Once again, welcome to my latest post for #JCarn.

The Carnival of Journalism is a loose collection of journalism thinkers (and people like me) who get together to post on their blogs with their reflections on a given prompt.

This month head carny David Cohn prompts: Epic Fails. What’s your biggest one?

If you’d like to participate next time head on over and sign up for the next prompt.

In journalism we talk about failure a lot. Online journalist have pretty much embraced it as a mantra in contrast to their brothers and sisters in print. As welcome as this experimental attitude is, there’s a piece missing, the part where we don’t sweep our fails under a rug but instead share them so the community may gleam lessons and insights.

Without this step, well, failing is only half the battle.

It’s not easy telling the world how you failed and knowing that it’ll live online forever.

Among friends or as an essay perhaps, but this is online. What if my mom saw it? She thinks I’m awesome, do I dare burst the bubble?

At first I thought I’d regal the #jcarn crew with tales of a seventh grader who was up for a role in a Saturday morning PSA spot for KNTV’s Science Sleuth program.

Then I thought I’d get serious and talk about the time I arrived at an accident scene before first responders and failed to get the picture for the newspaper because I was calling 911 and getting help.

Or I could go the obvious route and talk about a project that failed to take flight no matter how many feathers I glued to it.

But… I’m sure there will be dozens of JCarnies posting about journalism fails and project fails and a few brave souls may even talk about life fails, family fails or relationships fails brought on by journalism, but I’m going to go another route.

I prescribe to the theory that we’re shaped by everything around us and inspiration is found in everything we encounter, do or see. That’s why I turn to music videos, music, video games, books, the ocean, art, my sketchbook and laying in a park as inspiration for my visual journalism and film projects.

With that in mind, I think I’ll paddle this one in a different direction and share the tale of a dreadful night in San Fransisco, on a dark stretch of what I think was the Mission District, in a dark room next to a laundromat with patrons getting drunk and washing their underwear.

It’s the night I tried stand-up comedy.

Slurpees and bombing

It was 1999 and I was enrolled in a college drama class. I was always a class clown and interested in theater. I was still trying to live out a childhood fantasy and thought it’d help me land that gig I’d need to get me on my way.

Not many folks know this… when I was 11 or 12 I was spending the night at my cousin’s house when he turned on the TV to NBC at 11:30pm on a Saturday night and what I saw in the next 90 min. stuck with me. There were all these funny people just playing, acting foolish and having fun. Why hadn’t I seen this before? Thus was born a secret desire to one day write for Saturday Night Live.

I think only 2 or 3 people know that, well… knew that until now.

I began filling journals with sketch ideas, jokes, stories, comic strips, drawings and anything creative, so of course in college I was going to sign up for a drama class. (I tried to in high school, but the school said my honor’s credits had put me over a limit and I’d have to skip a period my senior year instead of take a class. Weird huh?)

The other road

Movies, cinema, performance, comedy; it had always been there as I grew up.

I remember seeing Fred Astaire dancing with Jerry from Tom and Jerry for the first time when I was about 7 or 8 and wondering how he jumped so high. For weeks after I would grab the broom out of the garage and start jumping around and dancing with it when no one was looking. I was convinced that if I ran fast enough and jumped high enough I could use the broom to vault me on to the wall so I could dance like Fred. My parent’s never noticed the footprints on the wall and I’m sure they still don’t know I used to do that.

In 4th grade I would always volunteer to run the projector because it brought me closer to the film. I would watch the reels un-spooling and fly though the machine rather then the movie.

Dad was an actor… or so grandma said, but he never talked about it

My father was one of those old school dad. He never showed his emotion and was tough and stern. He loved movies and before long, afternoon VHS tapes of Blazing Saddles, Clint Eastwood movies, and Bollywood were a way for my father and I to bond.

I never really saw my dad get excited about things. Not until the day Eastwood was shooting a movie (“The Rookie” with Charlie Sheen, the first action set piece was filled two blocks from my house) and he took us out to watch and wait for hours in the hopes of one glimpse and some movie magic. He never saw Eastwood.
I don’t know if it happened this way, but the way I remember it now, I thought one day I’ll make my own movies and get to introduce my dad to him.

I grew up watching SCTV, Kids in the Hall and SNL… I used to day dream about writing for SNL… right now back home there are journals full of sketches, jokes and characters that I wrote down thinking I was going to one day bring them to life…

Failsberg, exit 1 mile

After drama class one day, the teacher started talking about a comedy club in San Francisco that was owned by a family friend and how he’d been in there when Robin Williams just decided to drop by and take the stage during open mic.

The prospect of running into the ADD fur-ball excited me and I decided to check it out.

The first two times, no Robin, but I did see some funny local guys. The crowds weren’t there for comedy back then so the rooms were sparse which made it very easy to talk to the comics after a show. There was also a laundromat next door and the patrons that were there were more interested in the spin cycle ending then observations about e-mail messages or passengers on BART.

One of the younger comics, whose name I can’t remember, but he liked to wear flannel and Chucks and was like a hipster before their were hipsters. Anyway, he pushed me to try it.

I worked a routine for weeks, writing jokes on napkins, practicing my face in the mirror, recording my voice, trying to figure out what to do with my hands, debating which shirt to wear, checking my hair over and over… and then the day came…

I drove up with two friends who I convinced this time Robin would be there.

They didn’t know what I was thinking, I didn’t know what I was thinking.

The last comic before open mic did a bunch of jokes about lesbians and their dogs in Golden Gate Park. It killed with the mixture of disillusioned youth sipping on Jack, professor types on date night with “the red one” and a few comics who had gone on earlier.

I don’t remember how, but my feet received a synaptic impulse to start moving, and then the legs and then I was blinded by the spotlight and trying to remember my name.

Curtain up

I opened with slowly clearing my thoughts and then panicked when I couldn’t remove the mic from the stand.

Off to a great start, okay.

I took cues and liberties from my favorites in coming up with my material.

The opening was Andy Kaufman. And like him I was standing there doing nothing, only without the confidence.

I pulled out a long rolled up sheet of paper and let it unroll to the floor and unfurl out three feet in front of me.

I didn’t say a word while I’m doing all this. People are pretty confused and I haven’t introduced myself or anything.

I fumble with the paper for a bit pretending to read paragraph after paragraph.

I’m still not sure what I’m doing and my heart is pounding like crazy and all I’m thinking is my head feels very hot and that I must not start to sweat. Fail on that front.

I can see folks looking back at me, well shapes of folks, and I have two options, just run away, these people will never see me again, who cares. Or, start talking.

I look up from the roll of paper and open my mouth with my finger pointed to the sky and freeze.

A nervous laugh comes wafting toward me from the back of the room.

Okay, a chuckle and color starts to return to my knuckles.

It all must have happened in 30 seconds, but felt like hours, or about as long as this description is taking.

I look up again and in my best Kaufman foreign guy accent:


Look at the paper again.


The natives are getting restless.

I do the singing bit, where I run over to the jukebox, put on Rick James’ Superfreak and sing only the chorus in exaggerated fashion. A complete rip off of Kaufman’s Elvis routine, I’ll admit.

As the song ends I’ve had a few giggles, some WTFs, but nothing to settle into… and then I completely go blank on what to do next.

I can’t remember how I’m supposed to get out of the fake foreign guy act for the big reveal, the point all this silliness was building up to, the big luagh, and I can’t remember it.

A couple of panicked moments later and…

“Aw f*** it, I can speak English.”

We were off to a great start, but I figured why stop when you’re behind.

Then I went into some Steven Wright…

“Sometimes I lie awake wondering if the Earth could get so overpopulated we would run out of oxygen … I should buy some trees tomorrow.”

“We should send a shuttle full of proctologists to Mars … then they could boldly go where no man wants to go while boldly going where no man has gone before.”

“If a gay person tells you to ‘get bent’ is that a come on?”

These and a few others did a little better, but not by much. And so far it was my only purely original material.

I sprinkled in some Richard Pryor social commentary and race relations stuff next.

“I can’t have a Slurpee ever. Because you won’t let me, you’ve taken away frozen ice and syrup from me. Just imagine me, I’m out on a hot day and I walk in and get one and boom! Oh look Jane, it’s true!”

That went over okay, but then I pointed to a 20-something African-American man in the crowd.

“You’re laughing, but you know it’s true. When’s the last time you were able to walk into a grocery store and buy a watermelon?”

Now it killed. I was feeling good.

Then I tried some topical stuff… the one joke I can still remember:

“You ever wonder about that at symbol in e-mails? It seems like such a waste. Are we so lazy that we’re wasting a symbol for a two letter word? Oh no (and this is when I start pretending to type on a keyboard and have an outstretched pinky), can’t reach the ‘t’… must…. oh, if only someone would create a one key symbol… ooo!”

At this moment my eyes light up and I get a ‘ding’ light bulb expression and hold for laughs.

No one laughed.

“Well, I think it’s pretty silly. Like, to me, to me, that symbol should mean around (gesture circle with finger), that’s six letters”

No matter how exaggerated or animated or silly my gesture. Not one chuckle.


Even the crickets were holding their applause.

I tried to go back to the personal stuff. A bit about college applications never having enough boxes for my name fell flat. I guess I should have realized my audience hadn’t been in college since the Reagan years.
The bread and butter of the comics I’d been watching the last couple of weeks was relationship humor.

I tried some stuff about couples fighting over what TV channel to watch or how I end up becoming “the gay friend” all the time.

Now at that point I’d never been in love or had a relationship, so what I knew of it, who knows.

The audience wasn’t buying it either. I felt like a dryer sheet, loose, light, of little substance and they could see right though me.

Fial, population me

It finally ended and I was feeling pretty sh*ty.

I stepped on my laughs, I fumbled about, 90% of my jokes bombed, I’m pretty sure I mumbled some lines and forgot other ones. I was young, inexperienced, nervous and the crowd could obviously tell.

I was glad I got it out of my system.

That was the first and last time I tried it.

I started writing this post thinking that bombing on stage was my failure and how it taught me to be myself and not to try and emulate those that  I admired. I was unfocused and trying to do too much and instead of doing material that I thought Pryor, Kaufman and Sienfield would do, I should have been trying to find my own voice.

But now reflecting on it nearly a decade later, maybe my real failure was not giving it another shot.

Last night as I was falling asleep I starting writing in my journal again with ideas for routines, something I haven’t done in years.

Blaming Google for the decline of newspapers is like blaming the rain for ruining your lemonade stand…

The misuse of guru… No one has to know anything or do anything anymore, you just have to say ur a guru and that’s it, rejugitate the same thing thing you hear from others and ur set… If you’re a guru and all your Twitter lists are self made, you sir are not a guru… also if you can be a Guru, than I’m a Journalism Messiah.

Joys of flying while brown… always get to second base with TSA so picking which line you choose so you get the cute red head is very important… on Southwest choose your own seats means I get the whole row to stretch…

I can fill an hour with material about the The ex-girlfriend box we all have …

Joys of finding out you’re broken up via Facebook, actually just dating in web 2.0 period… becoming jealous of an iPhone… Woman say we don’t listen and then they stop mid convo to check Twitter… (then mid sentence I check my phone) ooo, GroupON has two for one lawn mowers…

I miss the old days before people knew what an Indian was, now instead of stories about Cherokee grandmothers I get asked if I can cook Indian food and dance like in the movies. Yes and yes. And to answer your next question, no.

Who knows. The road not taken I suppose.

Still, that “at symbol” joke, what was I thinking? Now that was an epic fail.

Hail mary

In a vain attempt to tie this back into journalism…

Innovation is born out of experimentation, if we’re afraid to fail, we don’t end up with anything new. In that sense, I know the chances I took in that dingy club have made other things (like public speaking, taking a leadership role or just doing something like fighting for multimedia) easier to take on in comparison.

Plus it wasn’t a total waste, I was able to incorporate some of my material into my college paper column, like this one. I was able to get away with it because no one expected much from an online/multimedia editor and was told visual folks can’t write. Maybe they were right, you be the judge, but I tried.

A frustration I’ve long had is the timid nature of our industry toward risk and failure. It seems to me that two things are happening: Everyone seeing the sinking ship and knows something needs to change. No one is willing to get experimental with the change.

Instead, everyone is sitting back and looking at each other and hoping the other guys spends the R&D dollars to find the golden goose so that they may swoop in and emulate it without the initial investments and losses.

Yes, there are some organizations that are taking chances, but I want to see some very radical ideas. I want to see some experimentation. I’ve floated ideas that were vastly different than the models in place and from my experience, there’s excitement but little commitment when it comes to the risks. That’s sad, because we can’t just keep doing the same thing and hope it’ll magically fix itself.


I want more failure. I want epic fails. I want fails to be celebrated.

So I have two proposals.

Let’s create a monthly column at a place like Poynter that shares epic fails, interviews with fail-ers and have a community discussion of lessons learned and suggestions on how to improve the fail.

My other idea: I want every newsroom to have a fail lab where journos go nuts and crash land on their faces. An in house R&D department that is run like a free-for-all playground and has a goal of losing money and becoming infamous for taking big risks.

I want to be so crazy that others in the business will look at what you’re doing and wonder if you’ve lost your mind.

It works for General Electric, Q from James Bond and Google Labs, why not us? Grants and funds from places like Knight and Gannet are great, but that again is hoping others solve the problem. Instead each and every single newspaper needs to take ownership of the innovation and cultivate an environment that will make us all investors in our future.

Get on stage, try something. It makes for a funny story on your deathbed.