Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What an Emcee Can do to Suck the Room Dry

The community in comedy is small. Someone you work with at a coffee house open mic this week may be the big star on some sitcom next week. Case in point, Jim Carrey was working at Thrifty Drug Store in Los Angeles WHILE he was on In Living Color because he had been burned by the Hollywood Promise before and wanted to ensure Janey, his daughter, and his wife Melissa, (this was a while ago...wayyyy before Holly and McCarthy), had food on the table and a place to live. Melissa was waitressing, and I remember meeting the little kid -with her dad a few times in front of the Comedy Store.

The place has an open area, where there's an outdoor bar, and on any day you'd find Eddie Griffin chatting with Bruce Baum chatting with Emo chatting with just a newbie from Boston hoping to make it big on the stage someday. The place kept everyone on one level- a casual, real, warm, we do this too place. No one was a star, yet everyone was there, and it was time when John Pinnette was just as new as anyone else, even though he was a star in his New England home. We all were. All the people who worked that club during the late 80's had a modicum of success. We had road gigs and college gigs and late night bar gigs under our belts.

And, we each had stories. We had stories about the worst emcees who had ever walked onto a stage, taken the air right out of the room, and still work in the clubs we left behind us. We had stories about the people who like to use the word "comedy" to describe what they provide, despite the truth- the long winded, uninteresting, street-joke spewing, ego stroking nonsense that never amounts to anything other noise. It was a relief to see that the most seasoned and the newest members of the club each shared one common bond- Bad Emcees ruin shows, and they are our common enemy.

The MC is the Master of Ceremonies. Some are expected to monitor the time of comics, some are supposed to ensure that the club is in communication with the comedian. Some are supposed to set up lights, run sound, and even ensure there are comped drinks to VIPs.

The nightmare emcee doesn't understand the role first of all. S/he has an idea that the show is secondary to their needs. An emcee isn't supposed to take a show and turn it into "Love the Emcee, screw our guests this evening."

S/he isn't supposed to do twenty minutes, then give the comedians on the bill less time than a commercial break so he can continue his next twenty minutes. Then, s/he closes the show with his "real set" which ends up being another 30 minutes of ranting, without any obvious signs of humor in any of it.

The Producer Emcee usually is someone who has a bit more stage experience, but I've been in shows when the Producer Emcee is someone who hasn't even done comedy before but thought his friends thought he was funny, so he figured he would talk a restaurant into letting him host a show. The ego is enormous and the talent is just dismal. If s/he gets that the audience isn't giving a great response s/he will keep his intros short, and let the comics do their jobs. However, the bad emcee will suck the room dry from all laughs, be obviously uncomfortable with material or public speaking, and use stage time to humiliate and annoy audiences and comics alike. They are poison.

There is a road gig I took with three other people who happen to be from Boston. The guy emceeing kept trying to imitate JFK, and expected us to prattle on about being Democrats and eating Clam Chowder. That was his perception of Boston. None of us had the plan of playing to his whims. The guy showed another aspect of crappy emcees. He had no idea of the comics he was introducing, put assumptions in his intros, and just sounded like an idiot. He used his scintilating understanding of the English language to see how many cuss words he could fit into one intro. Pleasant. He also hit on every single female in the audience, so many left by the time the headliner made it to the stage.

Emcees who heckle are fairly common, whether we want them to or not. They'll scream out punchlines, make wisecracks about waitresses, or worse, they'll simply be just as obnoxious as the most ardent loud mouth. The excuse is usually, "I thought you could take it!" Or they'll sit in another part of the room, with a friend, or a member of the staff, ignore what's going on stage-wise, and talk sport scores, sex acts, and manners of cleaning bodily fluids from the floor of the club.

The ones who drink nonstop, during a show, and then show their inability to handle liquor as the night progresses are embarrassing to themselves and the club. They certainly aren't funnier, and often they just come across as frat boys pretending to be comics. If they're so stoned they forget to speak words, have drunk friends in the audience, and only talk to them, or if they are dogging the bartender for not providing enough liquor they're space wasters, and should be replaced. (That is, unless of course, the club caters to stoned, drunk frat boys who can't speak words, mostly books paranoid schizophrenic comics, hires only waiters who are selling drugs, and runs between the hours of 3 and 5 in the morning. THEN it's cool.)

When an emcee has solid material, it's a joy. You are part of a show that is warmed up by someone who has comedy chops. The audience can tell, and the rest of the line- up knows, the show will work out great. If a comic has a bad set, a good emcee usually can rewarm a room. If there are problems with an unruly crowd, a great emcee knows how to shut down the worst and call security on the seriously vile. And, a great emcee will make a cursory attempt at learning about your previous work and material so as not to do similar stuff, or not to trample on your act by introing with your punchlines.

But there are times when the emcee thinks it would be okay to use YOUR material to introduce you. That's bad. Nothing is worse than hearing the crowd zone out during the second tellling of your tale.

There are times when Crappy Emcee will use your material after you have left the club- and do it badly. That's not only bad for you, but bad for any other comic who has to work with you later, and didn't know the lines were lifted. Not good.

There are times when an emcee uses a microphone badly- getting it wet with beer, or sucking on it, or another nasty trick that not only causes tech issues, but health issues. One woman in some state, we'll call Texas, thought it was funny to wipe her running nose on the mic. Ugh.

There are times when an emcee will prattle on about how badly he is doing- so much so that it's not funny, and begins to sound like a forced group therapy session. The audience doesn't want a life story they want to laugh. They're trying to get their own lives out of their head for a while- and laugh. That's why we do this, not to work out what our bosses said to us that day that made us really sad. (Well, unless there's a lot of material there..then...you know...use it.)

And, a really bad emcee will con a club into thinking he has years of experience and is a funny person, when really his ego trip is just wasting everyone's time. If the guy claims he has a radio show, but it turns out to be a podcast, and the podcast is produced via his cell phone- run. This is not the person you want. And, if he says he's really funny, make sure you get written proof of this from legitimate press, comments on his online videos, and something other than a business card to prove his experience. Again, the comedy community is very small. We all know what happens in one town soon gets talked about in the next. Maybe not always by the most famous comic on the tour, but a bad emcee will be the reason other comics won't do a club date again.

To all who are great emcees- we talk about that too. You are what makes a show worthwhile for many comedians. Thanks to the good emcees good rooms exist. You are the heroes of the club, and all of us- comics, audiences, bookers, and club owners know it. Thank you.

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