Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Art of Hosting

Hosting a Comedy show is an Art. Too many people think they can host, just as too many people think they can do Comedy. It is a thankless job, but it’s the most important job. You are responsible for clearing the muck ahead to make sure the Feature and Headliner have to do as little work as possible to have an attentive audience, and have a great set. You are the lone Salmon swimming upstream. Sometimes you will break them and get them on board, sometimes you won’t. But the important part is you have to try. And even if you don’t there’s this weird thing where the audience doesn’t take the Host seriously and once you leave they are completely on board with the next comic. I was first asked to Host at Zanies a few years ago. I was nervous but I was absolutely confident that I could do it. So I went in even when I wasn’t performing to watch Pat McGann. To me, he is like the Michelangelo of Hosting a show. You’re just in awe and like “Ohhh, so that’s how it’s done”

So I put that model together and formulated my own style. Although we are very similar In that we are crass, we both also remain charming and likeable enough so as not to alienate the crowd. I learned early on it is important to ask the trivial questions of “Anyone visiting” or “anyone celebrating anything?” because you are basically an adult Camp Counselor on a bus full of Drunken Adults, sober adults, and sometimes children. You are focusing the room. And when you can let them feel like they have spoken and gotten their feeling of recognition that they are shiny important people out of their systems, you re-focus them. That they are there to watch a show. Not participate. Before every show I start with Two expectations from the Audience (in this order so as to come out scolding them for something they haven’t done yet)

If you think it’s funny LAUGH. This is not a TED Talk about Comedy. There is nothing weirder than someone coming up to me after a show and saying “Great job you were SO Funny!” but sat with their arms crossed the entire show but didn’t make a peep all night. If your arms are crossed uncross them. If your shoulders are tight roll them out. No one from work is there and judging you. If there’s a joke about eating Booty and you find it funny, don’t look at your date to see if It’s ok to laugh just laugh. This is your time to forget your problems not bring them here and be upset. Don’t write a BLOG about a joke that upset you come talk to the comic after or just don’t be so uptight.

Don’t yell at the Performers! You would never go to the Symphony and yell “Play Bach!” or watch a Tight rope walker and yell “BOO!” to see if they fall. Being up here is hard. You are NOT helping us by shouting out. You are throwing us off. It may seem like it’s not bothering us because we have been doing it for a long time but it does. Don’t make the show about YOU, you ruin it for everyone else.

And then I have them clap in agreement that these are two Simple rules that they abide to follow. If someone fails call them out. Immediately. You have to be like the Alpha in the room and let them know who’s boss and what won’t be tolerated. If they are severely rowdy I will threaten we will start the “Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!” chant at anyone who does breaks any of the rules. So far I haven’t had to. But I’ve come close. I think the fear of being “that guy” at least settles them temporarily. People used to be afraid to go to comedy shows and speak out. Now the comic is afraid. Hosting allows you to switch this power dynamic if you do it right. Do these two pre-requisites stop people from yelling out? No. But the decline in incidences is very noticeable. And now that you have laid out an expectation, when someone violates it is so much easier to get the audience on your side because the offender stands out like a sore thumb. And you’ve established to the room that this is not acceptable behavior so people finally feel spoken for to agree silently that they ARE ruining the show. I’ve worked as a Host at Zanies, The Improv, and The Comedy Bar. And in most cases you have people who have been to a comedy show, but a lot of times many who have never and some who just came out of boredom. They are like lost souls who don’t really know what they are doing. The Comedy Bar attracts a lot of tourists so sometimes you are the first comedy show they’ve ever been to. Teach them well. They are your future audience.

So let’s look at what Hosting a Comedy Show is NOT:

1) Doing your set and then saying “Are you ready for your next Comedian?” this is a cop out. You have taken no responsibility to the room. You are the Wedding planner, event planner and priest. Bless the room correctly so that the others who follow you don’ t have to clean up your mess

2) Saying “Are you ready for your first Comedian?” YOU are the first Comedian. If you don’t believe this, you shouldn’t be Hosting. Or doing comedy.

3) Not reading the room. If they are tight call them out on it. If they are picky observe it. Don’t just keep doing bits if the room isn’t responding. Respond to the lack of response! It is unnatural to just keep going like everything is fine. If they like something adjust your set to find what they are into. You have to work up there. This isn’t “hack” this is called doing your job

4) Once you get the room going YOU ARE DONE. It is not your Comedy Central Half Hour Special Audition between comics. If you are that thirsty for stage time, do other shows, or open mics. Don’t do 20 mins at the top. When you get a good laugh GET OUT. Like literally if the crowd is hot you are to pass it like a hot potato to the next comic so by the time it gets to the Headliner they are on fire.

5) See above. Don’t do time between comics. Unless the comic before you bombed and you need to re set the room. If the Feature just killed don’t come back out and try and do another Hot 10 with new jokes and then the room goes flat for the Headliner. Don’t be selfish. As difficult as it may be especially if there’s a hot crowd, remember it’s NOT ABOUT YOU (See note on drunk loud people)

What Hosting IS:

The face of the club and the show. People may not remember you specifically, but when they go to another Comedy show they will remember it not being run as smoothly if you do it right. It is also an opportunity to learn how to feel like a super hero when at the end of the show it flowed the way a comedy show should and everybody’s happy

A valuable skill set so if a set isn’t working when you aren’t Hosting, you can flip into Host mode and learn how to get the crowd back because of your experience as a good Host

A time to take the pressure of yourself and put it on taking one for the team. Like I said in the beginning of the article – it’s a thankless job. But the Feature and Headliner both know when there’s a good Host because the show runs smoothly, and the crowd is hot. And they will tell you. Yes sometimes there will be off nights when no matter what you do you can’t win them. Remember Good Will Hunting “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault” As long as your goal from the beginning to the end of the show is for the crowd to be focused, engaged, respectful, and happy; chances are they will appreciate your effort and will be just that. But go into with that mentality. Not that you need to “Kill” or do your 400 best killer jokes that worked at the Tuesday 10 in Rosemont. Do the jokes that work, and will work given the crowd you are handed. Each room is different and you will have to figure them out. Some like more crowd work and riffs, some like straight material. That’s why reading the room is so important and often overlooked. People can tell when you are phoning it in, or reciting a bit from memory. Learn the fine art of weaving in and out of material, and crowd work, and you’ll look like a pro up there. Or a magician. Or both. And by wooing the crowd with that they will want more. And when they want more you make everyone else’s job that much easier. Which as a Host IS your job.

Contributing Writer
Anthony Bonazzo - Anthony is a Stand-Up Comedian, writer, Actor and all around talent living in and working in Chicago. Originally a New Jersey native, and one of eight kids, he began his pursuit of comedy doing imitations of family members at the dinner table