What I Look for in a Good Comedy Club MC

When did this blog become an instructional one more than it's orginal intent, to tell wild road stories.?

I was asked to judge a comedy competition last night with the ultimate prize getting a chance to MC for a Bob and Tom All-Stars show at Crackers in Indy.  One thing I always hate about competitions is I never know what the judges were looking for.  Can’t say I know what most of judges want, but here was what I was looking for last night.

The roster for this Bob and Tom show the winner was going to get to host for is Dan Cummins, April Macie, Shane Mauss, Larry Reeb, and Ron Sexton. (the great voice guy from the Bob and Tom Show.)  Dan and Ron are 2 of my best friends in comedy and I know April, who I really like as well.  So the most important thing I was judging on was would the person who wins be a good fit as the host of the show.  You could be the next Mitch Hedberg, but that wouldn’t make you a good MC for this event.  If it was strictly a comedy competition which didn’t offer up the grand prize being a chance to open up a big money show with great headlining comics to follow you, I would be mostly focused on someone who is really funny with a pretty unique voice.  I still think those elements are important, but the audience isn’t paying 27 bucks a ticket to see the MC.  Since I’m about to start teaching a comedy class I thought I would share what I’m looking for in a comedy club MC.

  • A confidence on-stage that says to the audience that they are no amateur.  What you need is kind of hard to explain in words, but if you don’t come off like you are in control onstage, the audience dismisses you quickly.  They don’t expect you to be good, so if you can portray yourself as someone who seems professional, the audience will generally get on your side because they are happy you aren’t uncomfortable to watch.  You don’t have to be really high-energy or have a cheerleader type personality, but if you are too deadpan, I think it’s really hard to warm up to.  If deadpan is  your style it doesn’t mean you have no place in comedy, but it is going to make it harder to get a MC gig.
  • You should get their attention right from the beginning.  Either a quick joke that gets them with you or a funny explanation of why you are onstage.  I’m not a big fan of starting with so how many people are celebrating something?  I realize that many people come to the club to celebrate a birthday or a bachelorette party, so it needs to be acknowledged at some point, but if you do it right at the beginning I think it has the potential of derailing your time on-stage.  The reason why it could be a negative is that the celebration group automatically gets an entitled sense of themselves making them even more chatty.  It also creates in the minds of the majority people who aren’t part of that group to feel like we didn’t pay for you to give them a lot of special attention.  Give the party a quick congrats sometime in the middle of your set is my theory and then move on.  Maybe the feature or headliner will go into more detail with them, which is find because they are probably better at that, anyway.
  • It’s great if you can riff with the audience a little…but if you do it the majority of your time onstage, it sets a bad precedent.  When you do a lot of that– the audience gets in that improvisational mode and makes the other comics have to do that type of show, if they like to or not.  Even if the other comics do a lot of crowd rap, you’ve only stepped on some of the things they might do.  Remember, you are not the star.
  • Further on that the star thing, you have to put your ego in check.  One thing I appreciate about standup is that unlike being part of an improv troupe,  you don’t have to work as a team.  Well, that isn’t true for all standup positions because being an MC you do have to be a bit of a team player.  Your main goal should be to work on getting better, but never forget that getting along with the other comics is just as important when you are in this position.  If you make especially the headliner happy, you have a chance of having a friend who can help you on the way, plus you will be appreciated more from the club owner/manager.  I can tell you of plenty examples where the headliner threw his dick around and got the MC fired for the week because of something they didn’t like about them.  It sucks, but comics are like most people—they aren’t willing to have a confrontation, instead just going behind someone’s back to take care of something they don’t like.
  • Don’t be dirty.  Most top clubs have a rule that their MC are not allowed to use any F bombs.  I think that is a fair deal, but I think the clubs would be better served if they allowed it once or twice, but made sure the MC didn’t do a lot of dirty material.  I think the F word has lost a lot of its danger, so once or twice in a 10-15 minute set doesn’t seem too much to me.  Here’s what is a problem. The host of the show doing really edgy stuff about rape or hateful material about women or jokes about the mentally challenged.  Here are my reasons why I don’t like it.  1) It’s too early in the show to do that type of stuff.  2) If you are an MC, you probably aren’t good enough to deliver or write funny stuff on these subjects, anyway.  3) Even headliners who do that type of stuff, themselves, don’t want to follow someone who has stepped on their shock-value.
  •  Don’t be dirty. Pt. 2: Hey Mr. Comedy rulemaker, dirty material is what I do best.  Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do?  Ok, I understand that to a certain point.  There are very few subjects I haven’t written jokes on and I like comics best who have an edge to their act, so it’s kind of surprising for even me to write this as a guideline.  I’m not saying not to write this type material, but what I am telling you is that you aren’t going to keep many MC gigs if most of your act is trying to offend the audience.  Look, you are only doing 10 to 15 minutes.  If you can’t come up with enough PG-13 material to fill that amount of time, you shouldn’t try to MC.  Stick to open mics outside of comedy clubs.

Now I’m sure many young comics reading this think I don’t want to MC, anyway, so screw it, I will figure out a way to go directly to featuring.  I don’t know of anyone who has done this, but I’m guessing it’s possible.  Maybe if you go to LA or NY and blast the open mics there, you might be able to do this, but I would think this would be a huge mistake for most inexperienced comics since you could end up being seen by an important person before you have any chops.  Best to develop yourself in some smaller market, unless you are someone that has great stage presence from the beginning and is good looking.  (if you are that person, you should be an actor, not a comedian, anyway.  stop reading my site you prick. i’m not joking, take this url out of your bookmarks, immediately!)

I hope this is helpful.  I was lucky enough to MC 15 weeks a year during the early stages of my career, which was the best thing that ever happened to me in standup.  I could always write material, but my stage presence was shaky.  Getting an opportunity to get so much stage time in front of good audiences was vital to me and I still use some of MC skills, even though I’m a headliner.  I’ve seen plenty of really good comics who fall-apart when the audience isn’t with them, so being able to summon the MC skills to push a crowd which isn’t a good one is a skill that should never be underrated.  Standup is more than playing the UCB Theater.

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10 thoughts on “What I Look for in a Good Comedy Club MC

  1. Great blog, Scott! I’ve been MC’ing for a local comedy club on open mic nights and have at least impressed the owner enough to get into the weekend rotation. You are totally on the mark, though – energy is so important. This is a smaller club with a fluctuating open mic night, but I think it makes me a stronger comic/MC to have to handle those folks the best way I can.
    I do have one question – since I have MC’d for this same club, I have also had to introduce the same comics many times. I have some solid jokes for a few of them that will liven any room (and, of course, I challenge myself to write others for them.) Is it acceptable to keep doing these jokes? I know the audience hasn’t heard them, and the comics say they’re fine with them, but surely it will eventually paint me as a hack…?

  2. Good question. I don’t think it paints you as a hack by repeating something you came up with in the first place, but…if it’s a shot at one of the other comics (even it’s mild), it might become annoying to that comic after a few times. That is the way I would handle it.

  3. Earlier this year I was asked to fill in as host for a very popular weekly open mic in NYC and then, not long after, I became it’s regular MC. I was then asked by several others to host their shows too and now I’m doing that quite often. These are all small-time shows with local (amateur) comics, by the way. But, in a few weeks, I’ll be hosting a show with Otto & George as the headliner and I’m very excited.

    So, what’s the best way to go about finding a paid MC gig? I like doing it and I’m getting better at it, and becoming better at hosting has made me a better performer in general. Also, I don’t really know any other comedians who are even interested in it. How do I approach a club? What do I send them? How do I get my foot in the door?

    (And I don’t mean only in NYC. I have a car and I’m willing to drive, as long as it’s only a few hours away.)

  4. Thanks for the post – I see its an old one but still relevant for what makes a good host. Not sure if you will reply but my question is this – While hosting – when is it good to tell a joke or two between comics verses just getting the next guy on stage? how much time should the MC do before they bring up the “first comic”?

    1. Thanks for checking in Dale. Not good to tell a joke between comics if it’s the typical 3 person show. The show is supposed to have a comedy arc–which means that the feature act should be better than the MC and should be bringing the show up higher comedically for the crescendo which is the headliner. A few clubs tell the MC to do a couple jokes in-between so people can go the bathroom, so do it if they ask, but I think it’s a bad choice.

      Can’t answer the second part. That is determined by what the club wants. I might disagree with them, but I keep it to myself because the club is the one who is paying me and hired me.

      1. Here in AZ – all of the small clubs typically have 5-6 comics on a lineup. There is usually the host (MC), two 5-7 min openers, one or two 10-12 min feature comics, and the headliner 45-60mins. The goal is usually a 90 min show. I’ve hosted several times; I usually don’t tell written jokes between comics, but I have made playful comments between comics – never on stage for more than 30 seconds.

        The reason for my question was that I’ve been on several shows (usually showcases with 10-12 comics all doing short 5-7 min sets) where the MC does 1-2 mins between each comic – and since I’m pretty new to comedy I wasn’t sure if this was just part of the scene or not.

  5. This was written for comics MC’ing a typical 2 or 3 person standup show. An open mic is a different beast, where some of these rules change. Thanks for checking in Dale!

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