matter Photography)