The ins and outs of hosting

I recently saw a host who started threatening a guy in the front row. The guy didn't play along with some questions so the MC started "joking" about how he was going to kick the guy's ass and sleep with his girlfriend. I'm fine with playfully roasting crowd members (Sean Donnelly is one MC who does a great job and does that all the time), but when it's physical threats and "really, I'm going to fuck your girlfriend" stuff, it bums me out. I sat there thinking, "This is why so many people who come to comedy shows don't want to sit up front."

I've actually been hosting a bunch lately. In the past month, I've MC'd at RG Daniels and Erik Bergstrom's Sunday Night Standup at Three of Cups, Dan Mahoney and Gabe Pacheco's Haiku show at Jeollado, and Chesley Calloway and Sean Patton's CSL show at Kabin. (All really fun shows, a big thanks to those guys for having me.) And then there's We're All Friends Here of course.

I really dig hosting. With a normal NYC-length set (8-12 minutes), you're in and out. Just when you feel like you get to know the crowd, it's time to go. When hosting, you can take a little more time to feel out the room. You get to come back throughout the night and build up a vibe with the crowd. And it's fun to riff off whatever the last comic was talking about or do crowdwork with people that you've actually gotten to know a little bit.

And I amuse myself by playing a game where I search my brain for any older bit I have that relates to something the comic onstage is talking about. Then I try to segue into it in a non-bitty way. It's a good way to bring dormant jokes back to life. Sometimes you realize there's more bite there than you thought.

Last night I did Harrison Greenbaum and Sam Morril's Don't Touch the Foot show at Sage Theater. It's always hosted by Baratunde Thurston. I've seen Baratunde host a couple of times now and I think he's really great at it. He's a funny guy but what I think he really excels at is the not-funny part of hosting. He gets the crowd to feel like a unit instead of individuals. He's really conversational. He finds out who people are, where they're from, how they found the show, etc. but without doing it in an annoying way. He really builds up the energy before intro'ing each comic and gets the crowd to applaud and make noise without badgering them too much.

And he did a really key thing last night: He got a sparse, spread out room of people to all get up and move to the front couple of rows so it felt more like a cohesive crowd. A little thing like that can really make or break a show.

To be a great MC, you have to be a bit selfless. Instead of putting yourself first, you need to put the show first. Like I've said before, hosting a show is like hosting a party. When you host a party, you don't always have the most fun. You have to worry about the music, getting people drinks, intro'ing strangers, and making sure there's a good energy going on. But all that work is what enables everybody else to feel welcome and have a good time.

Related: Comedy Feng Shui: 10 things that ruin comedy shows


Harrison Greenbaum said...

I agree with your thoughts about hosting. I think it's interesting to note that in England, the host is actually the center of the show - he/she gets top billing, is usually the most famous comic on the bill, and gets paid the most, so the host position is actually considered the most valuable position in the line-up.

I also agree that Baratunde is an amazing host! One of the major reasons for Sam and my show's success is Baratunde, for whom Sam and I cannot be thankful enough. Baratunde is also a great comic as well - he's just as good at doing straight sets as he is at hosting, so I definitely encourage people to look out for his stand-up - it's superb.

(BTW, the name of our show is "Stand-Up Comedy: LIVE at the SAGE THEATER." Our production used to be called "Don't Touch the Foot," but we changed the name in Nov. 2008. For more info on the show, check out sagestandup.com.)

Chesley Calloway said...

I used to think hosting was such a hassle, but it's because I was terrible at it. I've by no means mastered the art--far from it--but I'd still like to publicly apologize to anyone that saw me back when CSL was still the Tommy Danger Comedy Hour. lolci.

Even now I still have a tendency to get a little too buzzed by the end of the show (nothing worse than slurring through yer headliner's credits...), but on the front-end I'd like to believe things have improved-- I never understood or respected all the crucial aspects of hosting. Now I've much reverence as the quality of hosting can make or break a show. Hell, I've seen rooms where the audience was so hot, the comics were killin', then the host would go up and do 6+ excruciating minutes between EACH COMIC, totally bringing down the energy of the room.

@Greenbaum-- interesting insight re hosting across the pond, much appreciated.

Matt Ruby said...

@Harrison: Interesting about the host being most important slot in UK, never knew that.

@Chesley: Sorry I misspelled yer name! (Fixed now.) I think if there's a place to get away with getting a little bit sloppy, it's Kabin. Intimate, loose, and friendly there. I had more than a few before going up on Friday (since I didn't know I'd be performing)...and I think that's part of why it was so fun.

RG Daniels said...

In Singapore, if you do a bad job hosting they kill your sister.

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