32 Counties, 32 Gigs part 20; Leitrim
Well, never let it be said that I didn’t get fair warning about my recent trip to Leitrim; I was contacted a week beforehand by a fellow comedian who presented the project to me in a frank and upfront manner, stating from the off that he had turned down what was probably going to be a rough gig that he had zero interest in, and would I be interested in doing it. Well, I thought to myself, Leitrim is an elusive county, plus the pay is nice, my car needs to be taxed, I’m free that night and I’m a total gig prostitute… sign me up!
Oy indeed; what was on the agenda was not a straight-up gig, but instead a MC slot at a local heat of a nationwide beauty pageant. My job was to compere the night, introduce guests, bring on the participants, chat to them, chat to the audience, keep the night moving and keep everyone entertained. If you’re thinking to yourself that this sounds a lot like the Lovely Girls competition from Father Ted, well….
But whereas more seasoned comics (or indeed those with even a modicum of artistic integrity) would steer clear of such an event, I embraced the opportunity to try my hand at a straight hosting gig; I wouldn’t be doing a “set” as such, I had to go out and be personable and charming and shit. So off I went to Carrick-On-Shannon on a warm Summers evening, to the local nightclub where the event was being held. And though I may have been a little flippant earlier in calling it a “Lovely Girls Competition”, they really were lovely ladies each and every one, and the organisers and proprietors were extremely welcoming and professional. Hell, I even got to meet the special guest judge; the original Lovely Girl herself, Andrea Roche.
So really, all anyone was worried about was whether or not I would make a total fuck of the whole thing. I reassured them that this wasn’t my first time MCing, that I’d done plenty of hosting gigs at comedy clubs but this night was of course going to be different. See, my MCing is in need of SERIOUS work, given that what I usually do is just go out with my set diced up into five minute segments to drop in here and there before bringing on acts. All year I’ve been doing as much hosting as I can to get out of my bad habits and get better, and tonight in Leitrim it was all going to be put to the test seeing as how I couldn’t just fall back on the ol’ reliable gags when the patter dried up. So all I had to do was take a look at what makes a really great MC, and try my best to replicate it…
For starters, being an MC is pretty daunting. You’ve got to be the first guy up onstage, plunging straight into an as yet untested room. Are these people nice? Are they a shower of bastards? The MC has to be the first guy to wade in onstage and find out. And not only that, but he’s the one guy who can’t start with a joke; first thing he’s got to do is lay down the rules.
To any non-comedians reading this; doesn’t that sound like the most awkwardest task of all time? To be the guy to stroll out into a room of people who are chatting among themselves and tell them to STOP enjoying themselves, only to turn around seconds later and tell them that the time has come for them to START enjoying themselves again, only this time there’s to be no chatting, they have to turn their phones off and sit the fuck down while there’s a guy onstage. There is a very slim margin for error with the level of strictness an MC should utilise; hit them too hard and the night is off to a bad start, they’ll get frosty, turn their noses up at your gags and not be fully invested in the other performers. Hit them too soft, and they won’t shut the hell up, and run roughshod over the whole night. A good MC can stroll out and calm a room, welcome everyone, tell them the general layout of the night and get on their side enough that when he asks them to be good little boys and girls and enjoy the funny people that he’s about to bring on, then that’s exactly what they do. In my mind, all this has to be done in less than a minute for a night to be off to a good start.
Once the housekeeping is out of the way, an MC is free to proceed with the night as he wishes. There are those MCs who choose to launch into their own set and get the crowd hyped up that way, or there are those that spend time warming up the room so that when the acts can come out, they rock the bollox off it. For ages I was the first kind; I’d have my set all chopped up into segments which, if the night was going well, I’d hog the stage and have to be dragged off (and if I started to bomb I’d just bring an act on real quick to save MY ass). To any acts that have in the past had to wait patiently in the wings as I poured Liquid Nitrogen on the atmosphere in the room, I do apologise. What I’ve tried to do in recent months is to go out and find out as much about the crowd as I can (which any comedian waiting to go on can then use to their advantage when making last minute set changes and the like). This I do by just… well, just chatting with them, getting to know them table by table, engaging in friendly banter in a so-who’s-from-out-of-town style; a technique favoured by several highly respected MCs, generally enjoyed by yer average comedy audience, and despised by elitist navel-gazing comedy snobs.
So yeah, ok, it can be a bit hacky to start picking on people in the audience, but at the same time it requires a large degree of improvisational skill and timing to build up a good atmosphere in a room, a lot more than just ok-we’re-going-to-start-the-cheer-from-this-side histronics. The MCs that blow my mind are the ones that can get everyone on board by finding out the names, occupations and origins of the bulk of the room and in a matter of seconds make up a wee routine or skit based on that information. I’m watching these guys thinking DAMN that’s fast… how the hell can they do that? When you see the same guy MC a few times, you can start to se the strings a wee bit, but overall what you’re looking at is either a guy who has incredibly fast comedy improvisation technique, or has literally gone through every possibly occupation and place of origin (and you must NOT omit anywhere, as an audience can be from even the most unlikely of backgrounds; like a few weeks ago when I was in Sheebeeen Chic and half the audience was from Chad, for fucks sake) and written a joke pertaining to it. Either way, that’s a hell of a lot of work to go into meeting and greeting a comedy audience. Me, I can honour the “So where are you guys from?” part, although I have yet to master any actual, eh, comebacks, relying instead on some serious bluffing and high-energy tomfoolery until the audience laughs at some perceived notion that what I’m doing is funny and/or relevant.
As you get more and more MC work, it starts to get a wee bit easier… if you’re like me, you usually come up with your best comebacks and zingers while analyzing the gig on the drive home, in a shit-you-know-what-I-shoulda-said kinda way. The best MCs are the ones that can think of that stuff on the spot, and mix it in with topical of-the-week material to create an atmosphere which relaxes and entertains the audience so that they’re prepped and ready for the acts to come on. Of course, that’s providing that all is lovely and well and that the crowd aren’t the aforementioned shower-of-bastards, in which case MCing becomes less of an ice-breaking and introduction exercise, and more of a hostile riot-police standoff situation as you try to get everyone to have a bit of fucking decorum.
This is what can turn MCing from a fun gig to straight up Hard Work; you’re not there to have a great gig, you’re there to make sure the other acts have a great gig. This can mean being the bad guy in the eyes of the audience; the authority figure who came out like a primary school teacher telling us when it was time for little break and big break. When we the audience got a bit chatty, this asshole on stage told us to shush like we were fucking children, then he chastised us when our phone went off and told us not to be going to the bar during acts. Fuck this guy! Get him off the stage and bring on a guy that will just straight up tell us some jokes!… And then you introduce an act and everyone has a great time. If the act does well and the room is on a high, then the MC has to come back out and not kill that buzz; usually when I’m introducing an act after the first guy has rocked it, I’ll do fuck all except just bring the next guy on. However, if the room is now so sugar-rushed that they’re giddy and not interested, it’s back to being the nanny telling all the boys and girls to settle down. And you’re the bad guy AGAIN. If the first act didn’t do well, it’s back to square one trying to raise the playing field for the next act. If there is some cunt in the crowd heckling throughout, the MC has to deal with him in a manner that he behaves himself when the acts are on. If half the crowd fucked off to the bar the minute the previous act finished, the MC has to fill the time until everyone is settled back into place, so the next act doesn’t come on to a half empty room (or worse, a room where everyone gradually makes their way back to their seats during his routine; stepping on punchlines and generally being a fucking nuisance). MCing is HARD WORK. You would love to just do your material and join in the fun, but your job instead is to be the guy that takes one for the team; the guy who throws himself on a grenade so that the squad doesn’t bear the brunt of it, the secret service agent who jumped in front of a bullet to save the president.
And after all that air-traffic controller levels of effort and concentration, after making sure not to fuck up and panic and introduce acts in the wrong order and remember everyones name, after moving things around to accommodate for the acts that wouldn’t get off the fucking stage and went way over time, after facing off against some shithead heckler until he got the message so that the acts didn’t have to deal with him, after trying to make sure everyone went on to a well warmed-up crowd by being the guy standing there filling air as best you could while the barstaff started collecting empty glasses the SECOND they seen you back onstage, after playing a game of Banter Russian Roulette with the crowd where if you get TOO cheeky and say the wrong thing to the wrong person it could fuck up the whole night, after ALL that, what thanks to you get from the crowd?
Someone will come up to you after the gig and say “Fair play, that was a good night, the comedians were brilliant… here, you’re fairly funny yourself, have you ever thought about giving the comedy a go?”
So with all this in mind, I took to the stage in Leitrim to host the night, knowing that I didn’t have the failsafe of switching into comedy routine mode should the night go awry. And I will admit, the night served to show that when it comes to MCing, I need a lot of work. My banter with the crowd and with the girls was weak, my lack of stage presence made the crowd uninterested and bored, and I failed to deal properly with some minor heckling (you wouldn’t expect heckling at this kind of thing, but some overly red-blooded males in the audience got a bit lascivious and seeing as I wasn’t allowed to swear, I wasn’t allowed to tell them to go home and continue fucking their livestock). Had I been at a comedy gig, I would have reached for the safety net of a few tried and tested gags to haul my ass through, but instead I had to, y’know, make an effort to be a real host. It was a learning experience which I was very thankful for, and a testament to how much hard work the MCs I admire must have gone through to make their craft seem so effortless.
Of course that’s all very well and good, but some of you may have read this entry and thought “Hang on Gerry; wasn’t the whole No Punchline challenge to do a COMEDY gig in each of the 32 counties? Because this gig wasn’t REALLY a comedy gig, and therefore shouldn’t really count, right?”…. well, what can I say; I was out on a stage in front of a crowd, mic in hand, with an onus on me to provide laughs and entertainment. The whole escapade made me feel a curious sense of self-loathing throughout, and as I drove away with a pay-check that felt dirty in my hand I was filled with a desire to get home as quickly as possible so I could block everything out with alcohol before getting into the shower and washing all the bad feelings away.