Published on December 11th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


John Mayer: a long night in New York City

“I just wanna be liked
I just wanna be funny
Looks like the joke’s on me
So call me captain backfire.”

-John Mayer, My Stupid Mouth

Glancing at this blog, one would think I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet about last week’s John Mayer standup debacle in NYC. But nay — I’ve had lots to say about this epic saga, which I have an only mildly-explicable vague personal investment in. Just haven’t been talking about it here. I’ve been posting up a storm on a comedy messageboard, where I’ve tried to soften the JM fan in me. And been posting on a Mayer fan forum, where I’ve been trying to express myself with the knowledge that these are not comedy-savvy people. (And no, I’m not naming the sites, because either group finding the other is unlikely to end well.)

I won’t rehash my very obvious feelings on what what happened (he shouldn’t have x, y, or z!). I do have a few key points to make, hopefully with more clarity than I’m able to provide in either location.

First, if you haven’t heard the story, here it is in a nutshell as I’ve best been able to piece together:

  • Mayer, who has been trying his hand at standup for the last 3 1/2 years – primarily at the Comedy Cellar – decided to check out Seth Herzog’s weekly show Sweet at the Slipper Room in the East Village.
  • He decided last-minute that he wanted to get on stage.
  • He was unprepared.
  • May or may not have been drunk at that point.
  • Mildly bombed.
  • Spent 20 minutes on stage and got off.
  • The following comic, Kumail Nanjiani (poised to become superultrafamous any day now) got on stage and acknowledged that obvious: that the previous 20 minutes had been kinda weird.
  • Mayer decided to get back on stage and verbally spar with him in what he thought was a good-natured manner.
  • It became more awkward when Mayer called him “Kabul”, and said something about him sounding white and looking like a British newscaster.
  • Mayer eventually got off and let Nanjiani finish his set, and then apologized to him off-stage afterwards for ruining said set.
  • Mayer walked into the Comedy Cellar after midnight, and made Dave Attell bring him up on stage.
  • He was reportedly quite drunk by now.
  • Bombed.
  • Attell came back up, Mayer went over and sat at the piano and played through his set, and in general interrupted him as much as possible.

All of this is pieced together via a few different reports on various messageboards, Twitter, New York Magazine , and Brian Jian’s blog. Even factoring in the potential elements of hearsay and exaggeration, it was unquestionably a bad night for John Mayer.

And he himself knew it. Mayer granted an interview about the incident to Sean McCarthy, wherein he talks through what happened that night, and where he felt he went wrong. (Sean did a great job, but still caught some shit from a few commenters for basically sucking Mayer’s dick and making him look good. But all he did was let Mayer talk, and let us all draw our own conclusions based on his words and the facts. There’s a word for that… I think they used to call it “reporting”. Anyway…)

John Mayer, in his natural habitat (2007). Photo by Sharilyn Johnson

John Mayer, in his natural habitat (2007). Photo by Sharilyn Johnson

Fortuitously, blogger Rachel Sklar was in the room at Sweet when this all went down, and my patient wait for her to blog about it was finally rewarded yesterday. Read this.

My biggest joy in reading this piece was her confirmation of my own suspicions regarding the race issue (“As someone who was in the audience, neither Kumail nor the audience nor Herzog [who we were sitting near] nor anyone afterward seemed to pick up this “racist” thread.”). I figured those “racist” comments were actually quite mild, based purely on the complete lack of references to them in the 48 hours following the set. Nothing on Twitter talking about him being racially insensitive. One of my friends on Facebook was at the show and commented that the show was “good” — nothing about any race war brewing. In fact, Eugene Mirman’s subsequent quip that Mayer was an “accidental racist”, seems to have fueled that fire far more than Mayer’s actual comments. But try telling that to anyone looking to pick a fight. (One person online, hell-bent on labeling him a racist, accused me of being a “Mayer apologist”. Really, is this that much of a witch hunt?)

After the race issue, the secondary hot-button quote was one that appeared in that Comic’s Comic interview:

“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,” Mayer said.

Everyone is saying how he’s such a megadouche for saying this. But they’re angry about the quote for the wrong reasons. This isn’t a literal claim about Mayer’s ability to bone Jennifer Aniston. He’s attempting to give a sense of how out of place a guy like him is on a comedy stage. And y’know what? He’s right.

“Comedy is a man in trouble,” so said Jerry Lewis. Comedy is about the struggles in life. Expressing your own take on your world’s problems, whether it’s politics or your dating life or how it bugs you when you can’t open those flimsy bulk produce bags at the grocery store. Jokes are about the discovery of a shared experience. But you know who doesn’t share most of our experiences? Young, rich, good-looking, talented rock stars. From our perspective, there’s not a lot of pain in John Mayer’s life for him to be turning into comedy. Everyone in the room looks at him and thinks to themselves: John Mayer has no real problems, so what does he have to get on stage and complain about?

I like that he recognizes that. I don’t like that in the process of recognizing that, he’s essentially blaming the audience for not accepting him. John, it ain’t their fault. You have a challenge, but it’s your job to make it work. If you didn’t on that particular night, that means you failed (operative word “you”).

Over the past 10 days, there have been a lot of strong mandates being put forth by Mayer’s fans and his detractors alike. He should stop doing standup. He should take a break. He’s self-destructive. This is indicative of an attitude problem, or a drinking problem, or a just plain stupidity problem. The list goes on and on. But no matter how much this one bad night is being talked about, it remains one bad night. It might never happen again. Or it might happen again next week, and be twice as bad. As much as I’d like to prescribe some 12-step method towards bombing gracefully, we aren’t in a position to look at this and make a proclamation that we know what Mayer should be doing, or what he must be thinking. He’ll show us over time.

I often cite an old blog entry he wrote about trying standup through 2006. He said he was sharing the experience in that entry because trying comedy was “something too special to keep to myself”. He said “I’ve had a passion for the attempt of writing comedy for as long as I’ve been a musician”. He wrote a few hefty paragraphs about how kind and generous the comics at the Cellar treated him.

All of this stuff resonated deeply with me when I first read it, because I had been going through a similar comedic roller-coaster: being passionate about comedy long before doing it; being proud of trying it, but waiting until I knew it would be something before excitedly telling people; being touched by the endless support I received from my comedian friends. His words rang way too true, and felt way too honest, for me to call “bullshit” on them even 3 years later.

I can’t defend Mayer’s choices last week. But I will continue to defend his attempt to get it right next time. Here’s hoping.

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

2 Responses to John Mayer: a long night in New York City

Back to Top ↑
  • The Colbert Report A-Z

    Third Beat editor Sharilyn Johnson presents the ultimate fan guide to The Colbert Report, available from all major booksellers including