“I have had a lot of requests for this one. I’ve taken some advice from an excellent thread on the Manchester Comedy Forum. Remember, this is not gospel, it’s just a summary of things I have learnt from doing a lot of MCing (I’m resident MC for 5 different promoters), and summary of the advice given to me by other acts.
What is an MC for?
An MC (or compere – both are used interchangeably) introduces the acts. Only a few comedy clubs (most notably Alexander’s in Chester and Jester’s in Bristol) do not have MC’s.
The function of the MC is to be halfway between the audience and the acts. Remember, your job as MC isn’t to be the funniest. Or the loudest. Or the most memorable. It’s to make sure everyone has a nice time; welcome latecomers, politely shush noisy people, offer people to heckle you rather than the acts, lay down the ground rules, make sure you signal the breaks properly.
The MC should, with the promoter, ensure the smooth running of the night.
Before You Start
Get there early, try the mic and do a mic check. Some sound engineers love to wrap the mic cable round the mic stand to keep it tidy. Nothing kills an audience like watching the compere struggle with the mic stand at first. Get it out of the way and get the show started.
Get the running order sorted. Some promoters will do this for you, some won’t. Make sure you can pronounce everyone’s name, and get them to spell it phonetically if you can’t. Try to learn who is on and when. Sometimes, with things like gong shows where there are 5 acts per half, it’s simply not possible, but make an attempt. When the running order is being sorted, make sure that the people who need to get away are on earlier, unless they are specifically booked to be on later.
Standard MC practices
Some standard MC practices that you might want to use as a first time MC:
- Introduce yourself, and the name of the comedy night. Ask people to give a cheer if they’ve been to comedy before. Ask people to give a cheer if they have never been to comedy before. Cheering is an essential function of comedy nights. by getting people to not feel embarrased about cheering, they are less likely to feel embarrased about laughing aloud or clapping. Many a time an act will feel they are doing badly because the audience isn’t being as vocal in their enthusiasm as the act likes.
- Banter with the audience. Make sure the questions you ask are open ended. (ie, questions that have something other than a yes or no answer). Common examples of these include: what’s your name, what do you do for a living, where are you from,etc. The idea is to spring off what they are talking about into something funny. (It doesn’t have to be though. It’s a chat, settle them in for comedy.) You can also find a question that people don’t generally ask, which will invigorate audiences who have seen a lot of comedy. (Dave Twentyman’s question is “what’s your favourite planet?”. Mine is “what do you do for a hobby?”). Try to keep your banter from being mean spirited. it can be funny to describe someone’s appearance, but you do not want to hurt their feelings. Some people clearly don’t want to be involved. if their body language says that, leave them alone.
- You should have some material for the gig. Some MC’s chunk up their act into small sections and do it throughout the night, whereas some just riff and talk about stuff in the room. Most will do a combination of these things. For instance, if someone says they work in an office, and you have a suitable bit of material about working in an office, then do that bit of material. You may find it useful to flip trough a local and a national paper beforehand, and jot down some jokes. “Funny stories from around the world” generally only need a couple of things added to them to become jokes. Same with topical or local references. people are more impressed you went to the effort.
- Keep an open mind about what you are going to do. If you are halfway through a piece and you get distracted by something funnier do the funnier thing. Relax into it.
- Explain the format of the night. “We’ll be having 4 acts, one in the first section, then a break when you can go to the bar or have a smoke or use the loos, then a 2 in the middle doing shorter sets, then another break and then your fantastic headline act”. By telling these things early, it is less likely you’ll have the disruption of people getting up and moving about whilst the acts are on
- Do the rules. The basic rules are: face the front, sit still, no talking, turn your phones off, no heckling, if the acts ask you a question, do respond. To make it seem like less of a list of “Don’ts”, feel free to add jokes in there. If you feel paticularly confident, invite the audience to heckle you rather than the acts.
- Get them warmed up to cheer for the acts. There are a selection of cheering games you can do for this. One is to give names to various levels of clapping and cheering (from golf clap, to cricket clap, to football clap, to wrestling and a midget has just hit someone in the head with a chair) and make them do each one. Another is to give a number to the claps and get them going up through the cycles. Another way is to split the room down the middle and get them to cheer off against each other in a who can be louder contest. Some clubs have music to walk on to, but make sure you impress on the audience how important it is that they cheer the act all the way to the mic.
- Go with the flow. The other day, half of the audience disappeared after the first act as I was about to bring the second act on. I called a break. that is of course much more preferable than bringing an act on to less people, even though I’d said there would be a break after the second one.
- GOLDEN RULE: If you ask a question, and the room is large enough that not everyone can hear, repeat their answer back to them to confirm. Same if you get heckled. Repeat what they said and then say what you were going to say. Not only will it help if people can’t hear their response, it also will give you a couple of seconds thinking time. Which can sometimes be the difference.
- Tailor your act to the gig. Early on in my comedy career (5th or 6th gig) I watched the MC, just before he went on to start the show, whip himself up into a frenzy of energy, ready to take command of a noisy, drunken, stag do filled Friday night Christmas do at Jongleurs. Except he wasn’t playing a noisy, drunken, stag do filled friday night christmas do at Jongleurs, he was doing a Monday night at an open mic night where all the audience were the friends and family of the acts. I remember with horror as he came out with the immortal opening line “hello you comedy fucking monkey cunts”, which he roared at us. I was sat with another act and his mum, and none of us could make eye contact. Over the course of the evening he then spent 5 minutes showing us a vibrator he bought from the toilets, he bared his enormous arse, and he berated some latecomers who’d been offered some free seats after the football had finished downstairs. After he wiped the flecks of spit from his mouth, he said “and now your headline act”. The first 3 minutes of everyone’s act that night was getting the audience back to a friendly point to start again.
Whilst the act is on
Go somewhere close by and watch. Sitting in the view of the audience dicking around on your phone is not only rude to the act, it subconsciously undermines the act in the audiences eyes. “If the MC doesn’t want to watch it, it can’t be very good” they might think.
There are other reasons why you should watch the acts as they are on. Firstly, if an act is struggling, they will sometimes come off stage before their agreed time. This only happens very rarely (it tends to be new acts having a complete memory blank, an act getting frustrated with an audience, or an act getting booed off) but it is important if that happens that you come on quickly and take control again. Most acts will have a wrapping up spiel “well, you’ve been a lovely audience, and I’ve got one last story before I go” which helps signal for the MC to come back on. As they come back on, repeat their name. “Ladies and gentlemen, give a round of applause to Steve Steverson”. If you are going into the break, ask that they give a round of applause to all the acts in that section. Tell them how long the break is.
What acts want to know from MCs
If there have been persistent hecklers, or audience members who are fond of joining in, make acts aware of this. Also make acts aware of any audience members with learning difficulties so that they do not take the piss out of them (Needless to say, this one actually happened to me).
Ask the promoter if he has timings for the evening. Tell the act how long you are going to do in front of them. Most MCs load their bit at the start, so they will do 15 minutes before the first section, 10 minutes before the second, sometimes only a joke or story between acts (sometimes not even that. You can just go “and keep that applause going for the next act in this section” ). Towards the end of the night, when people are slightly drunker and their attention span is lessened, it’s not uncommon for the MC to just get them facing the right way and get them to clap for the Headliner. Make sure the act knows how long you are doing in front of them. Twice in the last few months I have had MCs when I am opening say “I’ll just do a little bit in front of you at the start” and I had assumed between 5 and 10 minutes, and they had said “please welcome to the stage your first act Paul Savage”. If you can give an accurate time estimate, that really helps an act.
If an act has mentioned something in their set, and you have a complementary bit of material, do that in the next section (“Steve was talking about going on a barge holiday there. I went on a really weird bicycle holiday a few years back…”).
Ask an act if there’s anything that they’d prefer you not to mention. A clean act may not want to go on after you discuss the finer points of coprophagia. A music act who changes words in songs may not want to go on after you have done whole rant about how it’s cheating. A one liner merchant may not appreciate you doing your stock of one liners. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it is better to be polite and ask.
What to do if you are struggling
Many people do not know that the MC an important part of the night. In many ways, MCs are like referees in football: people only tend to notice you if you aren’t having a good time of it. Acts who do a lot of MCing will have heard at some point from a punter “eh, you’re pretty funny. you should try giving stand up a go” not realising that at some clubs the MC is the best-paid person on the bill.
If you are struggling, get an act on to some applause. Don’t be afraid to drop a whole bit and just do one punchy joke, get them laughing again, and bring on an act.
Don’t ramble on in the hope of lucking onto some funny. It may happen, it may not, but at some point it’s better to cut your losses for the good of the night.
If you are struggling to find enough material, and there is time, do a joke competition. Before the break get the audience to suggest a celebrity in the news and an object. Then get them to write a “what’s the difference/ similarity between x and y” style joke using those things. Offer a prize for the best one, even if it means buying a pint out of your own pocket. After the break, read out the best ones (you may want to go through beforehand and remove any that are hideously offensive).
What to do if you are Heckled
First, take a second and assess the heckle. scale it from 1 to 10. Then, respond in an appropriate way. A heckle that is only 2 offensiveness does not require an 8 putdown. Gary Delaney, who taught me this trick, has written a putdown for each one. I, being a lazy git, have not.
After the headliner has been on
Once again, ask people to applaud for the headliner. Then, say “that’s all we have time for. The next one is … (find this out beforehand) and you can get tickets/ reserve places at …”. Sometimes promoters or venues will want you to plug other nights, or to let people know that the bar is still open and they can keep drinking. Some promoters have an email list to sign up for more news, so let people know where that is. Then run through with “lets have a big hand for all the acts you saw tonight…” and read them off in order.”
Comedian Paul Savage has several other articles on the craft of standup comedy in his blog: HowToComedy which you can find HERE