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Stand-Up and Host: Master of Ceremonies Part 1

April 18, 2011

The goal of a comic comic is fairly straightforward.  We speak at a group of people, and make them laugh.  Of course, you can spend a lifetime improving at this seemingly simple ambition.

Now, the job of the MC (Master of Ceremonies), is quite a bit more involved.

For example, you need to get a suit with a bowtie, learn how to stand on tiny stages, and become a ginger.

Almost all stand-up shows, from huge arena venues down to obscure open mikes, use an MC to structure the show.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re necessary (consider shotgun style open mikes), but certainly any show I’ve seen without an MC feels off.

Considering all that, I thought it was important to take a theory article looking at the variables involved in the task of MCing a show.

Not those variables. 

It’s a good time to focus on this topic because over the last little while I’ve been picking up a few opportunities to book and host shows in Toronto.  I didn’t want to waste the experience, so I’ve been trying to put into play a lot of stuff I’ve read, and explore what makes a good MC.  So, while I am still relatively new to the game, I would like to share some thoughts this week on the subject.

First thing’s first.  Why should you care about becoming a good MC?

1) Money

I know he’s a talking duck who wears clothes, but it really bothers me how Scrooge McDuck can dive into his money, but also park a bulldozer on top of it.  SO UNREALISTIC.

There is a hierarchy to paid shows.  Obviously the headliner is the most sought-after spot, but that only comes with years of experience and exposure.  To get into the paid game early, you need to develop MC skills.  A good MC who understands show dynamics is ten times harder to find than solid stand-up comic.  Another way to make money is to run your own shows, which means if you want to save cash, you should take care of the hosting yourself.  You want to make some cheddar at this stand-up game?  MCing is a good place to start.

2) Discipline

In the remake they changed it to “jacket on, jacket off,”

which resulted in much duller car finishes all round.

Most stand-up comics are concerned with making the audience laugh.  As a result, they neglect important skills like timing out sets, riffing, and handling odd situations with grace and style.  An MC works these muscles every time they gig, and are better overall performers because of it.

3) Versatility

You can tell a comic with MC experience because they own the room.  You get this sense of confidence from them that if aliens landed in the audience they’d have a smart-ass remark ready.  Considering that confidence and salesmanship are so important to good stand-up, isn’t this a good idea?

4) Control

Flowing out of the last point, it’s an important thing to build control onstage, and MCing helps you do this.  Remember, stand-up is the illusion of chaos – it appears that the bit is coming off the top of your head.  It seems like anything could happen in the audience.  But over time, just like you build up a stash of quality bits, you will also build-up stock responses to almost any random situation, from hecklers, to handling birthdays, or asking about people’s jobs.  It will look like you think at super-speed, when really you are digging into your bag of tricks to maintain complete mastery over the room.

5) Fitting in with Rappers

A lot of times when you’re hanging out with your friends L’il Wayne, or L’il Bow Wow, or even L’il Kim, you might feel slightly out of place is they start talking shop.  Now you can say: “Hey fellow MCs, I am one of you!  Who wants to watch Road Warrior?”

I LOVE THIS MOVIE and I don’t care if the whole world knows it.

Have I convinced you that this is a skillset worth developing?  No?  Okay, then may I offer you a dog doing a headstand:

For the rest of you, let’s get into this.  The first thing to understand is that an MC’s priorities are totally different from the regular performers.  A comic needs to go up there and catch those laughs.  That should be their only priority.  An MC is responsible for much more, including:

  • Making sure the show runs the proper length
  • Keeping the audience engaged between acts
  • (Sometimes) Arranging a line-up that flows well.
  • Making relevant announcements
  • Handling hecklers and other ongoing room problems (errant noises, drunks, etc.)
  • Introducing and hyping comics

It’s a lot of micromanagement, and you’ll notice at no point did I list “Crack up the audience” as an important task.  By all means, most MCs are funny, and do fill in gaps with their own material.  But it is always with the show’s greater health in mind.  Simply put, they are not concerned about looking good.  They are concerned with an entire night looking good.

Come back tomorrow where we will look at 10 DOs and DON’Ts for MCs.  See you then.  I’ll close it out with a clip of one of my favourite MCs…

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