How To MC A Stand-Up Comedy Show

If you’re starting out in comedy and trying to get paid to perform as a stand-up comedian, the most likely way you’ll be able to break in will be as a host or emcee. This means you go up first on the show to a cold audience. It’s the hardest spot on the show.

But emceeing sharpens your comedy skills because you have to talk to the crowd. This makes you funnier on your feet, more comfortable handling hecklers and you’ll even sound more conversational. Which are all skills you should acquire before you can feature or headline.

Here’s our MCing tips based on our personal experiences and numerous conversations with other professional comedians.

  1. Come in with high energy. You want to get the audience’s energy as high as possible. Don’t come in sounding all depressed and woe is me. Even if that’s your “natural” stage presence, if you’re hosting, you gotta pep it up.

  2. Start by saying something along the lines of, “Hey everyone, we have a great show for you tonight.” Make sure you’re smiling and that you sound genuine.

  3. Within twenty seconds of starting, get the audience to clap, and then clap again. Say something like “Clap it up for yourselves” or  “Who’s happy it’s a Friday night?” – whatever gets them to make noise. Then, unless you get an amazing response, say “You can do better, let’s try that again.” It (subconsciously) communicates to the audience that you’re in total control.

  4. Go into crowd work. Start by asking some standard questions like “Where are you from?”, “What do you do for work”, “How long have you been dating?” etc. Even better, come up with more interesting questions (in advance) – especially ones that can transition into your existing material. This way even if the audience’s answer is lame, you can take it somewhere funny. Try to make jokes about their answers, or joke about the fact that their answers are boring. Don’t panic if some of your improvised joke attempts miss. The key here is high positive energy.

  5. Don’t talk to more than 3 tables in a row, or people will get bored and/or hate you.

  6. Do a couple of your jokes.

  7. Repeat steps 4 through 6 until they’re constantly laughing at your jokes, at which point no need to continue doing crowd work.

    No matter the response you’re getting, only do material for the final two to five minutes of your set. You want to get the audience used to the rhythm of jokes. Even if your material isn’t getting as big of laughs as the crowd work you just did, your job is to get the crowd ready for the next comedian to be able to just do their jokes.

  8. Alternately, you can open with a quick joke or two (not longer than a minute) and then go into crowd work. Or if the material is killing right away, you can skip crowd work altogether. The best is if you have crowd-work questions that will lead into your material. Example: “Anybody married in here? Oh yeah, how long? I’ve actually been married for twenty years, so I’m winning, for now.” (Then go into your actual marriage jokes.)

  9. After your last joke, give the ground rules and get loud applause going for the next comic. Example: “We have an awesome show. Your waiters will be coming around with drinks. Please keep talking to a minimum. And let’s have fun. Are you ready for your next comedian?” DON’T ask “Who’s ready to get this show started?” or “Are you ready for your first comedian?” The show has already been in progress since you got up there and you are their first comedian.

  10. Make sure the comedian’s name is the last part of their introduction. You want to say “This next comedian has been on Comedy Central please put your hands together for John Doe.” Do not say “Your next comedian is John Doe, he’s been on Comedy Central.”

  11. Run the logistics. Make sure to get the proper pronunciation of each comedian’s name and their credits. Are you timing the performers and giving them the light or is someone else doing it? If it’s on you, make sure you have a stopwatch/phone to time them. And know where the red light is and how it turns on/off. If there’s no red light, tell comedians you’re lighting comedians with your phone. And ask comedians if they want a 1 or 2 minute light or what.

  12. When you come on stage between each comic, make sure to maintain a high level of energy to keep the audience in their seats and excited about the next comic. First say, “How about another round of applause for [previous comic’s name].” Then either go into a joke or two, or just introduce the next comedian. If there are more than 3 comedians on the show, I don’t recommend doing time between the first and second comedian, so that the audience doesn’t think you’ll be slowing down the show after each performer.

    BONUS: If you can come up with a quick one or two line joke based on the previous act’s closing bit, that’s a great way to keep the show feeling connected and as one. Example: If the last comic said something like “Then I passed out in an alley, and woke up without a wallet,” you can come up there and say “So I was in an alley last night, going through Joe’s wallet…”

  13. Most important, the emcee has to be a person.You can’t talk at people, you have to talk to them. (This applies to regular stand-up spots as well, but especially if you’re the host.) If you don’t get many laughs as a host, but your energy is positive and you’re smiling the whole time, the audience is relaxed and engaged and the first comedian does well, you did your job (even if you don’t feel great about it).

5 Types Of Beginner Comedy Shows

Are you a new comedian trying to figure out how to get more stage time in New York City? Here are the five main ways most comedians start performing more regularly.

What is it: In order to perform, you as the new comedian have to bring X number of people (between 2 and 15 at most places) who are willing to pay a cover charge and two drinks to watch (usually between 10 to 15) different comedians do shorter sets.

Pros: You get a real live audience. And you meet lots of different comedians, including (usually) some professionals, which can be good for networking. And since part of the audience knows you, they’re more likely to laugh at your jokes, which may help the people who don’t know you to start laughing as well, that whole laughter is contagious thing. People that work at the comedy club might notice you and you end up performing on regular shows without having to bring anyone.

Cons: Unless you’re super popular, you can run out of people to invite to shows really quick, the audience can be too supportive to the point that you don’t learn what’s truly funny, and you end up stressing about all your people showing up instead of concentrating on your act. You also have very little control over the quality of the other comedians. Some might be great, others might be more questionable.

What is it: You stand outside of the comedy club or bar, usually on a busy foot traffic corner, trying to hand out fliers to passerbys while convincing them they have nothing better to do right now than to come watch a stand-up comedy show. You usually stand outside and “bark” for 1-3 hours in exchange for 5-10 minutes of stage time.

Pros: You don’t have to stress about bringing friends. Most clubs will pay you a couple of bucks for each person you successfully convince to come to the show – so you’re technically getting paid to do comedy! Also, the audience doesn’t know you, so the laughter can be trusted. And you practice cold-selling and rejection, which are useful life skills.

Cons: You have to stand outside for 2-3 hours – this can be brutal especially in NYC winters. You get rejected almost all of the time. And if the comedy club has more than one show that night, you’re outside for almost the entire time except for when you perform. Meaning you can’t watch and learn from other comedians performing.

What is it: You pay $5 for five minutes of stage time. (Sometimes it’s totally free, other times it’s “buy a drink”.) Actual open-mic stage time ranges from 3 minutes to 8 minutes depending on the venue.

Pros: Anyone can get stage time. If you plan out your evening, you can do 2-3 mics a night nearly every night (in NYC at least). You often make your best comedy friends at open mics because they are also starting out.

Cons: Anyone can get stage time. You know those comedians that weren’t funny at the bringer show? Well, they’re better than many of the people at the open mics who are as likely to rant without purpose as they are to have punchlines. Also, in New York, the only people that come to watch open mics are other comedians. And they barely pay attention and just think about their set instead. This is not very helpful when you’re trying to learn what a real audience will find funny.

What is it: You pay to sign up for a comedy class with other aspiring comedians. An instructor explains the basic comedy techniques and then gives you writing prompts and then feedback on your joke ideas and performance. (Related: How to choose a comedy class.)

Pros: You have weekly deadlines and structure to keep you accountable. You interact with the same students over the course of the class and build camaraderie. It feels safer and more controlled than a random open mic.

Cons: A comedy class is more expensive than doing a random open mic. Eventually, you’ll most likely have to write jokes on your own. While it’s a great learning environment, if this is the only type of comedy you practice – you might not build the polish and confidence to handle any crowd.

What is it: You get a local bar with a back room or a comedy club on a slow night to let you run your own show. This can be once a month, weekly or a one-off.

Pros: You’re in charge of everything! Depending on the venue this might even mean bringing your own lights and sound. You book the Emcee/host. You book all the comedians that can perform. You decide who gets paid how much. You decide how long every comedian does, including yourself. Sometimes you can book other comedians who run their own shows and they’ll put you on their show in exchange, thereby increasing your stage time.

Cons: You’re in charge of everything! You’re in charge of the marketing and getting audience to show up. If a comedian cancels at the last second for another gig, you’re in charge of finding their replacement.

If you’re serious about improving as a comedian and becoming a paid, working professional, you should be getting on stage as much as possible. We would recommend AT LEAST five nights per week. Aka treat it like a job before it becomes a job. If this is your goal, you should be doing a combination of all five types of shows above.

What To Do When Nobody Laughs

Proper Comedy Mic Technique

There’s no “correct” answer – it’s a matter of preference, but be deliberate about it.

If keeping it in the mic stand

  • Remember righty tighty, lefty loosey.
    Adjust the mic stand to your height, don’t contort your body into weird shapes to fit the existing mic stand’s height.
  • Use both hands for emphasis, and minimize the amount of time you’re holding the mic stand.

If taking the microphone out of the mic stand

  • Look at the audience while taking the mic out of the mic stand. You don’t have to stare at the stand. Believe in yourself that you know how to take out a mic. Or better yet – practice it in advance.
  • Pick up the mic stand by the middle.
    You want your hand where it’s thicker and the two pieces connect. Do not hold it higher, as that’s how mic stands tend to fall apart.
  • Make sure to move the mic stand behind you.
    Don’t leave it in front of you as that creates a psychological barrier with the audience
  • The microphone should be at a forty-five-degree angle to you. Don’t put it directly below your chin on a ninety-degree angle or horizontally on a hundred-eighty-degree angle.
  • Make sure you hear yourself amplified loud, but not so loud that it hurts the audience’s ears.
  • Move mic closer when whispering, pull mic all the way away when screaming.
  • Don’t cup the top of the microphone like a rapper, it will create bad vocal distortion.
  • Don’t play with the wire at the bottom of the microphone, bad things will happen.
  • Don’t nod too much, makes you seem nervous.
  • Don’t play with the mic cord, it’s distracting and makes you seem nervous.
  • Talk slower than you think you should
  • If you’re doing crowd work to someone specific, look at them. Otherwise:
  • You should look 2/3rds of the way into the audience. So if the venue goes 10 rows back, look into the eyes of the people in the 7th row.
  • Don’t look all the way to the left or all the way to the right of the audience, as this makes the people on the other end feel left out. Only look 2/3rds of the way to the left or right. So if the room is 20 seats wide, ignore the last 4 seats in each direction.
  • If you’ve taken the mic out of the mic stand, put it back in as you’re starting your last joke.
  • Don’t wait after saying, “thank you, good night,” to turn around, find the mic stand and start putting it back in as the emcee is approaching the stage. This looks awkward.
  • If you’ve forgotten to put the mic back in the mic stand, just hand the microphone to the host and let them reset the mic stand.
  • Smile and take in your applause. Wait in the center of the stage until the emcee has returned and shaken your hand. Then leave. Don’t run off stage until the emcee is on stage.

What To Do If I Get Heckled?

You’re performing your prepared jokes, when all of a sudden, someone in the audience yells something out. What do you?!? Oh, and you have one second to decide, no pressure!

First, make sure the comment isn’t just someone muttering in the front row that nobody else heard but you, as you can often ignore such minor interruptions.

Next, repeat what they said into the microphone. This gives your brain an extra second or two to assess the situation and makes sure everyone in the audience heard what was said, which increases the odds that your response will get a big room laugh.

Next, quickly figure out what kind of “audience member yelling things out” interruption it is you’re dealing with, then respond accordingly.

  1. Someone responds to your jokes by saying something out loud that they think is helpful to the joke (but almost always isn’t)
    Acknowledge their suggestion and either riff off of it, say something witty or show how it’s unfunny and sarcastically thank them
  2. Someone doesn’t realize your statement or question was rhetorical and that they weren’t supposed to actually answer it
    This is similar to #1. After you acknowledge the comment, start taking shorter pauses than usual between setup lines so they don’t jump in again. Some audiences are more A.D.D. than others and can’t handle any silence, especially if it’s right after a fake question.
  3. Someone says something along the lines of “Jesus Christ” or “Oh God” when you do an edgier joke
    You can either smile and laugh extra without really addressing it. Or you can say something along the lines of “it’s gonna get worse.” Or admit  “You’re right, that’s a rough one” and then make your next joke even edgier. Showing the audience you understand you’re crossing the line, and then crossing it even more can cause a bigger laugh because going further after apologizing isn’t expected.
  4. Someone is drunk and just yelling out sounds or words that don’t make any sense
    Admit to being genuinely confused about the sound, maybe even mimic the sound, but don’t give them time to respond. If they do respond, it’s usually so nonsensical you can just laugh or stare at them and then move on without another response. You can always make a comment about them needing another drink too. The key here is to get back to your material ASAP. The audience tends to tolerate these kinds of heckles less than any other, so you can ignore it after the first time and talk over them.
  5. Someone yells out, “You suck”, “I’m funnier than you”, etc.
    This is what most people think of when you mention hecklers. These are also the least common ones. In this case, it matters if the rest of the audience has been laughing and is with you, or if they’ve all turned on you. Assuming the rest of the audience likes you, try to agree with the heckler while one-upping them. Don’t resort to insulting them unless they’ve yelled out more than once.
  • Don’t get too mean, too quick
    If you acknowledge the situation and respond with something that isn’t too mean the first time, they’ll usually stop. A lot of times the person (and rest of the audience) thinks they’re just being helpful (situations #1 and #2 above) so they don’t understand why you went from likeable to jerk.

    If you don’t have a witty in-the-moment response something like “Thank you for your opinion sir, I can take it from here” or “Ok, no more alcohol for that one” usually works for the first interruption.

    Don’t get mean, call the audience member names or tell them to shut up until they interrupt for a third time. And make sure the rest of the audience is against them at that point.
  • Ignoring the problem makes it worse
    If you ignore the first comment, then they’ll almost certainly say something else. Plus the audience starts wondering why you haven’t responded to the comment and while they’re thinking about that, they stop listening to you and your next joke.

    If you respond to the interruption and the audience member says something again, try to not respond directly. Stare at them for a second or two and then say “annnnnd back to me” or just a “that’s nice.”
  • If the audience member or audience in general has already been chatty before you
    Some audiences are just talkative and want you to talk and interact with them instead of just listening to you do material. This isn’t really “heckling,” this is crowd work, even if you’re not the one who decided to start it. When you’re trying to work on new material having to spend time talking to the audience can get annoying but you just gotta go with it. It’s also important to make it seem like the interruptions are “fun” and don’t bother you.
  • If the comedians before you were doing so much crowd work that the audience thinks it’s supposed to be a back-and-forth
    Sometimes the comeidans before you talk to the crowd so much, the audience starts chatting with all performers, even those who just want to do material. In such an instance, you want to be extra nice when responding, as this is how they were trained and will be confused if you verbally attack them.
  • Use the improv rule of “yes and”
    Agree with whatever the audience member says and then add some additional information. This usually works because if you seem defensive, you’ve lost. Even something like, “You suck!” can be turned into “Yes, I do suck. And you can’t afford me. Why are you propositioning me anyway?”

Heckling is just like with the rest of stand-up, you best learn by doing it. It still helps to read, ask questions and be prepared, but you need the actual game reps.

11 Ways to crush your first stand-up comedy performance

So you’re toying with the idea of stepping onto a stage and making an audience laugh?

Maybe your friends always say, “you’re funny.” Maybe you watch comedy obsessively and think, “I could do better.” Maybe you just wanna have some fun while improving your public speaking skills. Perhaps you’ve even jotted down a few jokes. Well, buckle up for eleven tips to to turn your comedy daydreams into a laugh roaring reality.

  1. Start ASAP – no excuses! Procrastination kills creativity. The longer you wait, the easier it will be to make excuses and never try to get on stage. Find an open mic night, new talent show or comedy class and sign up.

    If it’s an open mic night or new talent night, give yourself an aggressive but realistic deadline – sign up for anywhere from two to four weeks from now. You want enough time to prepare, but not so much time that you get second thoughts.

    If you’re signing up for a comedy class, you can pick one that starts tomorrow. Classes are usually multiple weeks and provide structure and prompts to help you generate ideas.

    Related reading: 8 critical facts you must know before taking any stand-up comedy class

  2. Write out what you’re going to say. Do not just wing it! Think about and write out some funny anecdotes and observations from your life. Mark where you think the laughs will be. Go through this multiple times and keep revising it. You want as few lines between the laughs as possible.

    Most open mics or new talent shows will give a brand new person between 2 and 6 minutes on stage. One typed-up page generally takes three to five minutes to perform.

  3. Talk to yourself. Don’t get on stage without first saying and hearing your ideas out loud. The way we write often sounds more academic and awkward than how we talk. You want to make sure the words sound like a human is speaking, not like Siri is reciting from memory something you wrote.

  4. Test the waters with a friendly face. If you have a positive, trustworthy friend, run your jokes by them and see where they laugh. But be careful here, you don’t want to lose your confidence before you start. If you have a lot of negative and/or humorless people in your life, skip this step.

  5. Keep a note card handy. Even the best minds go blank under the spotlight. Avoid awkward silence by keeping a trusty note card in your pocket that has the main bullet points of your jokes. Don’t pull it out unless you must. Most of the time, just knowing you have this safety net will help you not need to use it.

  6. Talk slower. Even slower! Nervous energy can turn you into The Flash of comedy. Audiences need a second to process what you just said. Slow and steady increases laughs. If you think you’re talking too slow, slow down some more. Embrace the art of the pause—it’s your secret weapon.

  7. Record your triumph. Capture the glory of your first stand-up performance. Your phone on a tripod will do. If the club offers a video of your set, pay them, it’s worth the higher quality. You want to have proof of your first time. It also helps to review where the laughs were. That way you can iterate your jokes for future performances.

  8. When you see a red light or cell phone light held up high by the emcee, that means you have one minute to wrap it up. Pay attention to the light signal. If you’re not sure, before you go on, ask the host, “Where’s the light?” Venues and other comedians hate when a brand-new comedian goes on significantly longer than allotted.

  9. Continue until you finish all your jokes or time runs out. You’ll probably get laughs and lose track of time. Even if the crowd is quiet, stay up there and keep talking. It’s all part of the wild, unpredictable world of stand-up.

  10. Nerves are normal, embrace the jitters. You’re stepping outside your comfort zone so a few butterflies, nerves and adrenaline are expected. Tina Fey said it best, “I tell myself I’m not nervous, I’m just excited. And sometimes, right before SNL goes on the air, I get so excited I want to pee my pants.”

    If you’re up there and still feel nervous for more than the first minute, acknowledge it with the audience and the truth of the situation will probably get a laugh. Even better if you write a joke about how nervous you are.

  11. Lower the stakes – it’s about fun not fame (yet). You’re not gonna get a Netflix special or a sitcom deal from your first time ever on stage – this isn’t the 1980’s! You’re on that stage to have fun. Enjoy the thrill, embrace the nerves, and savor every moment.

Want to try performing stand-up but not sure what to say or how to write a joke? Click here to learn more about our New York City stand-up comedy classes.