EXCLUSIVE: John Mayer talks about learning a tough lesson about stand-up comedy

Johnmayersweet Every comedian has a story about the first time things went awry for him or her onstage, or when he or she bombed badly and/or unexpectedly. It happens to all of us. And even though it feels horrible at the time, it's a good thing, because you need to learn from it so you can get better as a comedian and as a performer. Now John Mayer has one of those stories. Yes. John Mayer. Which makes it a little bit different. When you had an awkward onstage experience starting out in comedy, you likely were the only person to remember it the next day. When John Mayer does anything in public, everyone tends to notice. Here's one of the pics snapped of Mayer (by Rachel Sklar) when he performed comedy on Tuesday at The Slipper Room.

I met Mayer briefly last December right before Christmas, when he brought his girlfriend at the time down to the Olive Tree Cafe and Comedy Cellar to see the comedy side of his life. Paparazzi stalked the snowy sidewalk with bright lights and cameras, just to snap a pic of them and yell at them in hopes of getting a quote. Back then, he was talking about launching his own comedy/variety TV show for CBS. He still is, by the way. "I was all ready, but then I had to do the album," he said, which was and is "Battle Studies" — debuting in November at the top of the Billboard charts. "I had no idea how long it takes to put a television project together," he told me. "It's still in the pipeline, and that's what cool about it. It's such an evergreen idea."

In the meantime, the Grammy-winning musician, celebrity and aspiring comedian went outside of his comfort zone on Tuesday night in New York City, and found himself in an uncomfortable and strange place. Trying to tell jokes without any of his metaphorical safety nets. And in one weird sequence, hopping back onstage to banter with a comedian he knew nothing about. It's my experience that when two comedians who do not know each other trade barbs, it's not always as fun as when friends roast each other at the Friars Club or on Comedy Central. Instead, things get weird. By all accounts, that's what happened at The Slipper Room.

This is his story.

Mayer called me two nights later to tell it.

If you've seen him tell jokes before, it has been as witty banter between songs in concerts, scripted bits for TV shows, riffs on the red carpet, or one-liners penned by him on his blog or his Twitter page. A few select crowds have seen him try stand-up as an unannounced guest at the Comedy Cellar in New York City's Greenwich Village, always introduced by one of his closest comedian friends.

Mayer wasn't even planning on performing on Tuesday. He said one of his comedian friends, Jordan Rubin, invited him along to check out Sweet, Seth Herzog's weekly comedy showcase at The Slipper Room in the Lower East Side. Rubin was supposed to have been that night's DJ sidekick but bailed. The show has a rather loyal following that includes creative types, hipsters, anti-hipsters, actors, actresses and fans of Herzog and his mother (who has a recurring bit on the show). It has a decidedly different feeling from the gruff and gritty vibe at the Cellar.

"Here's strike one as to why the night didn't work," Mayer told me. "I've never introduced a comic to the stage who didn't introduce me to the club. If it was uncomfortable, your friend is up there (afterward) and says, hey, 'It's John Mayer, that's tough to do.'"

This was the first time Mayer didn't know what he was getting himself into onstage.
"I'm blind and I'm an idiot. I go in and I smash things wth my big, dumb Hulk hands," he said. "I don't know how to do it yet. I don't know how to bomb. It was combative in the sense that the crowd didn't really accept the fact that the jock, the guy who gets the girls, was at a place where the guys go who talk about how they don't get the girls."

He said he loves having the opportunity to try comedy. "What I don't like is that I have to wait…that the bomb that I made onstage doesn't become the bomb that makes it on the Internet. That's always tough for me to go onstage. The idea that I have to wait and it might become a conversation with my manager, becomes very uncomfortable for me."

He said he didn't think he bombed when he took the stage for his surprise stand-up set (and others in the audience agreed that for a celebrity in an "alt" room, the set probably pleased as many as it displeased), but knew that things went wrong when comedian Kumail Nanjiani went up next instead of Rubin. Rubin didn't even end up going onstage that night. Instead, Nanjiani acknowledged the weirdness in the room and Mayer's performance. And the next thing anyone knew, Mayer was getting back onstage in the middle of Nanjiani's set.

"I'd never met Kumail," he said. "But I'm also in performance-mode, and in barrel-ahead mode, and with not enough information. I think it's just as uncomfortable for me to bring onstage someone who I don't know as it is for someone to follow me who doesn't know who I am."

"Performer to performer, I felt like, he's having trouble transitioning. They always think the other guy is the bigger guy. I'm just trying to tell them I'm John. Once I go out up there, I'm an amateur comic. In my state of vulnerability, I thought, it's not moving forward, and he said to me, 'Why am I doing stand-up?' The whole thing was so odd. It was off-kilter from the moment I'd gotten onstage. I'd seen so much collaboration onstage, between Seth and his mom, that I thought I could go back up. These are misfires on top of misfires. You're standing in front of the train and you're not going to be able to stop it. So I get onstage, and I didn't know he didn't want me onstage. I'm the exact opposite of a ham when I go to a comedy club. I'm just a dude trying to pick stuff up (learning from everyone else)."

Mayer has shared the stage at the Cellar with comedians such as Dave Attell, Jeffrey Ross, James Smith and Sherrod Small, but they've all gotten a chance to know and interact with him offstage. "There's always this level of trust," Mayer said.
With Nanjiani, Mayer didn't know what to do.

"I'm trying to go for broke," Mayer said. "When you're that flustered, your references are off."

It didn't help matters, then, that Nanjiani is an immigrant from Pakistan. And that Mayer referred to him as Kabul at one point.

So was this a Kanye-style backfire interruption? Or worse yet, a Michael Richards-style backfire? Not exactly. "I don't think of this as Kanye and Taylor Swift. I think of this as some little Star Trek episode," Mayer said. "I said, 'This is like "8 Mile" where neither person can rap.'"

"I felt really bad. I felt like I ruined his set," he said, so he sought Nanjiani out afterward to apologize. Nanjiani, for his part, agreed that it was a weird, surreal experience and would just as soon move on.

Mayer said he leaned a tough lesson, and acknowledged: "It'll probably be a minute before I get up there again." Although he added: "Maybe we could have a potluck dinner at The Slipper Room next Tuesday night."

See you then?

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

21 thoughts on “EXCLUSIVE: John Mayer talks about learning a tough lesson about stand-up comedy

  1. Ewww really Sean?? This piece reads like you are giving John Mayer a virtual BJ!! There are a couple things VERY wrong with this entry- first of all, Jordan Rubin has been to SWEET. I’ve seen him there at least five times. In fact, the last time I saw him at the show he told me that he’s trying to do more standup around the city since he hasn’t been up on stage in a while. Second, no one ASKED John Mayer to go back up on stage when Kumail went up to do his set. Mayer decided to go up on his own accord because of his ridiculous ego. Third, I find it interesting how Mayer left out how he called Nanjiani “Kabul” instead of Kumail(SO offensive, slightly racist and definitely NOT funny) or how he made another obnoxious comment about how Nanjiani was like “one of those ambiguous CNN anchors” because of the way he looks and his “british” accent (again, NOT funny and Nanjiani is from Pakistan!). I get Mayer didn’t know or had never met Nanjiani but comments like those were just idiotic. Fourth- why isn’t Nanjiani quoted in this entry? Did you even speak to him to get his perspective? Or did you speak to someone at the show? This is such a grossly one sided piece, I’m wondering if you write John Mayer’s press releases for a living as well. And PS, if it was Mayer’s mission to try and get peeps to not think he is the biggest douche on the planet by talking to you for this piece, mission NOT accomplished. This entry makes him look like an even bigger diphthong. Ugh- he should just stick to writing cheezy music. At least he is good at that.

  2. Three things.
    1) I’ve already corrected/clarified a couple of things, for the record.
    2) If you’re asking why I didn’t talk to Kumail, then you obviously don’t read this site.
    3) Obviously, obviously, I don’t engage in virtual sex, either. I’m the one who needs some charity up in this place.

  3. Hi Sean,
    We know each other, but I’m gonna go for anonymous. I’ve met Mayer recently and when I tried to talk to him about doing standup (before the Sweet incident) – he blew up at me and was a complete drunk ass. He was defensive and didn’t even realize I was trying to give him credit for his attempts at comedy.
    He is hot and that’s it. He’s rude, disrespectful, and completely lacks charm and humility.
    It takes a lot more than being hot and singing pretty little songs on a pretty little guitar to be awesome. He should try LA or one of his own concerts where they will happily bullshit him into thinking he’s an amazing comedian.
    Or not act like a dick. And also, if he really wants to be a good comedian, he should try talking about something real, like his interesting life – and not hacky dick vagina frat humor.
    – A comedian

  4. Why doesn’t anyone talk about my stand up career? I do five minutes on “bee-iches” dancing on the ceiling, then getting some of my endless love, if you know what I’m saying.

  5. His set was pretty decent and enjoyable, although I agree that it had far too much hacky dick vagina frat humor, as referenced from anon. I think he had good stage presence and comedic timing, so if he worked on better, more relatable material and anecdotes instead of spending a lot of time talking about how famous he is and all the hot women he sleeps with, it would be much improved.
    His riffing with Kumail could’ve been good as well if he had toned things down and simply given humble, straight answers to Kumail’s questions instead of trying to one-up him with terribly sophomoric barbs. Comedians will quite often start out their sets by riffing on the previous comedian, so Mayer should’ve just enjoyed the show instead of treating it as an invite to crash Kumail’s set and pantomime jacking off all over him (which was harrowing).
    As for ‘This is like “8 Mile” where neither person can rap.’, I disagree because that implies that Kumail couldn’t do good riffing either, which was not true. Even though Kumail was clearly quite shaken and confused, he still had some very funny moments, like when he said “It’s as if Batman were to get on stage and say, ‘You guys just want to see me throw my bat-rangs.. I wanna tell jokes!'”
    Also I thought it was really funny when Kumail said “Why are you doing this? You’re richer, more famous and taller!!” and John said, “None of that is true! I’m just a regular person like everyone else!” and Kumail replied, “You can’t argue about not being taller than I am! That is a fact!!”

  6. “2) If you’re asking why I didn’t talk to Kumail, then you obviously don’t read this site.”
    Okay, tell the rest of us who don’t read your site why you didn’t talk to Nanjiani.

  7. I could’ve sworn the site posted a video interview with Kumail Nanjiani before this. If only there were a link to such placed directly above the headline of this post. I don’t know. I’m not good at reading.

  8. Mayer is actually very quick, very funny and a master at crowd work. He’s just completely full of himself and in need of direction. But I swear, I will fucking lose it if he hosts Live at Gotham or goes to Montreal!

  9. Anon,
    The point is the author didn’t talk to Nanjiani about this incident in which he was the target for Mayer’s racist attacks. Why?

  10. Guys seriously get over it. This sensitive bullshit is ridiculous. As a “comedian” he was attempting to be funny. If he failed, he failed as do many of us each and every time. Don’t call him a racist because he said something that made you feel guilty for being white. Mayer’s a complete douche and shouldn’t have gone back up on stage, BUT the vibe at the Cellar (which is his typical haunt) is like a fraternity. Guys are shitting all over each other left and right, so it doesn’t surprise me that he thought busting on another comedian is acceptable. As a matter of a fact, a comedian should understand that above, and realize that when you’re trying to be funny it doesn’t always work. I’m just surprised at how many comedy fans or even comedians there are that get actually offended by anything. It’s a complete joke in and of itself.

  11. PS. Yes I realize my entire argument is now null in fucking void because of all the typos and general grammatical retardation. Enjoy tearing me apart, because I can’t delete it and start over :).

  12. Anon, it’s fine if he failed during his own set. But ya can’t just go on stage uninvited during another comic’s set. Crosses the line. And esp not to say the kinda stuff he said. That’s just lame.

  13. I definitely agree with that, and it’s certainly not something I would ever do. I’m arguing more for the right of a comedian to say ANYTHING on stage. It seems like a continuing trend that a lot of comedians/comedy fans are very quick to turn on someone they don’t like, for saying something that’s “socially unacceptable.” I got into this for the sheer reason that you can say anything you want (yes you’re right, when it’s your time on stage). But people taking this one instance and labeling a man as a racist is down right malicious. He named a middle eastern city that *GASP* kinda sounds like Kumail’s name, and made a very generic physical description that *GASP* is unfortunately pretty accurate. None of these sentiments were expressed as an attack. It was in an effort to be funny, and (wrongfully so) bring the crowd back into it. It was a judgment call, and clearly Mayer does not possess the comedic chops to make the right decision EVERY time. But I’m interested to know, who on here does make the right decision every time? Even if you’re a 20 year vet, you’re going to constantly run into situations you’ve never experienced. Isn’t that piece of risk and uncertainty part of why any person chooses to do stand up? I just think it’s hilariously hypocritical for people to disparage a guy for trying to do something he clearly enjoys (LIKE EVERYONE ELSE), but does not yet quite understand. Yes Mayer’s really successful in music. But why do people need for him to stick to the category that we feel comfortable with them being in? Fuck that. Rock out Johnny boy. And to everyone else, please lighten up for the sake of comedy’s future. It’s really embarrassing when comedians turn on each other because they were offended by WORDS.

  14. Anon,
    1. Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is part of South Asia. Not all brown people are from the Middle East.
    2. Kabul sounds nothing like Kumail.
    3. I’m not white. If you are, you might want to feel some of that “white guilt” yourself and understand that what Mayer said was wrong.
    The author mentions Nanjiani’s perspective in only one brief line at the end (Nanjiani, for his part, agreed that it was a weird, surreal experience and would just as soon move on) and did not get any quotes from him. Would anything more have spoiled the virtual blowjob he gave Mayer?

  15. Nanjiami hit back HARD tonight at the Bell House during Sara Schaefer’s show..He did like 10 minutes about Mayer..It was Awesome!!!!

  16. Ji,
    I stand corrected with the exact geographic location of Kabul. I’m well aware that it’s the capital of Afghanistan as it has been the focus of plenty of news stories which generically label it “the middle east”. I shouldn’t have mindlessly clumped it in with the rest, but I think it’s pretty understandable and again get over it. Your deconstruction was absolutely awful. Instead of responding to the essence of an articulate and non-combative argument made by myself, you decided to nit pick and find two things that apparently offended you. I am in fact white, and there is absolutely NO reason I should feel guilt about any social injustice. I have had no personal involvement in the persecution or oppression of ANY race, therefore I consider everyone on the same playing field. Seeing yourself as a martyr because you’re apparently held down by the “Man” in the most diverse city in the world, is something you need to deal with personally. My entire argument had nothing to do with race initially. It was entirely about the freedom for one to say anything they’d like on stage. It’s the audience’s decision (and it is a decision), how to take in those words and react to them. Your ultra sensitive and borderline irrelevant argument leads me to believe that you should consider taking your delicate sensibilities and take a break from comedy or even real world speech. I’m not Mr. America, but my favorite part about this country is that anyone has the freedom to say anything.

  17. Sean you don’t say anywhere in this piece you spoke to Nanjiani and he didn’t want to be quoted. That’s why this thing reads like a John Mayer press release. Were you even at the show that night? I didn’t see you there. Perspective from other people at the show- Seth, his mom, freakin’ ANYONE who was there would have been nice and would have given this a little balance. Just sayin’.

  18. To people criticizing Sean for not interviewing Kumail and others about the situation, this article is called “EXCLUSIVE: John Mayer talks about learning a tough lesson about stand-up comedy”, not “Here are various people’s thoughts on what happened.” I don’t feel Sean is trying to defend John.. He’s simply giving John a chance to describe the situation in his own words.
    It’s a double-edged sword. For instance, when he says,”I don’t know how to do it yet. I don’t know how to bomb,” then that’s a good admission of his weakness. Any comedian who has performed has bombed, and anyone who’s bombed knows that it’s the worst feeling in the world, and you are in a very sensitive and raw space where you momentarily hate your life.
    That being said, John didn’t exactly bomb. He didn’t kill, but I think he was a lot harder on himself than he needed to be. He felt he was bombing because he talked about how much he was bombing throughout his set. If he had just hit us with jokes instead of continually putting himself down, people who’ve most likely enjoyed his set much better, and he wouldn’t have felt it was such a bomb.
    Every comedian bombs, and the more experienced ones get over themselves and don’t stress out over it so much.. It’s just like dating; sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But ultimately you need to learn from it and be able to move on quickly.
    This quote does him a disservice: “It was combative in the sense that the crowd didn’t really accept the fact that the jock, the guy who gets the girls, was at a place where the guys go who talk about how they don’t get the girls.” That’s just silly because there are plenty of comedians who are rich, handsome and successful. Not every comedian tells self-deprecating stories (although most do).
    The point is that he was simply inexperienced and not as funny as the other comedians. It’s not as though he was telling funny jokes but the audience was refusing to laugh simply because he was famous and has had lots of sex with hot women. Audiences don’t care much about a comedian’s personal history. They mainly care about their jokes and delivery.

  19. “Performer to performer, I felt like, he’s having trouble transitioning. They always think the other guy is the bigger guy.” Um, John, I don’t think Kumail thought you were the “bigger guy” (okay, except taller, yes)–I think he thought you were an arrogant asshole who ruined his set, and he wanted to make fun of you.
    But of course John Mayer would believe anyone who makes fun of him is only doing it because deep down they are actually extremely jealous of him. Kumail is an ACTUAL comedian–after the crap act John pulled, I’m sure the last thing Kumail was feeling was insecurity.
    Oh, but too bad he didn’t realize that Mayer was “just trying to tell them I’m John.” Awww. That is so touching. See, he’s just your normal guy with massive ego problems, a navel-gazing habit that could cause myopia, and a tragically inflated sense of his own attractiveness after an online poll of thousands of women indicated that almost 90% did not want to date him.
    John Mayer doesn’t realize he’s ALREADY a professional comedian–only most people are laughing AT him.

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