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How to MC a comedy night.

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Thu, August 08, 2013 09:28:57

Here is a guide on how to MC a stand-up gig. MCing is not like doing a set; you don't get to walk on fill an allotted amount of time with your best material and walk off a hero. You basically have to get the audience ready to enjoy a night of comedy, set the comedians up so they walk on to the best environment possible and reset the room if something strange happens during a set. And then walk on again. And again. And again. It can be a thankless task but if you are in anyway decent at the craft of hosting you can find yourself with more professional stagetime and cash in your pocket than those who can just recite a script to an already up for it room... So here's some guidance on the technique and philosophy of good MCing.

You've got one job!
Your sole job as MC / Host / Compere is actually very simple: you need make sure the audience are ready to be entertained by the acts. You've been given ten minutes to do this. Walk on, get their attention, then hopefully with jokes (but most likely through being friendly and enthusiastic) turn all those disparate couples, work colleagues, groups of mates, stag parties, bar locals and loner comedy nerds into one conjoined hive mind determined to laugh, respect and enjoy each comedian booked to do their set. And when you do this one job well, after those 10 minutes you can announce said comedian is about to walk on stage and that unit of strangers you've charmed together will "go wild and crazy" just like you've asked them to. If you get them laughing in the first 10, applauding the opening act they've yet to even meet and sitting attentively through that act's set - you can essentially reward yourself with a pint as you've excelled in your MCing duties.

But you have other jobs.
You do have other jobs. They may not be the priority (that is above) but a good MC does them. Let them know the format of the night, just when there'll be breaks and that there’ll be a headliner is enough. Let them know they can't chat, heckle and their phone must be off. You don't have to be a dick about it - polite but firm. You do need to get the audience cheering and applauding but don't chastise the one or two who don't. You should find out who is in the room but you don't need to ask everyone individually what’s their jobs or when they met. You do need to deal with any troublemakers in the room (hecklers or interrupters or those distracted from the show) but do not go all guns blazing straight off that bat. A good MC will let the audience know what is expected of them but also find a few landmark audience members for the other acts to bounce off of.

Before you walk on.
Instead of spending the 10 minutes before the show in the green room talking about who books the FunnySpleen in Swanage and what a dick they are... go out and look at the room. What is unusual about the set up or interior design? Who is sitting where? Who looks up for it? Who looks interesting? Who looks stand off-ish? Who looks like they might be a landmine in the room you do not under any circumstances want to step on? The last two you might want to think twice about engaging, but anything or anyone else you log in advance are fuel for you to bound on stage and work cold from. Remember five years ago when anyone wearing a checked shirt was referred to as "Brokeback Mountain"... well you can come up with something as prepared, crowd pleasing and hopefully less homophobic as that every night before you even wander onstage just by spending some time scoping out your gig. If you can think of 7 things to say to about what you’ve eye spied before you walk on you've got half your opening "banter" mapped out. And for the punters it will feel like you are an Instant Oscar Wilde; the just add water wit talking about things they can recognise and relate to. The good thing about having an idea of who you are going to talk to and what you are going to say in advance means you can even self edit by pre-scripting who you chat with to make sure you aren't accidentally going to say something that will offend an audience member or the room entire which can easily happen if you are on stage in the heat of moment desperately trying to improvise something funny. I'm not saying have a monologue written out longform, just a few already booked safe houses of mirth as you work around the room. If you do spend the pre-show in the room you can always be friendly with any audience members who catches your eye which is half the MC's work done. If they already like you and think you are a lovely human before the show starts it'll be smooth sailing from there on out. So don’t be afraid to say “Hello” even when you aren’t onstage. If you look around the room and can't see anything of note there's always the town itself (Wikipedia or an early evening recce or just asking the venue manager who the rival town is) can sift out some "in the moment" gold.

Getting their attention.
Some gigs will have ushers to seat the audience in, a layout that means the audience entire will be looking straight at you from the start, a series of announcements over a tannoy as we build to show time, lights that go down, thumping intro music, a regular crowd who'll be clapping Pavlovian-ly as you walk onstage as they are so used to having a great night at this long standing club. For the rest of your career most venues you'll play will have a cold start. You might need to shout yourself on (do - and say "Put your hands together for..." otherwise don't expect any clapping). If you are lucky enough to have a sound tech and walk on music then make sure they have the microphone on before you walk onstage and are ready to turn the music off right when you reach it and signal them... and then be prepared when they don't. If the audience is still chatty or moving - don't start screaming at them. It will be a long night if that's your opening gambit. Have a bit of grace and engage those who are looking at you expecting a show. Feel free to do something a bit unusual to get all their attention. I carry a harmonica in my suit pocket and blast out a few notes (I can't play it) but this at the very least get everyone looking the right way and aware. Sometime it is the MC's job to eat the shit that is the cold start, if you are doing your job right you'll finish off the plate with a smile on your face so no other act has to taste it. If you are a bad MC you'll leave more shit on the plate which your opener will not appreciate a double serving of.

A comedy night needs people sitting at the front yet most audiences are scared of sitting at the front. Some audiences members want to be rinsed, be part of the show. Most audience members however just want to laugh and are scared of being bullied by the MC or act. Hence the empty front row. The reason audiences are stand off-ish with MCs is because of bad comedians they have experienced or heard horror stories about rather than they are prudish or shy in real life. 9 times out of 10 bantering with the crowd does not need to be insult comedy. You should be warm, engaging and know when to back off. Feel free to chat with the audience but have an idea where you are going to go with it. If you've prepared some jokes about people in the audience as suggested earlier use them as an in to further chat. I try to tease people about their positives; height, beauty, muscles or clothes rather than things they might feel are negatives about themselves which they cannot change. I look to chat with people who are smiling and open in their body language as they have a higher chance of being happy with being joked around with and about. Don’t be afraid about being a little hacky as MC. Do not rip off others acts’ jokes off but let them know you can be funny even if it is a line or concept you’d be loathe to utter in front of the Fosters Awards judges. Most audiences just want to be reassured you are funny and know what you are doing. Sometimes pointing out that the man has to think about when he met his partner (Oh men, what are we like, hey?) lets them know you are actually a comedian and they’ve made the right choice for their evening out.

“What do you do for a living?”

Try to avoid asking people what they do too often. It is their night off for fuck’s sake. These days most people work in boring desk based jobs like IT or Admin with obscure titles for companies you've never heard of and there's little comedy gold in that. Write some jokes about IT, Admin, office life just in case though and bring the conversation round to them if thrown. If you do need to ask the audience some direct questions why not realise you can ask them anything? Ask them what their strangest Christmas present was? Ask them what their best chat up line is? Or if you must ask their job at least attempt a comedy guess first...

Get EVERYONE on board.

If you do chat with the audience there are some dynamics to figure out. Start with the biggest group first and go for the most confident person. Why? You’ll engage the largest percentage of the room by funning with their mate who can take it. Then when you get a few laughs move on. Why? There’s a whole room out there who might be a little relieved they aren’t being “picked on” but there’s also a whole room who might feel at little separated if the fun stays in just one small section for 10 minutes. Work around the room as a good MC should tie all the separate information that comes up from each group together. In fact try to force this to happen no matter how surreal your links are as it is an impressive trick to be able to pull of adeptly. Even if linking what you’ve learnt into an improvised callback is a bit advanced imagine the audience as three to five sections. You should be spinning a plate from each if you are a good MC, that way every section of the room feels part of the show and engaged yet no single group will feel like they own the room and have licence to disrupt the acts. If you focus on only one loud and giving group or person then you can also feed that tiger into thinking it needs to roar and swipe at every act too. The audience will hate you for this encouraged interruption and any act who knows the dynamic of MCing will too. Work all the room not the most obvious minority.

Crowd Control.
Once in a blue moon, you may face one persistent heckler (monthly?), a group of hecklers (yearly?) or a whole room of mega twats(weekly... just kidding). For the last two scenarios all I can offer you is the very best of luck and if it continues through the first section ask the venue to remove them in the break. If it is a one off and not too interruptive assess whether it is even worth responding to, and if you do respond try to repeat what they say so the whole room knows what they might not have heard. Normally the room is on your side and any confident comeback will get them laughing at the gob. But if it is a constant lone wolf, try to figure out what motivates the heckling before you respond...

1) Are they just over eager? Be polite but let them know to be quiet and then move on.

2) Do they want attention and to be part of the show? Try a mid level put down, call them a “character”, explain the rules of the show and then move on. If they pipe up again, do up the ante of the put down but with an eye on moving on again.

3) Are they drunk and keep going? Try to work the rest of the room against them but you MUST keep the rest of the room on your side.

4) Are they not aware how interruptive they are being? This will normally be middle aged women, older men or special needs “fans” who either are chatting, see every punchline as a trigger word to say something or brainfarters. Basically folk who just plain aren’t used to being self aware, caring about other people’s night or being told to shut the fuck up. You can try to tell them exactly those words but you’ll risk losing everyone else. Why? Imagine if you told such a person to “shut the fuck up” on a train carriage or in a business meeting, no matter how warranted - no-one else in the room is likely to applaud you. Gently, gently is the best way with the non malicious burbler in the room.

5) Maybe you’ve been a bit shit and they are piping up with some deserved feedback? Take your lumps, accept your fate, stop trying to be funny and do whatever you can do to get the opening act on to a less hostile environment.

6) Did you just ask a question and they responded with a quip that made the room laugh? This is not heckling, this is a dialogue you just invited. If you put them down like a heckler to maintain status you are the cock of all cocks. Why not doff your cap to the wit and ask the room to give the fastest gunslinger a round of applause? Why? It is gracious.

7) And finally there’s your absolute bell end who knows he’s better than any twat who thinks he’s a comedian... give him one chance and unleash the fury. But... Remember whatever you do there’s a room of folk watching who’ll blame you if the night goes tits up if you lose your temper or there’s an altercation. So make sure whatever dark insult or aggressive threat you use to defeat the persistent gobshite there has to be a punchline for everyone else to enjoy at the end.

Introducing acts.
Learn the running order off by heart. Write it on your hand, not a piece of paper, if needs be but if you can't remember 4 names of people you've met how are you ever going to remember a comedy routine? Make sure the act you are about to bring on next is in the room and knows how long you are about to do before them. Ask them if they have anything they need you to say. If it is more than a simple sentence - fuck 'em. You are not there to do their overlong set up so they can reap the benefit of just saying a punchline as they walk on but do try and be true to your word if it something that you can say naturally as part of their into. Equally unless they ask you to refer to it specifically in your introduction you should not give anything away about where they are from, what they look like or who they are as you might fuck up their first joke. Ask the room to applaud and move your hands to encourage volume. Your hands will conduct them into clapping more. Feel free to praise the act if you know them, say you are excited to see them if not. Try and also take a rough note of their height if it is wildly different from yours so you can leave the mic stand at a reasonable level for them to get down to business straight away. (Though that's more a bonus and a courtesy). No one needs to know how new an act is before they walk on so do not announce a damage limitation by warning the audience and cripple their set. If they do a big shit onstage, just explain what an open spot is afterwards (unpaid, giving it a try) and no doubt the goodwill you generated will mean they get a posthumous smattering of appreciation no matter how dreadful.

Leave your ego at the door.

Accept these things as MC. You are not the star of the show. You do not overrun. You will not get the biggest laughs of the night. You probably will struggle to get laughs in the first 10, for if the audience was ready to laugh at every utterance straight off the bat the MC job would not exist. Sometimes MCing is dying without letting on for the first 10. You may find even if you open strong, when you go back on in the next section they’ll see you as just a test card for the next act rather than getting to reap the glory. Good MCs can spin new ideas into the flow of their MCing making it a fertile but relaxed testing ground for new bits, bad MCs mistake this for walking on with a notepad to try ill formed jokes or untested stories on an audience who are waiting for someone who will let them know they are in for a great show. If you are a character act, deadpan or an experimental alternative comic this is not a job that needs you to stick to your persona or art. You are warming the crowd up, gaining their confidence and if you can’t marry that with what you want to do onstsage DO NOT TAKE THE JOB OF MC. Stay in the safe slot of paid middle until you build up the fanbase to headline. MCing is a rollercoaster of audience response; slow builds, falls, rushes, waiting for seats to be taken and vacated, safety announcement, the feeling that your wallet might fall out. A good MC can ride the Colossus with a smile on their face, a bad one makes everyone feel like they are still queuing for it.

You should do some material.

Alun Cochrane puts this better than I can on Stu Goldsmith’s excellent Comedian’s Comedian podcast. Listen to all of it but with this blog in mind check out from 17:00

The jist, which I wholeheartedly subscribe too, is in the first couple of minutes you should do a solid bit just to get the audience used to being quiet and listening to material. Best case scenario they laugh readily and you know the night should be fine. Worst case scenario is they don’t but at least you know you’ve given them a chance before stoking the fire and getting them warm through chat and tricks. But you should feel them out with a good routine and give them a dry run of what the next act is about to do 20 minutes of.

You should not care about your material.

Chances are when you do try and do your killer Jaffa Cake bit the audience who you’ve already been chatty with might chip in. Don’t be precious if they interrupt, just go with it. Only go back to the bit if it does not need heroic measures to get back on point. If you are precious about your material you have not left your ego at the door. And I just told you to do that. Being happy to abandon an interrupted bit in general is one of the best bits of advice Bill Hick’s Principles of Comedy has gifted me

Watch other good comperes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Comedians who actively watch other comedians become better comedians. For this learning curve the three to check out are

1) Dara O’Briain – teaches you enthusiasm, curiosity and to keep asking questions until you get to gold.

2) Roger Monkhouse – teaches you confidence and a relaxed “another day at the coal face” attitude can be winning if genuine.

3) Jason Cook – teaches you the MC can be the star if they dominate the room with their talent.

Clapping and cheering techniques.

Splitting the room in half and playing them off each other. Setting a clap level from 1-11. Designating one poor fuck as the clap cheerleader. Do ‘em if the audience is about mid level enthusiastic to bring them to palm slapping orgasm. But... If they are stone cold then treating them like children will not be the tipping point that makes them any more giving a unit. If they are well up for it, why are you wasting stagetime when they are already lovely?

The middle bit

That five before you bring the middle section on. Do some gold. Do a newer bit and make it chatty. Reignite the chat as you’ve had a chance to think for half an hour where to take it. Just don’t die.

It genuinely is a night long job.

You really need to watch the whole gig. An act might die. An interaction might happen which has changed the whole interactive dynamic you’ve previously created. You are the only act who has to keep going back on. Why would you handicap yourself by not knowing who has done what? Equally your headliner will appreciate it if you can talk them through who has done what and who is who in the audience when they turn up late from a double.

You might not be the comedian in their eyes but you are the gig.

“You were alright. You should try being a comedian.” A lot of audiences will just see you as the MC rather than a comedian. Who cares? Even if you storm it. You’ll do a great set tomorrow night if you are worth your salt. On the night the MC is the punctuation to the gig. At times this can be embarrassing. For example the act walks off to applause but you won’t unless you force it. Here’s a trick on how to avoid the embarrassing silence that comes with announcing the break and having to get off stage. Ask the room right before they go to give the act they’ve seen another round of applause and this should give you a dignified chance to exit each time. At the end of the show before you close off by getting another round of applause for all the acts tell the crowd when the next show is, and if it is a night rather than a club get a round of applause for whoever is paying the bills. Why? You want this gig to exist a couple of years down the line so you can come back and some positive reinforcement to the landlord or entertainment booker that comedy is worth doing and you are a good egg is only going to help that happen. Another little end of night rule is not to do anything but admin after the headliner. You might be tempted to ride the wave of laughter the closer has surfed but think about everyone’s drive home, last pint, the babysitters and the fact there’s a reason you aren’t headlining. Doing a bit as an epilogue to the headliner is a hiding to a last minute death, an unnecessary death. Close the gig off clean, get paid, pick your ego back up when you get outside.

What to do if it has gone wrong...

That cold start. That plate of shit. That interaction that can go anywhere. There’s a lot working against you as MC to have a good gig. Get used to suffering. But whatever you do as MC who is getting nothing but tuts and crossed arms do not throw your toys out of your pram, do not kill the room for other acts. If you’ve tried your best for the opening 10 give the first act the cleanest, most distancing introduction possible and then keep things brief in your next sections. The acts might not understand you had the shittiest end of the stick, the booker might not too, but as I said before if the audience was ready to laugh at every utterance straight off the bat the MC job would not exist. Do not ruin the night just because you took the danger money that is MCing, it sadly is a role fraught with risk. Go on knowing and be pleasantly surprised when this is not the case, but also be readied to lose the battle, not the war if it is.