I pretty much skipped being a comedian and went right to being an MC. Hosting the shows brought more of what I desired. Not being a comedian helped me to avoid many unwanted experiences.
It has to be admitted that I am something of an anomaly in the world of live comedy, being only an MC and promoter, and not an act. The solid traditional mould of an open mic night is for a new comedian, that is really into it, to decide to set up their own gig.
This brings the comedian a whole lot of benefits. Plus a whole lot of work, which they typically under-estimate. I have advised loads of acts who have gigged with me, when asked, on how to best launch their own nights. Most often, 2 things happen. I get an email or a call saying, “I had no idea how much work this is…”.
Then, the night usually folds within a year.
As with almost everything in this life, it’s a blend of risk/effort vs reward. Getting the balance right can be a tricky thing.
Make yourself the MC and get lots of stage time
Make yourself the MC and develop extra skills of working the crowd, throwing in new material, further developing the older material and gaining an understanding of best practises when at someone else’s gig
Make yourself popular by being the one to book the spots, thus doing favours for your friends, build bridges with other show-runners and swap stage time, boost acts that you rate
Gain the opportunity to book, watch, learn from and potentially befriend more seasoned pro and semi-pro acts
Turbo-charge your experience and ascension in comedy by benefitting from all of the above
The risk and effort are also rather consequential.
You have to find a decent venue and then build and sustain a quality relationship with the management
You will have to invest some real money into logo design, posters, flyers, standees, drapes, mic and stand, marketing and publicity…
At the beginning people will get mad at you when you don’t/can’t book them
On other occasions acts will get mad at you when you enforce your own rules, that they were told of and have broken (eg: turning up very late and still expecting to get on the stage)
A lot of time will be spent curating and booking the shows and then more time listing and marketing the gigs
Aaaand even more time getting to the gig nice and early to set up and then being the one to leave last, while everyone else is at the bar, and you have to pack everything away
That’s a lot of pro and a lot of con!
My journey in comedy has been as follows. I co-ran a night with a guy who wanted to MC and I focused on filming the acts, setting up the room, etc.
After a short time, I finally made the huge step in actually getting up and doing my first 5 minute set. Even if I say so myself, it was a huge success. I got laughs throughout. Enjoyed back-slaps from friends and strangers after my spot ended. My immediate conclusion was that my years of being an ardent stand-up fan had taught me well. I figured that I was something of a natural. After all, I only wrote the set a few hours before I got up.
to do what actual comedians do
One week later I got up for my 2nd ever set. Now, I have watched over 500 people perform their first ever set and well over 2000 people perform one of their first ever sets. None of them crashed and burned as hard as I did on my 2nd effort. I got so mad at the crowd I turned my back on them and performed the final minute of my set to the stage back-drop. Yes, you guessed right, I got booed. That is an extraordinarily unusual thing to happen in an open mic room. Then again, I made an extraordinarily dickish gesture to the entire crowd. My ego got the kicking that it deserved.
I did 6 or 7 more spots, to varying degrees of success. Then the time came for me to have a crack at MCing.
My first time MCing was also something of a car crash. Yet I loved it. What I hoped to feel when performing as an act was actually there for me when I had the freedom of MCing.
The night that I debuted as an MC I had a great idea for a joke (honestly, even now it stands up to scrutiny). I milked that single idea for about 6 minutes. I got one big laugh at the top and almost nothing but silence for the remaining 5 minutes and 45 seconds.
I very quickly realised (what should have been obvious) that it was a different skill-set from just doing a spot and only having jokes would not cut it. That was fine with me. I didn’t really have many jokes but I felt I could learn to confidently riff, handle hecklers, manage the crowd, tell stories, bolster the acts…
While co-running that gig, before ever taking the stage myself, I learned a lot about comedy, open mic or otherwise. I learned that (in London at least) the typical spot is 5 minutes. Most people aren’t very good when they begin. Performing can be a crushing/exhilarating experience. It takes years to get to pro level. There are some very eccentric people in the scene. Some open mikers are genuinely hilarious. Stage time is highly coveted and quality stage time is really rather rare indeed.
I also realised that I do not have the chops to do what actual comedians do.
I wish to be absolutely clear that I deeply admire comedians in general and open-mikers in particular.
Newer acts have not built up the armour to walk away emotionally unscathed from a bad spot. Nor have they the quality tested material to enjoy killing. It takes a lot of courage to get up for the first time, and indeed, most of the times thereafter.
I also came to understand that comedians are pretty much always “on”. Their notebooks or voice-recorders are perennial companions, and IMHO, social distractions. Anything they think, see or hear that is funny, or has the potential to be tweaked and told on stage, gets recorded. As it should be.
a crowd laugh and I get more stage time
Than pretty much every act
This is where I stepped away from any vague ambition of being a comedian. I did not want to be permanently on the look-out for the funny. Stepping out of a pleasant conversation to jot down something promising that someone else had said. Then reading it later, realising it’s actually rubbish. Or reading it later and tweaking it, rehearsing it, editing it, re-writing and finally performing. Only to go through the same process over-and-over.
I have reverence for those who can walk that frustrating and committed path. However, this process of seeking the funny is simply not for me.
Since I re-launched the live shows in September, following the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, I had to shake off the MCing rust fast. It was my job to quickly develop an opening monologue that was funny and fact-filled. To get the audience warmed up and as informed as they needed to be.
Within 10 shows I had it down tight. Planting the seeds for crowd work. Delivering the “house-keeping” information in an entertaining way. Getting laughs and setting up several enhancing elements of the show. Managing expectations and making the crowd feel cherished, welcome and relaxed.
By the 16th show I was already getting bored of what I was saying at the top of the gig. Yes, I span it in different directions. Threw in topical jokes. Altered the crowd work format. Re-ordered the info… and still it felt so much less than when I was purely riffing.
If I can get fatigued by that, so quickly, then spending months developing a tight 5, then years on a tight 10 or 20, well… it is clear that I don’t have what it takes to be a comedian. Yet, I am still funny. I routinely experience the joy of making a crowd laugh. And I get more stage time than pretty much every act.
Here in London, acts will often travel very far distances to perform for just 5 minutes. Last week I had acts on my stage who had travelled in from Bournemouth (117 miles), Brighton (77 miles) and Reading (47 miles). For a 5 minute spot!
An incredible commitment that I can’t match.
Comedians will often car share to a gig. Sometimes for an open mic, but more often when they have climbed the ladder some, and are going out of town for a paid spot. Now, I love to travel, but being packed in a car with relative strangers for hours, with some small percentage of those people definitely going to be socially maladjusted, that is a hellish premise.
I have a child. Travelling around the UK to try and make strangers laugh would take me away from him far too often. That is not a price I am willing to pay. Especially when I have absolutely no desire to be famous, which is often the incentive for the acts to work so hard and sacrifice so much. This is partly how they “pay their dues” and learn hard comedy lessons.
Once again, an incredible commitment which I can’t match.
Something in my character or life has allowed me to charm and control rooms on a myriad of occasions. Taking down hecklers. Building up the confidence of new acts. Getting huge and regular laughs. Keeping a busy show running to time. Marketing appropriately enough to get good crowds. Booking well enough that there is a balanced bill and reassuring stage time for the newest act to the most experienced Pro.
It has been my absolute privilege to watch over 7000 people get on my stage and try to be funny. Over the years, I have learned masses from pro comedians who are teaching or performing in my rooms. I have then often been able to translate some of this to what I do on stage as an MC.
It has also given me an up close and personal view on the most common rookie errors. How to structure a set or set up a joke and tag it mercilessly. I have watched what not to do thousands of times and had the utter joy of studying what to do hundreds more times.
Since I have no desire to translate this into a stand-up career of my own, my learning is unfiltered by personal ambition. Thus, I believe I have a broad perspective not just of performing, but how audiences react the ways that they do, and most often, why they react that way. This has hugely enhanced my skills as an MC. Nonetheless, I am ever aware that there is a limitless amount to learn and understand in this art form of the funny.
I worked in TV for over a decade and was a Director for more than 6 years. I hustled and bustled my way in that career and industry until I actually got rather good at it.
I will have, as of 2022, been in comedy longer than I was in television production. Never have I worked so hard to earn the knowledge that I have of grass-roots comedy. More than anything else I have ever known or done.
Which is how I went from producing live workshops with pro comedians to actually teaching alongside them. After a while, common themes became apparent. Sometimes the matters came from the tutors, just as often, regardless of the nature of the workshop, familiar questions emanated from the students. For example, new acts are waaaay too concerned about how to handle hecklers. However, if you do get heckled then I could suggest you…
During the lockdowns, I distilled this accrued knowledge into 2 separate online courses.The first is custom-made for acts within their first 100 gigs and is cleverly entitled, Stepping Into Stand-Up Comedy.
How To Be A Brilliant Stand-Up Comedy MC is my sequenced masterclass in how to best fill the role of arguably the most important person in any comedy show.
It is worth noting that pretty much every successful comedian has learned and earned the ability to be a solid MC.
Someone once said, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”
Well, for the aforementioned reasons, I can’t be a comedian.
However, I can MC. And I can teach.
So far as I am concerned, the challenge is to encourage more people to try stand-up comedy. To embolden the acts once they have taken up the task. The utter thrill of making a room of strangers laugh is possibly the nearest real-life opportunity for most people to feel like an actual rock star.
Once a person starts in stand-up, it benefits us all if the act gets better, funnier and stronger as soon as possible. The comedian will enjoy the experience so much more, as will the audience. Frankly, as the guy who has to watch it all and then get on stage right after them, well, it benefits me too.
Gift Vouchers are now available for either online course or 1-2-1 comedy coaching via zoom.
All photos courtesy of Steve Best at www.stevebest.com