Wissot: The failures in life make the successes so much sweeter (column)
The annual Cub Scout Memorial Day picnic was not going my way. I was 8 at the time and had earned my wolf badge, the beginning merit rank for a Cub Scout. The highlight for us scouts was the sports competition, in which winners received really cool prizes: baseball bats, gloves, balls and popular board games such as Monopoly and Clue. I knew all about those prizes because my father owned a toy store and had generously donated them for the event.
I was small, skinny, slow and athletically challenged. I sucked at the 100-yard dash, tripped over myself and my partner in the three-legged race and couldn’t make a basket in the basketball free throw contest. I walked away from the picnic empty-handed. All my father’s toy store donations went to other kids in my Cub Scout pack. Bad enough to lose, even worse when your father is doling out the prizes.
Two years later, I was two years bigger, two years stronger, two years faster, all sizable advantages that I held over the 8- and 9-year-olds competing against me. I still wasn’t athletically gifted, but it didn’t matter. I walked away from that year’s annual Cub Scout Memorial Day picnic with a boatload of prizes.
I soon forgot the pain I felt at the same event two years earlier. Time blurs the sting of failure, and success replaces the old, sad memories with new, glad memories; neither are permanent. But having succeeded at something you once failed at deepens your appreciation for that achievement. “The art of victory is learned in defeat,” said Simon Bolivar.
Fast forward to 1990. I am 45 and in the third year of a change-of-life career decision: doing stand-up comedy. The gig was in a college town, Kirksville, Missouri, home to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University). I don’t remember the name of the college bar where I was scheduled to perform, but I do remember checking it out before the show.
As I was about to enter the place, I noticed a mule tied to a post and walked over to pet it. The owner noticed my fondness for the animal and asked if I would like to ride him. I said sure. I never had ridden a mule before. He grabbed the reins and led the mule with me on it around the block. As I was about to dismount, he asked if I wanted to ride him into the bar. Again, I said sure. I never had a drink in a bar with a mule before. He led me into the bar and right up to the counter. I ordered a Bud Light. I don’t remember what the mule had. I do remember that it was the last good thing that happened to me that night.
The show was scheduled for 8 that night but didn’t start until 10, a fact that allowed the college kids to get in an extra two hours of uninterrupted drinking. By the time I hit the stage, they were pretty much wasted. They weren’t loud and obnoxious. They were just oblivious to the fact that a comic was on the stage telling them jokes. I waited for them to tell me to be quiet because I was interrupting their table conversations.
All that changed when the rains came. It was a downpour, and the bar’s roof began to leak, putting me in the precarious position of having to dodge raindrops on the stage while holding a plugged-in mic in my hand. I can only imagine that it was a couple of bright science majors in the audience who first noticed that they could be witnessing an electrocution. The room began to buzz as the word spread. For the remainder of the set, I had their rapt attention. The excitement generated by the promise of an actual electrocution was riveting.
I returned devastated to my motel room after the show. It was the worst set of my brief comedy career. I had bombed badly.
I hardly wanted to get out of my bed the next morning to drive to that night’s gig across the border in Burlington, Iowa. I eventually arrived a couple of hours before the show. I didn’t check out the room. Neither did I look for tied-up mules. I was spending all my time worrying about whether I would bomb again. I was going to have to use the same material that failed the night before. I had no choice. That was all I had.
The Palace Theater, a classic behemoth dating back to World War I and originally built for vaudeville acts, was my venue for the night. The place was cavernous, and the stage was so far removed from the audience that it made it hard to establish rapport and intimacy. I started my set, and something surprising happened. The crowd began laughing from the get-go. They didn’t stop until my set ended. I left the stage to the sound of rousing applause.
I had killed, which in comedy parlance is the direct opposite of bombing. Apparently the crowd hadn’t heard about my debacle in Kirksville. All they knew is that this stranger came to their theater, tried to entertain them and succeeded. My failure the previous night was entirely in my head. They hadn’t a clue as to what had happened.
I went back to my motel room feeling giddy. I didn’t sleep at all. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and drive to Quincy, Illinois, where my next night’s gig awaited me.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.