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The Twilight Zone premiere makes my stand-up comedy nightmares too real

Commentary: Jordan Peele's reboot starts with a comedy of terrors starring Kumail Nanjiani, and for a working comic like me, it's dead-on.


The Twilight Zone's inaugural episode stars Kumail Nanjiani as a comic who kills it on stage.

CBS All Access

Warning: Twilight Zone spoilers ahead.

Performing on stage as a stand-up comedian can feel like you're in your own version of The Twilight Zone. If your jokes aren't getting laughs, audience members will stare at you like cocktail-saturated zombies. Worse, you get heckled by a jerk trying to impress his friends. When you start to bomb behind the microphone, you'll do anything for a laugh. And when that happens, who knows how it'll end up.

Stand-up comedy with a chilling twist is the subject of the first episode of the reimagined Twilight Zone from filmmaker Jordan Peele (Us), available to watch on CBS All Access starting April 1. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company).

This first episode, The Comedian, follows struggling comic Samir (played by Kumail Nanjiani) as he dies on stage night after night. Samir refuses to give up his boring jokes about the US Constitution because he thinks his routine has moral substance.

This might seem like an unlikely setup for a comedian, but I'll be the first to admit it's all too real. When I'm not writing articles for CNET, I do stand-up comedy at nightclubs, cafes, laundromats, bingo halls -- anywhere there's a microphone and a captive audience.

I've fallen into the trap of using the same jokes because I thought they were socially important. But if the audience doesn't want to hear your Harry Potter angle on pro football or your ideas on how to make the proposed US border wall out of Lego bricks, you have to adapt -- or you'll die on stage.

The episode takes a creepy turn when Samir meets a famous comedian brilliantly played by 30 Rock's Tracy Morgan. Morgan is a Faustian figure who gives Samir advice on how to improve his comedy -- be personal. Give yourself completely over to the audience. But if Samir wants to kill it on stage, he has to accept the price of success. And in Twilight Zone terms that could mean something much more sinister than just being vulnerable.

Here's where a lot of my comedian PTSD kicks in. It's easier said than done to let yourself be vulnerable on stage. If done right, you'll have the audience in the palm of your hand. If done badly, you could feel like you're trapped in a therapy session where you're heckled by your own support group.

I've done comedy routines where I'd joke about childhood mishaps that left me emotionally scarred, or bosses who bullied me, or even dissected bad relationships on stage. But when I tried to joke about a recent breakup with someone I still loved, I started crying and forgot all my material. The audience was a silent blur behind my tears and I couldn't pull myself out of my onstage depression fast enough to get to the punchline. I finally stumbled off stage and let the next comic go on. I'm sure he did well by comparison.


When Tracy Morgan gives you notes on your jokes, take heed.

CBS All Access

Samir doesn't start crying when he takes the stage in The Twilight Zone, but when he yet again starts up on his politics routine, the audience members look very, very bored. So bored they get on their phones to play video games and text.

This has happened to me so many times I once live-tweeted my comedy routine on stage in hopes of getting a laugh. I even tried to capture my hecklers in action, live on Snapchat, to help diffuse a bad situation. It didn't. But that frustration of bombing on stage is real. You work so hard on your material, and instead of thunderous applause you can visibly see bored audience members checking Twitter.

If you want to be a successful comic you have to be able to cold-read a room -- and if the audience doesn't laugh at your Ruth Bader Ginsburg impressions, you have to make them laugh with new jokes, and that might mean being more candid about your personal life.

I've won back a bored audience when I started randomly talking about my embarrassing flirtation attempts, such as trying to hit on a pizza delivery guy who was clearly not interested. My comedy routine suddenly became all about using Postmates food delivery service as a kind of Tinder-with-food concept. I killed it on stage thanks to being honest about how bad I am at dating.

In a way, that's what Samir does. He finally makes a crack about his pet dog and the audience goes wild. His entire political routine is now replaced with dumb pet jokes -- but that personal touch leaves the audience howling with laughter.

However, in The Twilight Zone, success comes with some bad mojo. When Samir returns home flushed with success, he discovers his dog has been erased from existence. He joked the dog into oblivion.

Samir realizes he can rid the world of anyone and anything personally connected to him just by naming names on stage. Suddenly everyone who's ever wronged him in high school, college or on stage is killed off one joke at a time.

Every standup comic -- including me -- has fantasized about this power one way or another.

What if a joke could turn into a weapon of mass destruction -- ridding your life of every ex who broke your heart, every internet troll who insulted you, every heckler who ruined your moment in the spotlight? The revenge fantasies of a stand-up comic are never-ending, but they often backfire.

I never joked away my dog, but I did joke away a job. I did an entire stand-up routine about a boss at my day job who was condescending to me in meetings, took credit for my ideas and treated me like an intern. Plus he wore a very comical toupee.

I put all of those into my act and got some of the best laughs of my comedy career, but word got back to him that I had was making fun of him night after night in a comedy club, and before I knew it I was fired.

In this Twilight Zone a more extreme version of the Butterfly Effect occurs when Samir starts to focus his jokes on his girlfriend's life and ends up ruining her future. In the end, he must choose between love or laughs.

If you've ever thought about doing stand-up but were afraid of what might happen, this episode should give you extra encouragement. My life has been richer for taking the stand-up comedy plunge. I'm a lot less scared about putting myself out there -- on stage and off. Comedy can bring out the best in you, if you let it.

While real life as a comic can be scary, it's not quite as horrifying as The Twilight Zone. You might not kill it on stage, but at least your jokes won't actually kill anyone in the audience.