Shall I compere thee...

Ted Shiress learns a lot from MCing

I remember my first few gigs, I’d go on stage with a list of funny ideas with a vague idea how to waffle up a narrative between them. Surprisingly, a mixture of beginner’s luck and disability-based sympathy let me get away with this for more times than it should.

However, I did hit a wall eventually; and after a month of self-doubt I finally realised I had to tighten up my act. Having a slow and unclear voice, due to my cerebral palsy, means I had to keep the gags coming thick and fast or the audience would simply turn off. Three years later, I feel confident that my writing is slick enough to overcome the problems I have talking.

However, the one problem I found is that I became heavily reliant on the script, a bit stiff and scared of ad-libbing. But then I discovered the wonder of compering.

When you’re an act on a bill you want to be the funniest on the night, your ego will see it as an achievement if you’re the one people are talking about after the show. But if this happens when you compere you would have failed. Compering is all about being friendly, spontaneous and taking a few bullets so the audience are relaxed enough to give the acts the best reception they can.

It is the perfect environment to practise riffing and talking off the top of your head. You may, and probably should, talk to a few audience members and enquire who they are and what they do; just to be friendly and get them on side. Being funny is merely an optional extra. Perversely, it then becomes much easier to find yourself being funny, since there is much less pressure on you.

Your eyes will soon open up to all the things in the room you can mention and joke about; a room is rarely as barren of targets as it often seems, it just requires a certain level of ease to spot them.

After doing this for a while you will then see things occurring in the room during your regular sets and find yourself instinctively breaking away from material to ‘deal with it’ before casually returning to your routine.

Also, if you gig a lot, every now and then you will turn up at a gig and as soon as you walk in it will dawn on you that the crowd just aren’t for you and your material is going to bomb. Before I started compering I would just do my material at these gigs regardless. knowing I was going to end up feeling awful afterwards. Now I find myself at best trying to talk to audience members or, at worst, pretending to come on to people in the front row or running around the room yelling ‘I am not a pink banana and I am not having a breakdown!’

Don’t judge me, this isn’t my act and I’d never do this usually, however with those particularly odd gigs in mind, I just knew having some silly fun was far more productive than killing the atmosphere with my material.

As well as practising spontaneity, compering also becomes a perfect opportunity to try out virgin material. In a straight set, the thought of replacing five minutes you know works with five minutes that could totally die on its arse can impossible. Yes, I know they say he who dares wins, but if you’ve got material that you know wins, why change anything?

So instead, slip it in the next time you compere, you will have an opportunity to casually talk it through and explain that it is brand new, and may not be polished, in a way that won’t sell your act short.

So if you feel you need to loosen up, don’t waste your money on an improv class, just try compering.

Published: 25 Feb 2012

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