Written by Tim Mathis
Ask almost any comic at any level which job he/she would least like to do on a show and roughly 95% of the time the answer will be “Hosting”.
Hosting is the most thankless (re: lowest paying) job a stand-up can do. As an entry-level position it’s also the job that requires the most actual work. Hosting is very different from featuring or headlining and it requires a special skill set. I’ve been lucky enough to get some hosting work and here are some of the tips I can say have helped me get some breaks. This is by no means the be all end all of advice on hosting, just a few things that have helped me out.
1. Be funny. To be a host level comic you should have at least 15 minutes of “A” material and should be able, at any mic in front of any crowd, to break that material out and have at least a good set. If you do not have 15 minutes you are not ready to host professional shows. This doesn’t mean you are able to talk for 15 minutes and kill in front of your friends. It means that no matter what crowd is in front of you should still be able to get laughs. While you can not host at pro shows you CAN host open mics with less than 15 minutes and that brings us to point #2
2. Start hosting. Houston has TONS of open mics and only a few have the same weekly hosts. In order to learn how to take a cold crowd from worrying the show is going to suck to thinking “Hey this could be fun.” You have to start hosting and host as much as possible. How do you do this? First, prove to the people running the open mic that you are consistently funny then, if it’s a room where they use other hosts, ask to host. Usually, if they trust you it should be no problem except they may have the next few weeks already scheduled, just take the next one available and be ready. REPEAT THIS AT AS MANY MICS AS YOU CAN. I can not stress this enough you need to be hosting every day if possible and when you do host, do it the right way, which of course is #3
3. Hosts go up first. PERIOD. If you’re not going up first you’re doing it wrong. In short, you’re calling yourself a host while guesting. Guesting is fun but there’s just 2 small issues: 1) guests don’t get paid & 2) ANYONE CAN GUEST. Guesting is easy, you’re going up after a comic has already got the room warm. In short, if you bomb consistently when guesting you probably don’t have #1 down yet. Be a comic, bite the bullet, it’s part of your job as host. You’re not getting your first comedy club gig featuring stop whining and go up first. Not only will it show you how to work a cold crowd it’s a challenge and you will get better. If you want to work on a bunch of new stuff or want to wait until the crowd is hot DON’T HOST, which of course, if you go up in the middle of the show you’re already not hosting anyway, you’re simply introducing other comics.
4. Have your set ready. The host sets the tone of the show and as such it falls on you to appear competent and earn the trust of the audience. This not only helps you have a good set it also helps the comics coming after you as the crowd will be much more apt to pay attention if the host appears to have his/her act together. In other words, if you’re hosting try not to read notes or just throw out premises onstage.
5. Get the names right. Yeah, we all screw up names but if you look stupid or like you don’t care about the next comic you lose credibility with the crowd and they wont care about the next guy either. Screw up credits or names in a real show and it could cost you real $$.
6. Have at least some energy. Not every comic is going to be a whirling dervish of punchlines. Some guy’s have a laid back style which is just as, if not funnier, than madcap bouncing off the walls crazy men. That said, if you are the host you should try to be at least a little energetic, let the crowd know they are about to have a great time, get the blood pumping.
7. No crowd work. EVER. Before my first hosting gig I was asked by the booker “How much crowd work do you do?” my answer was “None” to which he said, “That is the correct amount”. As the host crowd work is dangerous for various reasons mainly because as the least experienced comic on the bill you risk doing it poorly and angering the crowd. But the real reason to not do crowd work is that the headliner may not appreciate it and if that’s the case, it can get you fired. Just play it safe and don’t even do it when you host open mics, it’s a tool you can develop later, after you have developed into a working comic.
8. Don’t crap on the room. Owners/managers of clubs and bars love their clubs and bars. Audience members for the most part love the atmosphere as well. If a comic who has no real affiliation with the club or bar starts talking about how awful the place where a lot of the crowd like to go to drink is you’re already becoming unlikable and when you have to climb the stage stairs more than every other comic on the show, likability is a major asset. If you constantly crap on the room it can also hurt your chances of being allowed to host a venue. I’ve been told more than a few times that certain people are not allowed to host certain rooms because the management got tired of them running down their business.
9. Hangout.Woody Allen once quipped that “80% of life is showing up”…the same can be said for becoming a working comic. Hanging out at clubs, watching real pros work and learning how and why certain clubs operate certain ways is not only invaluable towards your development as a professional comic, but if the management sees you enough you have a better chance of picking up gigs. Hanging out can not make up for lackluster performance but it can give you an edge. For example, say there’s a club looking for a new host and they’re trying to decide between 3 or 4 guys they like, if they see one guy every other week or so, hanging out watching pros work, they may be more inclined to give that guy a shot over the others. You can also use hanging out to showcase your professionalism. It took me a while but I realized I should dress like I was about to go onstage (at the very least pants and a collared shirt) every time I hung out. Other tips, STAY OUT OF THE GREEN ROOM, don’t bother the comics on the show and tip every time.
10. Hangout the right way. THE CLUB IS NOT YOUR CLUBHOUSE. Show up before the show starts, don’t get in the way of the staff and check your ego at the door. You are literally a nobody. The goal should be to be almost invisible while still being noticed but not annoying. Some other points, don’t hang out every day, if the show is sold out you may want to leave after at least someone has noticed you came around and if there are too many comics hanging around maybe go home as well.
11. Write clean. As a host versatility is very important and part of this is the ability to work clean. There are tons of comics out there but only a few are able to pull off being clean AND funny. If you can do this you increase your ability to get booked dramatically. You can work blue but only if the show allows it but you don’t want to make people think the only adjective you know is the f-word, bookers look at that as a sign of a weak comic and unprofessional. Once you’re more established you will get more room to do material you want but that is earned.
12. Forget the curve ball. There’s a piece of sage wisdom in baseball that goes something like this: “Don’t get beat with your second best pitch”. What that means is that if you get stage time at a club, bring your “A” game. Clubs have open mics which are essentially tryouts for new comics. Don’t go out there if they give you 3-5 minutes and try a bunch of new premises, throw your fastballs.
13. Don’t go over time. There may be 20+ people on an open mic and time is tight. If they give you 5 minutes do your 5 and get off stage. It’s ALWAYS better to get off early rather than late. Don’t be the guy that struggles to end on a laugh and goes over time by two minutes. It’s disrespectful to the other comics and the club. On Friday and Saturday most clubs have two shows. The turnaround time between the two shows is usually pretty tight. If the host, the guy who really is insignificant and the most easily replaceable goes over it throws off the whole show. The feature is going to do his/her time and the headliner is DAMN sure going to do his/her time. Don’t be the fly in the ointment.
14. Don’t go up drunk. Ever.
15. If you’re 5 years in and you don’t have #1 down: QUIT.
Follow Tim Mathis on Twitter @THE_tim_mathis