UPDATED JAN 2022:
If they’re any stand-up comedians out there who are thinking of jumping into the waters of hosting but not exactly sure how it’s done, I gotcha. Hosting is similar to stand-up, but there are some subtle differences. In order to be of help, allow me to offer these 5 (plus one bonus) tips for first-time hosts.
1. KNOW THAT EVERYONE WANTS YOU TO DO YOUR JOB.
The audience doesn’t know what to expect. They took the time to get a sitter, deal with traffic, swallow the cover charge and drink minimum, so they really hope that they didnt do all that stuff in vein. The moment they sit down, nervous questions start floating through their heads.
Did we waste our money?
Are any of the comic going to single me out?
Can anyone tell I’m on coke right now?
Maybe not the third question so much. I live in LA so it’s not a stretch to assume, but the point is, the audience needs assurance that they’re going to have a good time. The job of the host is to be that assurance. No matter what.
The comics depend on you too. Even the most seasoned vet wants their set to go well, and you are a part of that process. They’ve got their questions also.
Is this is going to be the night my go-to joke work bombs?
Is the host going to give me some sort of screwed-up intro?
Can anyone tell I’m on Coke right now?
Again. LA. The point is, everyone needs you to be in charge. You are the center of the universe. But that doesn’t need to be scary, because of tip number 2…
2. KNOW THAT YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF FUN.
Like I said before, you set the tone of the mood of the room, and everyone is there to enjoy themselves. You’re the fun ambassador. That’s what this night is all about. FUN, FUN, FUN. It’s a room full of adults needing a socially acceptable excuse to set aside all the negative, stressful shit going on in their lives. Don’t even worry about being funny. Just be upbeat. If you say something unfunny, make fun of the fact that your joke didn’t work. If you’re not actually having fun, fake it. Why? Because the audience and comics will mirror your mood. If you’re having fun, they will.
3. MINE THE PREVIOUS COMICS SET FOR BANTER.
I don’t mean to steal from a fellow comic and retell their jokes in some hacky way. I’m saying if something a comic says or does affects you or hits home, pay attention to that feeling and share it on stage. If the joke caused you to have a certain reaction, there’s a good chance the audience had a similar one. If not, you could make fun of how it was “JUST YOU”
4. FIND A FRIEND IN THE AUDIENCE.
I was once asked to MC a hip-hop show in the Inland Empire. I hadn’t had much hosting experience at the time, and being over thirty-five meant that my appreciation of hip-hop peaked with Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below, but the guy putting the show on was actually paying so I kept all that to myself and went ahead, and took the gig.
The venue ended up being a nice, spacious neon-lit club that offered a green room for me and the rappers slated to perform to hang beforehand. Luckily, the vibe was upbeat by the time the show started, and the few small jokes I opened with worked. There was only one problem. The first performer that I introduced was tanking, bad. I don’t know if it was his first performance, but based on the audience’s reaction, it might have been his last. When an audience isn’t engaged, it’s awkward for everyone. In order to fill the space, the audience instinctively talks and interacts among themselves to fill the silence. It’s times like this that you need an audience friend. After ending his set in front of a club full of people not noticing that he is alive, the performer gladly handed me the mic and exited the venue like a fire had broken out. For a moment I stood on stage and was experiencing the same treatment from the audience. I found myself staring out at three different groups of people talking amongst themselves, not concerned about anything happening on stage. Instead of panicking, I lobbed a couple of jokes at the audience making fun of myself about how little I knew about any modern music. That got a spattering of laughter, which was all I needed. I zeroed in on the one person who was laughing the hardest and continued making jokes as if it were just me and him in the room. Eventually, the people around him began to take notice to see what was going on, and just like that, things shifted. I would be lying if I said that I won the entire audience over in that moment, but I had enough people on my side to stir up a decent amount of applause and energy to bring on the next performance. This leads me to the next tip.
5. KEEP IT MOVING.
As host, your main job is to keep things upbeat and positive enough to bring on the next act. There have been plenty of times when I’ve left a stage having done well, only to see the host of the show take advantage of the newly warmed-up crowd and do a whole other ten-minute set. While I know a primed audience is pure gold to a comedian, the risk of losing momentum is too high. If the comic you just brought up kills, make a quick comment or two and get the next comic up while the crowd is hot! It will make the show go by faster, which makes your job easier in the long run.
BONUS TIP: HAVE SOME ONE-OFFS IN THE CHAMBER.
This calls back to the previous tip. It’s always good to have a few lean “go-to” jokes ready to help smooth the transition from one comedian to the next. As mentioned before, I’ve seen hosts stretch the moment after a comic’s great set too far, and lose the audience in the process. They end up trying out some new material that bombs or they make an offhand comment that either falls flat or offends someone. This is why it might be a good idea to start working on a few one to three-sentence jokes that have worked before. They’re a win, win. If the comic before bombs, a few solid jokes will send the show the jolt of energy it needs to get back on track. And if you do a quick joke after a comic has killed, you get to snatch a small portion of their spotlight and keep the show moving while everyone is in good spirits.
BONUS, BONUS TIP: KEEP IN MIND THAT PEOPLE ARE MORE WILLING TO PAY A HOST FOR A NIGHTS WORK
Having had a full-time job the entire time I’ve been doing comedy, I have yet to experience the “road”. That being said, the overwhelming majority of shows I’ve performed in or hosted have been in the Los Angeles area. LA is a great place to build a set and establish relationships, but if you’re looking to make a living here from Stand Up comedy, you’re in for an uphill party. Not only do bookers here tend to not pay, but they often also require you to bring a large number of guests to the venue just to get the chance to perform. They treat the performance minutes themselves like they’re a form of currency. The next time I get a bill from DWP, I’ll call them up and say “Hey, I don’t have any money for you, but I can send over a link of me doing a solid ten at an Italian Vegan Restaurant in Silverlake?! That should get me at least two weeks of heat, right? Hel..hello?”
My point is this, hosting is more work than just showing up, doing a set, then spending the remainder of the show in the back of the room getting blitzed while shoving nachos down your throat. Other comics have to be “on” for their set. You have to be “on” for the ENTIRE NIGHT. That gives you a little more leverage when someone asks you to host their show. If the person putting on the show has any common sense, they will understand the effort you have to put in throughout the evening and compensate you for your time. Pick a service price based on your skill level, and stand firm. People who put on shows are spinning a lot of plates behind the scenes to make things happen, so the last thing many of them want to have to do is actually host the show. Take advantage of that, and tell them your rate. Even if it’s $50 to $100 to start. You’ll feel good after a night of heavy lifting if you have gas and grocery money in your pocket on the way home.
If you’ve never hosted before, hopefully, these tips will be of help. Of course, nothing is set in stone, and keep in mind that the great (and exhilarating/terrifying) thing about stand-up is that each night is its own thing. There will be nights where the tips work like a charm and other nights where audiences seem to decide in unison that they just don’t want to be there and respond to nothing. I will say, however, then even the tightest audiences tend to respond to at least one or two of these techniques enough to keep a show moving. So enough reading. Get out there and let it be known that your hosting services are available. Shout it out from the digital mountaintops of social media and see what happens. Any experience adds knowledge and wisdom to your repertoire.