Mastering Ceremonies: How to MC Comedy
One of the trickiest and most enigmatic parts of comedy is hosting a night. In one role a good MC is expected to be funny, set the tone of the night, warm a crowd up, lay the ground rules for the audience, explain the show, introduce acts and cleanup should they fail. It's a lot to add to a regular set but if you can learn to do it well it'll significantly boost the amount of work available so you should make understanding how to do it a priority.
Now different scenes place different emphasis on MC-ing comedy. In Australia and the UK the headliner and MC positions are more or less interchangeable as both will require similar amounts of material and skill. However in America the position of first act onstage is something few comics want, even at top level rooms and so the position is handed to newer performers as a trial by fire for better spots on the lineup. This is a ridiculous way of running comedy because the quality of the show rests largely on how it's opened so giving it to less experienced performers so you can have a seemingly easier spot later is counter intuitive if the audience is already put off by then. This idea that you should want to headline instead of MC means that many don't bother with it and it's a noticeable dip in the overall quality of America comedy compared to UK scenes. So just trust that sooner or later you're going to be asked to MC a comedy night and with that being said, here's how to go about it..
As an MC there’s a gear shift from performing that is crucial to working the role. Your job is two fold, to get laughs and to set the show up so every act you introduce can build on your positive momentum and be given the best possible start to their own performance. In this respect,you don’t just do comedy, you focus, manage, finesse and work up a crowd whilst being sure to stick to time and leave audiences not at the best possible point for you to finish but rather the best possible point for another to start. This means that if a crowd is good you hand them over to an act as soon as possible and if a crowd is not warm, you stay as long as you need to (within reason) in order to get them where they need to be for the other acts. Your role exists to make others look good whilst keeping the show running smoothly and the best possible outcome you can have as an MC is for the audience to be unanimous in their praise every other act as much as they are for you.
Bottom line, if you do well and the other acts don't then you have not been a good MC.
Before the show:
1. When you MC in a good room that is well run then the most you’ll need to concern yourself with is the start time, audience numbers and the running order of the show. Be mindful of the start time and whether audiences are settled. If you’re running late be mindful of doing a shorter sett o keep the show to time. However if this isn't the case it'll be up to tweak or even write a running order to best suit the night. Try to sandwich less experience acts with more experienced ones and put even numbers of comics in each bracket or section. If the audience is still coming in past the start time then allow them time to settle and suggest pushing the start time back a bit.
2. Every act without question, regardless of experience will check at least 3 times as to when they are on, how long they are doing and how long you’ll be doing so take it in your stride.
3.Whilst it isn’t your responsibility, If the room isn’t a pro venue you may have to organize chairs, tables and music cues. If you want the show to run as well as it can then on occasion, you’ll have to pickup the slack. Sound and lighting will always take priority so if you’re not sure, double check the PA is at the right level for the quietest act to be heard without the sound peaking. Ensure the speakers are in front of the microphone so you don’t get feedback and make sure all lighting in the venue is off and a main source of light is focused on the comics whilst keeping the audience in darkness. Turn off distracting TV's, Jukeboxes, betting machines or overlapping music. Arrange chairs seating so that they are in a line and close to the performers and bunched together well. Move comfortable chairs like couches and bean bags to the back as audiences in them will be in a compromised position for laughter and ensure there are less chairs than audience members to begin with so you’re forcing them to fill up the seats at the front first before adding more later.
4. Make sure there is always music playing before punters come in.
5. Keep a list of the acts on hand in case you forget onstage and double check the line up with the booker or organizer as they’ll often change.
Starting the show
It's good to have a rough, rehearsed idea of what you plan to say for the intro. These are the most important things to cover.
1. Welcome the audience to the show
2. Get a round of applause (when asking for applause I often raise my hand so that the gesture becomes associated with applause and when you do it later on they will often applaud on cue)
3. Introduce who you are and WHAT YOU ARE (audiences do not understand the inner workings of comedy and will more often than not, think the MC is a separate role to comedian or that they are merely there to introduce the show, if you don’t tell them otherwise early they will think you’re hogging the stage and wasting their time before the “real comedians” come on. To counter this I’ll always say “hi my name is Colin Ebsworth I’m the comedian that will be hosting tonight, it’s my job to make sure you’re all feeling good and up and ready for the amazing lineup of comics we have on the show”.
4.Tell them how the show will work, is it a solid hour? Is it in brackets? Will there be a raffle/door prize or anything else? (Corporates will usually have a tonne of inane stuff so be sure you know what is when and don’t be afraid to tell them what needs to move to run the show better) Finally, let them know what the lineup is and how long people are doing. Along the lines of “so the way tonight’s going to work, I’m going to be up here and tell some jokes before we kick on with all the great comics on the lineup, we’re going to have two support acts in the first bracket before taking a short break then you’re terrific headliner in the second bringing it home”.
5. Let them know talking, heckling, being on your phones is not allowed but do so in a lighthearted way at first as being too serious too quickly can be damaging to the dynamic you want to create
An MC’s main tool for building audience rapport is positive energy. You want to smile, laugh and enjoy yourself as much as you can and more often than not the audience will get on the same level. Be direct with who you’re speaking too and make eye contact and ensure that all interactions are positive first before negative in the rare case of shutting down a heckler.
It’s common for MC’s to incorporate crowd work in their set as it’s the easiest way to settle and audience in and familiarize them with the show.
1. Make sure your crowd is positive and take your time with it. You may feel like you’re in a race against the clock to get to the first joke but trust in your comedic sensibilities and dig a little further than surface questions before you try making light of it.
2. Treat the audiences as friends you haven’t made yet and eventually you’ll be able to coerce them into believing you have an already established rapport.
3. When MC-ing you want to use crowd work to focus the audience, diffuse disruptions and heckles and build a relationship with them to use throughout the show.
4.As an MC you will be the first to deal with hecklers and difficult audience members but be mindful of how you approach them because, unlike other acts, you'll have to come back on stage for the entire duration of the show.
5. Don’t go too hard on chatty or disruptive members too soon as you will have to be on stage for the whole show as opposed to a single spot. If you go too hard too early the audience will not believe that you’re a like-able and funny person later on.
6. If you notice audience members with negative body language like crossed arms you can gently broach the subject by suggesting they’d have more fun with unfolded arms or interacting with them until they get comfortable enough to lower their guard.
7. I try to phrase every direction I want the audience to follow as though it’s in their best interest to do to either increase their enjoyment of the show or the value of what they paid for.
8. If you notice certain parts of the crowd are laughing more then try to isolate and praise those groups to encourage the rest of the audience to get on their level.
9. If you have a rowdy crowd do not try crowd work, you need to settle and focus them first so I'd recommend as many quick jokes as possible to get them into rhythm and win them over before engaging.
1.Be sure you have the name down! There is nothing worse than mispronouncing a name to throw an act off their rhythm from the get go or worse, forgetting it and having to ask around after just having told the audience they are “one of your favourite comedians”.
2. It’s good to train an audience to applaud before you get them to do it for real, so I’d recommend a practice applause where you introduce the audience to how you’ll be bringing on the acts. In this way they become familiar with a call and response format but also get the chance to be told that they need to be louder than what they naturally would be (regardless of what that base level is). Tell the audience you’re going to bring the acts on and want them to go nuts and say you’ll do a practice attempt first. Get them to clap and cheer louder and louder and then praise them and ask to go even harder for the next act. Repeat asking for more clapping and cheering as you bring to the stage “straight white male comedian!”
3. Remember to use your arms when you ask for applause to reinforce the already established call and response reaction.
4. Be forceful with your directions and take your time so that you don’t rush and the audiences can hear the instructions. Smile the whole time and they won’t feel bullied but rather, gently coerced.
5. If an act bombs you can either laugh it off (in this way you establish that you and the audience are in cahoots and on their side as opposed to being with the performers and you can better salvage the momentum of the night). It usually means throwing a performer under the bus but their set is over and you have all the other acts to work towards introducing now so do what you need to for them.
6. Don’t go too hard making fun of other comics who didn’t do well as you will be seen as mean by the audience, unless the act makes fun of you, the venue or comics you like and still bombs. Then go for the jugular.
7. If an act does bomb then you better bring some material up so I suggest having some shorter bits up your sleeve for such a situation as a palette cleanser.
8. If the act does well DO NOT DO MATERIAL IN BETWEEN. You’re job is to keep the night moving so say their name again, raise your arm for applause and bring on the next act.
9. If something really goes pair shaped and by that I mean, hecklers, awful topics being brought up, distressing content or physical altercations you have two options: acknowledge it or move on. If you are a new act you will not have the skills or experience to tackle it in a lighthearted way so the best thing is to put it aside as quickly as possible. Tell the audience that there was a disturbance of some kind, let them know it’s not normal but that the rest of the comedy night will be fine because they are in good hands then bring on the next act.
10. If you’re at a show with breaks or brackets of acts then before you go to the break, tell the audience that a certain comic is the last one before the break to re establish their focus. Then after that act is finished, ask for an applause for all the acts you saw in the bracket and let them know that you will have a SHORT 5-10 minute break. Breaks are usually 15 minutes with people going to toilets, buying drinks or smoking but if you tell them 15 they will take 25 and you’ll lose half the audience when you return.
11. If a room runner or venue suggests a break longer than 10 I'd advise them it will not do well for the show and go with the shorter option. (Don't do this with pro rooms)
When you come back from the break the audience will probably still be filing in and distracted so this is a good time to do more friendly crowd work to settle and re-focus them. Ask how their break was, what drinks people have, who's on a date, their favourite act etc before beginning material.
Closing the show
The difference between a regular MC and a good one is what extra things they do to go above and beyond, here are some of the simplest to ensure your performance is appreciated more than others.
1. Check with the venue to see if there's anything else you need to mention or announce. Will there be a show after? Is there merchandise to buy or events coming up?
2. Thank the staff, list all the comics, thank the audience and GIVE THEM THE INFORMATION FOR THE NEXT SHOW. If you’re at a regularly run room it’s as simple as “thank you so much for coming, the laughter chuckle funny burp pit is every 5th Thursday of a financial year at Eleventy clock, be sure to like expired Facebook event and please take photos and hashtag ‘way-too-niche-to-ever-search’. Stick around for your next show, Dane Cook! Please take your glasses downstairs to the void and give a round of applause to the venue staff and the one open micer who's only tolerated for their dex amphetamine prescription that makes this night possible!
3. You’ve done well so it’s time to get yours, remind the audience of your name, and tell them to find you on social media and even get a photo (only if you’ve done well, otherwise slink back to the shadows and recoup)
There is every chance you will be MC-ing a difficult venue when you begin so be sure to do the following to gently tweak the audiences perception of the night.
Laugh as if you’re having a great time and every thing is normal.
Ice over bad acts with gentle ribbing and ensure that this is what comedy is all about.
Emphasize that the more unique the venue and lineup the better the show is.
Be sure to L.I.E to audience members as often as possible to make them believe they are in good hands and watching a good show that they have done well to spend money on
1. This might just be me being pedantic but I believe strongly that the experiences that audiences and comedians have before they enter the venue or are waiting for the show to start will impact their time.
2. If the comics backstage are overly negative in their conversation try subtly changing the tone of the conversation to more positive ideas and be sure to reassure them of how much they’ll enjoy the show.
3. Some of the best gigs I’ve ever MC’d should not have worked at all from a variety of logistical reasons but because audiences were made to feel as though they were special the novelty of the night carried the show. Giving audiences free things, drinks, free entry to a later show or food can all do wonders to change the mood of the audience before the show has even begun so you have an easier job.
So to summarize..
1. Get your intro’s down to their slickest level without feeling forced or over rehearsed
2. Get your material and crowd work tight to get acts on as soon as possible
3. Come up with unique and funny mannerisms, lines and jokes so you stand out as a good MC and can build a friendly rapport with the audience
Make consistently good shows for other acts to perform on and you'll be hosting like a pro in no time.
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