I tried my hand at MCing for the first time recently. I got into this comedy lark to 'just say yes' and Sunday was the first time I really experienced the negative consequences of doing this. It was at the festival where I cut my teeth last year and involves groups of novices trying their hand at stand up comedy for the first time, supported by a professional comedian, travelling around 4 pubs and performing to four different audiences. I was on at the pub where I finished off last year and I had loved the audience there, so I was feeling very positive as the night began.
I was rubbish. Not only that, I was rubbish in front of Arthur Smith, Olaf Falafel, Paul B Edwards, Miss Mandy Knight and Silky. Five professional comedians and really lovely people. They were kind but I will have been erased from their memories as someone they will never see on the circuit again. And rightly so.
I had prepared and I had planned as much as I could - I know a lot of the skill of MCing is reacting to what is in the room. Reciting a script will not cut the mustard. What I had not planned on was the horrific brain freeze that kicked in the second I took the mic. I couldn't remember my own name, let alone any of the acts. This was abundantly proved when, whilst reading from a fucking card, I got the name of the first act wrong. (To be honest I don't think this is an egregious error - I'm constantly being introduced by the wrong name, it's no biggie, I just introduce myself and get on with it.) The first act was performing comedy for the first time and I did her a great disservice in not getting her name right and therefore failing to create a positive, supportive mood by showing some basic competence.
But I made far greater mistakes than this throughout the night. The gig had started to go wrong before the first introduction. I got the crowd cheering and then could not think of a way from getting from there to the material I'd prepped. The audience could hear the gears crunching as I switched from ad lib to written jokes from my usual set. I stammered out the first one to polite silence. It was not an elegant delivery and from then on all my lovely silly little jokes died on their arse. So I panicked and ploughed into introducing our first act. For me this was my biggest fuck up and learning curve.* I was expecting an act to save me when actually it was my job was to protect the acts. I did not work hard enough to get that room warm and receptive to this lovely woman trying her hand at stand up for the first time. I really let her down and I am so sorry for that.
I also let down another act when she came on early, as I had got the audience to cheer for something else and it miscued her that it was time to come on. Instead of staying and ensuring she got the welcoming cheer she deserved, I rushed the introduction and scarpered. Grrrr. I think the main lesson I've learnt is, if it is going badly running away will not make it get better - you still have to go back out there at some point, at least ensure you are in control of when you do that.
The other really stupid thing I did wrong was to acknowledge that I was shit. I opened the show saying it and then I closed the show by saying it again, even after an incredibly generous Silky got the audience to give me a (totally undeserved) cheer. If an audience thinks you're shit, acknowledging that you know it too does not help, it just makes everyone sad.
It was really fascinating watching the professional comedians take a dead room and bring it to life. It's always impressive to see the craft as it should be done. I was aware they were having to put their backs into it though and I know that was my fault. When the acts finished I was too tongue tied and nervous and my brain was working too slowly to acknowledge what they had talked about. Call backs are a neat and relatively simple part of comedy and I don't think I managed a single one.
At other times I had comedy ideas whilst the acts were performing - little games I could play, or actions i could do to engage the interest of the audience but almost every time I held the mic myself I censored those thoughts and went for the safe option. I have no way of knowing whether these ideas would have blossomed into something good, but I am pissed off with myself for failing to try.
I also forgot to calm myself down. When I started out at open mics I had a little bit where I'd do a small meditation routine on stage if I could feel things slipping away from me. I think if I'd remembered to do that on the night i would have been able to stop my voice coming out as a strangulated squeak and I'd have held on to a bit more control of myself, if not the audience. I've since reintroduced this in times of crisis and it really helps me regain control of myself and my set. It's a lovely high/low status game to play.
It wasn't all bad... I mean it was nearly all bad, but it wasn't all bad. When I was 'backstage' I listened to the comedians and did what they needed me to do; I introduced them in the way that they wanted, I moved the mic to where they needed it and I talked to the audience whilst doing so. I am becoming less and less worried about stage craft - the nuts and bolts of what to do with a microphone and how to work a mic stand - the kind of stuff that seems terrifying when you start out. It was nice to know that that's consistent even during bad gigs.
I was able to be welcoming and warm to the acts on and off stage and I maintained being welcoming and warm with the audience even when I knew I had bored them. I managed getting the crowd back to their seats in a way that made everyone pay attention to the stage and feel part of the evening. As far as i could tell the audience didn't start talking amongst themselves, which I will put in the 'win' column i think.
I attempted to create 'a thing' in the room and realised that a lot of being an MC is simply making 'a thing' happen. I created a way of defining the audience based on where they were sitting and referred back to it throughout. It wasn't massively popular but it did work to get them cheering when I wanted them to, to divide and unify the audience to maximise the cheering. I did feel at points like I had an audience made entirely of Regina from Mean Girls, "stop trying to make [x] happen" but I was happy with the concept, the playfulness of it and the fact that I wasn't afraid to try. HopefullyI will try that kind of thing again in more favourable circumstances.
The most important thing I got right was that I did not give up. I kept trying and I did make them laugh a few times and even got a few almost affectionate groans for my intentionally terrible puns. The middle two sets were definitely my strongest performances but then I killed it all at the end by reminding the audience that I had been a bit shit as an MC.
As the night drew to a close and the audience filed out it was horrible. There's a vibe you get when you suck, a stink that clings to you and pushes people away. No one will come near you. Almost all members of the audience avoided eye contact with me as they left, everyone very politely not pointing out that they hated what I had done to their evening. One very sweet drunk lady gave me a hug and told me I was fantastic - I could smell the pity mingling with the boozy fumes that surrounded her. Her attempt to make me feel better made me feel worse than those who couldn't meet my eye. What I will take away from this evening is that people are kind, they want you to succeed and silence is terrifying when you are performing.
The thing that is gutting is that I really feel I learnt so much. I know I would do so so much better next time. It's a shame that no one is likely to give me a chance.
[Addendum: two rather lovely people have already offered me the opportunity to MC at some point in the future. Isn't comedy lovely?]
*I'm sure the audience could give you a rich and rounded selection of other things I got horribly wrong.