How to be a bang average MC (and still get paid) | by Stevie Gray

How to be a bang average MC (and still get paid)

by Stevie Gray

Recently, a number of newer comedy acts have asked me for tips on how to become or improve as an MC.

Considering myself to be a bang-average compere at best; it’s hard not to suffer from imposter syndrome when choosing to offer advice, but this is what I would suggest.

The first piece of advice I give anybody who wants to MC, is to read this Chortle post from 2011. In it, Danny McGinlay absolutely nails exactly what is required to be an MC.  This should suffice for anybody hosting their first few gigs.  However, I’m now being asked to give advice to people who have already read this article.

The next best port of call would be to invest in yourself.  Go on one of the many fabulous MC courses available. At the time of writing, there are fabulous courses run by Ben Van Der Velde, Martin Mor, Stephen Grant and Jon Pearson, to name a few).  There are also a number of books.  Freddy Quinne has a really good guide and Dave Longley has a wonderful spoof version of this – which by telling you what not to do, offers great advice on what you should be doing!

Further to this, go out and buy tickets to the clubs where the best MCs can be found,  Go and watch Laura Lexx, Stephen Grant, Dan Nightingale, Barbara Nice, Mick Ferry, Paul SmithNina Gilligan, Barry Dodds, Sam Harland etc. The list could go on forever.

Even though the above advice will cover everything that a new MC should ever need, the acts asking for advice still desire a quick fix.  Sadly, there is no silver bullet or magic pill.  To become a better MC, you need to constantly gig, learn from each experience and keep writing. 

I’m aware that no comic wants to be told to keep gigging and writing; they want answers and they want them now! So I’ve been reflecting on my journey as an MC and how I’ve been able to improve.  Over the years, I have watched so many great acts and comperes who I’ve learnt from, and often been lucky enough to personally ask them for help and advice.

These are the tips I have learned which should help a new MC progress at a quicker rate. I’ve done my best to name-check all the acts that have helped me, and I truly hope they don’t mind.

The Bare Minimum (And Smile)

If the audience is sat down, facing the front, know how many acts there are, how many breaks, not to talk or heckle during the show, and you as the MC ensure that all acts are name-checked and thanked at the end of the night, then you have done your job. 

It's the bare minimum, but you've done it.  Being funny is a bonus, but you should at least attempt to be funny.  If you can't be funny, be friendly, warm and inviting.  Dominic Holland told me that even if you hate every minute of what you're doing on stage, try to at least look as though you're enjoying it.  A smile will go a long way.

You've Got To Get It Wrong To Get It Right

My worst ever gig was televised on ITV3 (in 2010).  To make matters worse, after being shown dying on national television, ITV had Ed Byrne and Brendon Burns analyse why it was so bad.  Ed's parting comment was: ‘You’ve got to get it wrong to get it right’, and that is exactly how to become a better MC.

Take Danny's guide and keep gigging (it really is the best answer - even if you don’t want to hear it).  Book yourself in to MC open mic nights, and keep doing it. Try to improve at every gig. 

Embrace the fact that in order to get better, you may have to die on stage and learn from your mistakes.  Record yourself, listen to the questions you asked and the answers you were given; can you think of any funnier responses?  Chances are, you will hear the same answer in the future, so it's always good to think of other possible responses.  Ask other acts what they think and try to work with the feedback.   Speak with the headliners and MCs that you're working with (most headliners have had to MC at some point). 

Despite what you may think, comics are some of the most generous people I know when it comes to answering questions or giving advice. Lots of comics are now putting videos of themselves MCing on the web.  Watch these, listen to the types of questions being asked and answers being given; try to work out what you may say to their responses or the path you would then try to take the conversation.

Improv is your friend

In the summer, I bought an hour-long sesson with MC Ben Van Der Velde over Zoom.  This was some of the best money I have ever spent in comedy. 

Despite having MCed for years, an hour with Ben taught me how to take the standard improv rules (‘Yes And…’, Escalation, Offers etc) and apply them to MCing.  Suddenly, I wasn't just asking: ‘What’s your name, where are you from, who are you with, what's your job, are you a couple?’, I could look at a person and invent an entirely new identity for them.

When you intersperse this with their real-life answers, there can be big laughs coming from the juxtaposition between the outlandish life I’ve bestowed upon them and how they actually live.

Therefore, I can heartily recommend newer acts to learn the basic rules of improv (and then take Ben's course).  Being able to work with any subject and try to make a joke out of it will help ensure that no two MC performances are the same, and you'll be getting big laughs from the room, rather than having to rely on pre-planned material.  Everything in the room is an ‘Offer’ and you can use all this to generate material.

Being based in the Midlands for the past few years, it's been an absolute delight to see how Scott Bennett works a room.  Generally, his first few minutes consists of taking everything we can see and highlighting the comedic aspects of them.  Based on the same improv principles laid out by Ben, everything is an ‘Offer’: the stage, the venue, the light fittings, the seating, the height of the ceiling, the journey to the venue.  Crowds generally appreciate it if you are doing material specific to that night or that room. 

Try your best to work with anything that you can see or any answers the crowd may give to your questions.  Sam Harland is a wonderful MC who plays the kinds of gigs that send shivers down my spine (sportsmen’s dinners, golf clubs etc). However, he makes it look really easy. 

Sam once told me that his key to audiences like this is to address the people and the room first, look at the audience and tell them who the classy ones are, the noisy ones, the troublemakers, the swingers etc. Announce if there are any lookalikes in the crowd.   The trick is to get the audience on side before attempting material. 

The other great tip I learnt from Sam was to have a prepared line for anything that may frequently occur at a comedy club: people go to the loo, walk past the stage, drop a glass, people talking. Being able to address a situation happening in a room and get a laugh from it is a very useful skill for any MC. 

In a similar vein, there is also a time and a place for stock put-downs; if you genuinely can’t think of anything else to say but know of a well-trodden line that can get you out of a situation, then you could use it and move on. I’ve even seen TV superstar comics ask noisy audiences if they learnt to whisper in a helicopter.

Find Out Who Wants to Talk

This is a little gem I discovered by watching Barry Dodds.  In your opening gambit, ask questions that elicit a cheer or a reaction from the crowd. Connoisseurs of comedy might not particularly like the ‘Give me a cheer if….' line of questioning. 

However, by asking an audience to cheer if, for example, they've been here before or are from this town, the people who actively want to make noise and participate will reveal themselves.  Pick these people. 

Also look at body language. People with their arms crossed or not making eye contact, probably don't want to be the centre of attention.  It's arguably best to choose someone who looks like they want to chat for your first interaction, and don't go in all guns blazing, because other audience members will probably be less likely to open up to you if they think they're going to get grilled.

Be Confident And Natural

Before he was a YouTube star and selling out arenas,  I had the privilege of gigging in Liverpool when Paul Smith was the MC. 

The thing that struck me that night was just how in control of the room he was.  He had just built up a tonne of momentum when a group of young ladies turned up late, with their seats right in the middle of the audience.  Despite having all this momentum, Paul slowed right down, and just chatted to the ladies as they got to their seats, asking really trivial yet lighthearted questions such as, what did you have for your tea and what bus did you come on? It felt as though we'd been invited to a party at his house and these were some of his mates. He welcomed his guests with small talk, sat them down, and bang… back to full throttle. 

I wrote to Paul the next day to ask for advice about playing the same rooms over and over again.  His response was to only use material if it was truly necessary.  Spiky Mike of Funhouse Comedy once told me that in the opening section, you may sometimes find that the audience aren’t really going for crowd work, or seem reluctant to want to engage with any questions.  It’s at this point that you need to use your material, in an attempt to warm the crowd up for the opening act. 

Similarly, I find it useful to perform at least one little bit of material in the first section, just so that the crowd are used to hearing something that isn’t completely about them.

At that time that I gigged with Paul, in 2017, he was writing 90 minutes to two hours of material a year, to allow for repeat custom not to have heard the same stories.  He also believed that if you can make the material sound as natural as possible, as though you have just thought of it off the top of your head, it will flow better and not look as though you're suddenly trying to be the funniest person there. 

Trying to intersperse crowd work with material can be jarring, so try to make it sound anecdotal.  If an audience member works as a dentist and you have material about teeth, that could be your perfect in-road to that material.

Hush Really Does Work

I've always been good at putting energy into a room, but not so good at taking it out if it's rowdy.  Karen Bayley was the first act I saw use the ‘hush’ technique and she absolutely nailed it. 

I’d brought her on to absolute bedlam.  Sure they were happy to be there, but they were too happy, screaming, shouting, talking.  Karen stood there for the first ten seconds completely still, finger on her lips and then shushed the crowd.  The crowd who wanted to hear, also shushed.  Within 20 seconds, the whole crowd were silent and ready for comedy, and so the brilliant material began. 

This goes back to the confidence shown by Paul Smith, but you have to prove that you're in charge.  Don't try to speak over the crowd because soon, you'll be shouting over them and they will also be shouting.

Don't Lose Your Cool

In the film Rising Sun, Sean Connery’s character had the line, ‘if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost.’  With MCing, you also really need to keep your cool.  If you start laying into a crowd or a venue, there’s a good chance you will throw the chance of having a good gig away.

By losing your temper, you can also make the gig harder for the other acts.  This can be extremely trying, as there may be persistent hecklers, no security, a dodgy PA system or worst of all, a crowd who are completely indifferent to anything you attempt. 

However, you’ve got to play with what’s in front of you.  If the crowd think you are rattled, they will sense it and the hecklers may smell blood or the awkwardness in the room may be amplified further. 

The same can be said about going in too hard on a heckler: you can take it that one step too far and find it difficult to return to the gig you were having. Try not to be too much like Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle in your interactions!  Keep smiling, keep it light and plough on with the show.  

Always Leave The Stage To Applause

This is a really small but handy tip but every time you leave the stage as an MC, there should be applause. The most obvious is when you introduce an act onto the stage, you should encourage the crowd to clap them on – which effectively serves as them clapping you off. 

However, at the end of a section, it’s good for you to also leave on applause.  If you’re about to head in for the first break, you could say, ‘we are going to have a break now, we’ll be back in 15 minutes, please take your glasses back to the bar….and can we have another round of applause for your opening act’ to bring closure – and so you leave whilst they are clapping.

Buy A PA, Run Your Own Gigs, Write Your Edinburgh show

This seems like a really obvious suggestion but so few acts appear to actually do it.  If you have your own PA system (and a mic and lights), you can put on your own show.   You can MC all of these shows and learn by having to play the same rooms over and over again.  This will also give you an insight into the world of the comedy promoter, and how hard some of them have to work to get bums on seats. It might just make you realise why some promoters hate it when an act appears to go out of their way to offend the audience! 

Having your own gigs will force you to write, because unless you have impeccable improv skills, you will probably want to have something prepared up your sleeve just in case all of your crowdwork falls flat.  If you run one gig a month and write a new five minutes to trial at each gig, you have essentially written an hour via your MC gigs. If you have multiple residencies, you can use these to refine the new material you have written for the other mc gigs.  You could even use the MC gigs to trial material for an Edinburgh show.

And those are my top tips for anybody wishing to improve, I hope somebody finds them useful.  Just remember that these are skills that need to be practiced and honed.  Be prepared to die and embrace failure. 

• Stevie Gray is the founder and resident MC of Flat Cap Comedy, which run comedy shows at multiple venues in the East Midlands.

Published: 14 Jan 2022

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