Being the compere on a comedy night fills many seasoned performers with trepidation. And rightly so – it’s a thankless, sometimes shitty, job. You are the canary in the mine, the very frontline in the battle between audience and comedian. You have to be likeable, create rapport with the crowd, and then, just as you have them where you want them, you have to humbly leave the stage for another act to benefit from your hard work.
You have to keep the night flowing, occasionally mop up blood and at the end of the night try to avoid the dreaded comment: ‘You’re really funny; you should be a real comedian.’
A bad MC will ruin even the strongest of comedy nights. Even if the audience absolutely love every other act on the bill, they will lose momentum whenever the host returns, meaning that the acts have to spend the crucial first few minutes of their spot recreating the energy that the bad MC has sucked out of the room.
With consultation from some of the great MCs currently working the Australian circuit, I have created a user friendly guide for new comics who are thrust into the scary world of MCing, starting from the basics:
Welcome the crowd, thank them for coming
These people have paid money to see some live comedy, so these people are golden. There are countless other things they could have done with their time and money, but they have taken a punt on seeing some comedy, probably featuring comics they have never heard of. Show them that you appreciate this.
Let them know how the night runs
A lot of people have never been to a comedy club before and don’t know the etiquette of how the show works. Inform them – explain how many comics are on, if any big names are performing tonight, how many breaks there will be, and when it would appropriate to go to the bar or toilet.
Make sure they are warm before bringing on the first act
Get them into the groove of hearing jokes, laughing out loud and then listening to the next one. In the age of television and cinema, people are used to sitting silently while being entertained. This is not ideal in a comedy club, so encourage the loud laughers and make the audience feel like a team.
Laughter is a form of communication, which is why we seldom laugh at really funny movies when we watch them alone. If we do, it’s usually accompanied by a mental note to share the joke with friends later, because it’s still communication, just delayed.
Laughing in a comedy club tells the other audience members that you are having a good time, but more importantly, it tells the comedian that you are having a good time. People need to subconsciously learn this behaviour in the first few minutes of the gig, and it is the MC’s job to train these Pavlovian responses.
Don’t do too long
If the audience is warm, if they are laughing at jokes and having a good time, then get off stage. Being an MC requires you to leave your ego at the door. Every comic wants to be the star of the show, but you have to remember that a crowd’s love and energy is a finite resource. If you take too much of it, then the night runs long and the later acts have to perform to a tired crowd. Not cool.
You are the first person the crowd meets, possibly the first live comedian they’ve ever seen. It’s vital that you do not scare them off. Justin Hamliton summed it up perfectly: ‘Treat the audience as if they’re a new friend, and all the comics appearing on the show are your old friends who you are introducing your new friends to.’
Try to begin with nice material on relatable subject matter that will appeal to most demographics. You won’t be on stage long enough to really develop your character with the audience, so avoid material that is too surreal, high concept or offensive. At least at first. If you do your job well and the crowd grow to trust you, you can lead them down your darker paths, but it’s imperative that you are first and foremost a fun, friendly person.
To be brutally honest, the audience doesn’t care what the comedian’s name is, as chances are they’ve never heard of them. It’s better to reassure the crowd that the comic is funny by telling them the highlights of the comic’s CV: ‘You might have seen them on Good News Week… they were nominated for the Johnsy award.’ This reassures the crowd that the next act is funny, or at least should be. It’s actually a lot more important that you say their name after they’ve been on, so people can make a mental note of their favourites.
Never slag off other comedians
Whatever petty little feud you have with another act, leave it offstage. The audience have come to laugh, not deal with the fragile egos of comedians.
Even if an act has bombed horribly, the comics need to show a united front. It’s a team sport and you must always back your teammates. In cases where an act has deeply and obviously offended the audience, it may be worth a little acknowledgement – ‘well, that was intense’ – but the best thing to do is move the show forward quickly and win the crowd back with some nice strong material.
Don’t do any material before a break or after the headliner
This is just plain rude. The acts who have just performed have earned their applause and adulation and deserve to be the last thing the audience experiences before a break or at the end of the night.
Also, think of the audience, they’ve been sitting still and concentrating and laughing for a long time. They might be busting for the toilet, keen for a beer or have an important phone call to some babysitters to make – and they’ve been primed to expect a break. Do the bare minimum then get off stage.
Before a break it is really important you suggest the crowd all buy a drink, the symbiotic relationship of the bar and the comedy night is dependent on the audience purchasing things. If the bar makes no money then the night will die. Remember that.
Talking to the crowd
There are a few schools of thought here, some MCs like to begin chatting in the opening section, whereas some like to play conservatively and save the banter until after the first break so the crowd feels more relaxed within the environment.
I would advise any new MC to take the second option. A lot of the general public have the misconception that comedy clubs are just like they are in the movies, with acerbic comedians looking for weaker audience members to savage mercilessly with a tirade of abuse and teasing. If you come out and immediately single out an audience member for a chat they may freeze like a deer in headlights. Remember, the audience want to trust that the comedian is funny, but you need to prove this to them first.
A good tactic when chatting to the crowd is to address them as a whole rather than individually: ‘Is anyone here from out of town?’ ‘Are there any students in?’ That way those who are willing to chat to you will show themselves. And remember, never ask a question of the audience without having material you can segue into if you get no response.
A common mistake made by inexperienced MC’s is to think they have to do material in between every act. This is absolutely false. If the crowd is warm and really digging the show, then the better option is to bring the next act straight on and keep the momentum going. There are really only a few circumstances, in which you should be doing material in between acts:
Invariably, there will be acts who struggle – their new material doesn’t gel, they don’t click with the crowd or they are just horrible comedians. It is vital that after such an act you come on and reassure the crowd that the rest of the night won’t be the same. Not literally of course, but through doing some strong material of your own to whip them back into shape. An off comedian shakes the crowd’s confidence so you owe it to the other acts to get the crowd back onside.
This is the opposite of mopping up blood. If an act has just blown the roof off a gig and walked off stage to an ovation worthy of the AFL Grand Final, you need to spend at least a full minute on stage so the crowd can finish their laughter and get back to the warm level where they are willing to listen to more.
If you bring the next act on straight away, they will be fighting the memory of the last comic and their first few gags will fall flat. You don’t need to do material, a well timed ‘How good was….? Let’s have another round of applause!’ Then remind them of some other acts coming up and what a great audience they are and by that stage they should be ready for their next act.
- You have complimentary material
If the previous act has just done some great gear on their trip toUkraine, and you have a nice little piece onUkraine’s entrant in this year’s Eurovision song contest, then it can be a nice touch to perform that bit straight after the act, since the subject is fresh in the audience’s mind. However, you need to be certain that your material doesn’t tread the same punchline territory, or you’ll look like a copycat.
Lots of things can go wrong when MCing and they probably will.
If there is a dickhead in the crowd who wants to heckle, they will begin with the MC, and sadly it is up to the MC to see how much of a dickhead they are.
Some hecklers just want some attention and can be politely told that their input is unnecessary. In the case of a proper disruptive prick, engage them with some of your nicer put-downs. Coming out too strong will spook the rest of the audience and it’ll be an uphill battle for the rest of the night. If it doesn’t look like they are going to shut up, then become a human shield, tell the heckler that heckling the MC is all fun and games but it’s not cool to interrupt any of the other acts.
Then if/when they do interrupt the acts, start the smackdown approach. If that fails and if you can, get security to throw them out. If there is no security, then call them aside and explain to them calmly that they are only allowed to heckle the MC. For some reason being told one on one is a lot more effective than being told from a stage.
In so many ways, chatty crowds are so much worse than hecklers. Chatty crowds seem to think they are in their lounge room and can have a discussion about what they are watching. Most people are good natured enough to realise they are being rude and stop if just call attention to it.
If they keep chatting (and the promoter isn’t good enough to intervene) continue with your opening, get the rest of the crowd warm and bring on the first act. Then approach the chatters and whisper to them that they are disrupting the show and they should continue their discussion outside or even better, keep quiet. Often chatters will react better to the MC telling them this than the promoter because they know the MC is part of the show and they’re not faced with some stranger telling them to shut up.
I’ve seen legendary crowd wrangler Brian Nankervis do this to a room full of 700 trade unionists with an open bar. It was beautiful to watch. He silenced them all with nothing more than a smile and some well-placed: ‘Shhh!’
- Forgetting the next act’s name
This will happen, being an MC involves multitasking and sometimes things will slip your mind. I find honesty is the best policy: ‘Oh god, I’ve forgotten who’s on next, sorry everyone.’ The crowd will forgive you and hopefully someone backstage will feed you the name. If you can only remember half their name then announce it and bluff the rest, remember it’s more important you say their name after they’ve been on.
And on the flipside – at some point an MC will say your name wrong. Do NOT correct them as the first thing you say on stage, the crowd doesn’t give a shit and you’ve wasted a valuable first impression. If you are funny, they will make a note of your name after your act.
- The crowd is not into you
The other acts are doing fine, but the crowd is distinctly not laughing at you. Sometimes, this just happens, we all have off nights. It is particularly hard when you have to keep going back onstage to introduce the next act. If you have tried everything: speeding up, slowing down, a bit dirtier, a bit nicer, a bit absurd but still nothing, then keep smiling and bringing the acts on. Yes it sucks, but you are the host and the show must go on.
The end of the night
It’s been a great night of comedy. The headliner has just walked off after kicking arse thanks to the warm crowd you had ready for them. Back-announce the act with pride and tell the crowd how wonderful they have been, make them feel special, because they are.
Make sure all the people who are working get a round of applause, the bar staff, floor staff, sound, door bitch. Everyone deserves a mention. Reiterate that the bar is still open and the crowd should stick around for a drink. Name and thank all the comics again, mention yourself, humbly of course, then take your bow.
With thanks to Harley Breen and Justin Hamilton
This article was originally printed in Chortle.Au on 20/09/2011