That Time I Bombed is where the Straight asks comedians about their life-changing shows, favourite comedy albums, and, a subject that any comedian will face at some point in their career, a time that they bombed on stage.
Who are you
I’m Wes Barker a.k.a. Stunt Magician (which was just clever marketing, but now it’s all my social media handles, so FML.)
What I really am is a comedy magician, but sometimes that gives people a really lame image in their head. So think of me as either a comic with the best magic tricks or a magician with the funniest stories. Either one is true and riding that line is what I do in life.
First standup experience
Oh man, as a magician I started doing close-up magic in 2006. After a couple years, someone hired me for their corporate Christmas party because they think doing stage magic is the same as close-up magic. It’s NOT. Really, really not.
So the first time I walked on stage was to do a 45-minute set for 450 people and I was charging what I thought was a fortune at the time. It was awful, of course. I pretty much did close-up magic over my head and tried not to sweat through my suit. I didn’t do another stage show for a couple years.
The first time I actually did standup was kind of an accident. I decided I would go to open mics and test out my magic tricks. (This was late 2010.) The first one I went to was out in Abbotsford at the now closed Dogwood Bowling Alley. But on that very afternoon, I was at my day job, dropped a piece of wood, and broke my middle finger. There was no way could I do my tricks.
Not wanting to bail on the mic, I went anyway and just did standup. It was a rush! The only way I got through it was because I didn’t have time to psych myself out. I was just standing there with a broken finger dangling in a highball glass full of ice. I told some jokes—some went well, some didn’t—but right there, I knew that if I worked at comedy as hard as I worked at magic... then I would have something really unique.
Life-changing comedy show
I was over at a friend’s house during my last year of high school and he showed me Eddie Murphy's Delirious. I had never watched standup before and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My brain couldn’t comprehend how hard I was laughing. I remember thinking, “What is he wearing? And how can one guy be so funny?”
From that point on, I was a standup fan. I still never thought I could actually do it at that point; I was just a fan. Then, a few years later, I saw Dane Cook: Vicious Circle and my mind was blown again! Watching Dane be funny felt more like the way I would be funny with my friends. It made me think, “This is amazing... maybe I could do this?”
Top three comedy specials/albums
Mike Birbiglia — My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend I love telling stories, so this special is perfect for me! I love how it’s all one long story but the tangents are so beautifully and masterfully placed. You are continually falling in and out of hilarious stand-alone bits, but somehow still moving along with the story. It’s truly my favourite and a go-to recommendation I give to people who say they “don’t like standup”.
Louis C.K. — Chewed Up I like Louis C.K. for the same reason I like Mike Birbiglia: you watch these specials and you feel like you learn something about the person. This is a great example of being honest and funny. You don’t just get jokes; Louis really opens the door on his life and says some outrageous stuff. He’s funny in the way people think they are in their own minds. Of course, he does it so perfectly it makes your head spin. Just crushing bit after bit. First time I saw it, I was walking around, quoting it for days.
Jim Jefferies — I Swear To God I like his style: it’s just this unashamed, unfiltered, unapologetic, casual. Again, I love stories and Jim comes out with the most unbelievable tales that are so offside, I can’t help but laugh. He gets away with saying some crazy stuff, and even when he doesn’t really get away with it, he doesn’t seem to care if you get offended. I find him so likeable on stage, regardless of what words are coming out of his mouth.
All-time favourite joke or bit
This one is easy for me... Tim Minchin does a bit called "Tony The Fish". Now this bit is funny, but definitely not the funniest of all time or anything. It’s just my favourite because it had such a huge impact on me as a magician. You see, Tim Minchin is known for writing funny songs on the piano, which I already knew and loved.
Then, I’m watching him and he just gets up from the piano and does four-and-half minutes of standup and he kept doing it throughout the show! It changed my life. I immediately wanted to start doing magic the way he does music. Watching him blend his music and comedy laid the framework for my magic and standup.
Something you saw that made you laugh but, probably shouldn’t have
It’s hard to decide, but it's probably something that happened with my dad. I remember this time he bought one of those big standup water coolers for our house. When I walked in, he was already sweating and struggling to get it in place. Then he had to put the heavy water jug on top.
I guess he had never done this before because he had cut the cap off and was spilling water everywhere. He looked frustrated so I was staying out of his way. Once he go it on, he seemed good. He got a glass and walked over to test out his achievements. However, when he leaned down he aggressively pushed the plastic tap the wrong direction and it snapped off in his hand. Best. Thing. Ever.
Apparently, it was only funny to one of us though. The string of obscenities that he let out was pure gold.
That time I bombed
I have a few big ones that haunt my dreams. Let me just tell you the most recent: I got hired to do these cruise-ship shows last October. You are on the boat for about five days, and in the time, you perform four times: two nights with two shows (45-mintue sets) each in a beautiful, 1,000-seat theatre. These shows are always sold out, because there is nothing else to do on the boat.
The audience HATED me.
Why, you ask? A few reasons... the main one being that people that are on cruise ships always go on cruise ships. So when they see “magician” on the marquee, they think of a pretty assistant, a sparkly shirt, music cues, doves, and large box illusions. I have none of this. And they were not happy about it.
One thing that became very clear, very quickly, was that they liked their magic to be magic-y. They did not want comedy. As soon as the first joke came out, they laughed but then immediately resented me for it as crazy as that sounds. A few people shouted out things like, “The comedian was last night!” and “Just do your tricks!” In fact, what they wanted was so far from what I was doing that nearly 200 people walked out of my show.
Side note: To better understand the scene, please imagine this: you are 30 years old, sitting in a comedy club 40 feet from the exit. Now, how bad would the comedian have to be before you got up and walked out? Pretty damn bad, right? Yeah, and you’re 30 walking on flat ground. Okay, keep that in mind because the average age on the ship is 75.
The way the ship theatre worked was that the exits were at the very top and it’s just stairs and seats all the way down to the stage. These people were, like, 75! How bad they must have hated me: to be that old and want to escape so bad you are willing to take on 60 rows of stairs to free yourself... It was a steady stream of geriatric patients, half hunched over, slowly making their ways up the stairs. Some assisting others in leaving, some searching for alternate exists, and still many people staying seated.
I’m not sure if the 800 who stayed was out of politeness or just that the aisles were already way to crowded to move. Regardless of their reasons to stay, no one was enjoying the show. I tried to switch gears and give them more magic, but it was no use. I had lost them. I mean, after all, I wasn’t even dressed in a tuxedo like a "real magician". As I continued my show, and the reverse waterfall of grey hair flowed slowly up the stairs, I tried to focus on a few “friends” in the front row.
But at the 42-minute mark, my one front-and-centre buddy (an 82-year-old man who had been seated an hour before the show because of the assistance he required) struggled to his feet, looked me in the eye, and said “I’m sorry. I can’t do it” and turned to leave. I said, “There are only three minutes left!”, but he just shook his head and began his journey up the steps, painfully clanking his oxygen tank behind him.
It was the worst I’ve ever felt. Everyone was mad at me, which sucked because I’m still stuck on this boat. After my show, I went to a small bar at the back of the ship to get away form people. There was only one dude in there so I figured I was safe. I ordered a beer and as soon as it came, the old guy say, “You’re not gonna tell any jokes, are you?” I spent most of my time in my cabin after that.
I still had three more shows on that boat and then would go directly to the next ship for four shows as well. There was nothing I could do. Even if I wanted to give them a traditional magic show, I couldn’t because I didn’t pack those kinds of props.
So I bombed eight times in 11 days. By the time I was home, I questioned everything. I had never felt so low before, like I was doing everything wrong. I thought I was going to have to buy doves and change my whole act. They next day, I went over to comedy at 12 Kings Pub and did five minutes. It completely snapped me out of it; I instantly felt better. Now I just stay away from cruise ships like that.
Wes Barker performs Drunk Magic at the Biltmore Cabaret (2755 Prince Edward Street) this Sunday (April 30).