I had the opportunity to join a one-to-one workshop with Sam See, a stand-up comedian, showrunner and MC from Singapore. It was a smooth and inspiring experience that turned out into a conversation.
I found many interesting learning points that can be valuable not only to those who are hosting a comedy show or any kind of performance, but also to facilitators and event hosts in general.
So this is the full transcript (with permission!) of the talk, and I hope you guys will enjoy it at least as I did. You can also check out my previous post about my experience as a stand-up comedian, here.
Sam See: I am probably the main show host in Asia, I have 7 years of experience, in clubs, festivals, theaters, I am a headliner, showrunner and producer. I learned everything the hard way, a workshop can give you some ideas but then you need to do it again and again to get better.
Rules are meant to be broken, sometimes a rule is like “you don’t want to insult the act”, but what if an act has just destroyed the room? Sometimes you have to bring the hammer down. Break the rules when they are meant to be broken, and be honest with your voice.
Remember: comedians will survive a bad gig, they are performers; the host will not survive a bad performance, they will not be booked again if they do a bad job. So you have to be good at hosting. It’s a different kind of pressure.
What is your job: you are there to keep things running. you are purely admin. Introduce the acts, lead the crowd to the break, bring them back, do it all over again.
You don’t have to be funny. I have seen all sorts of hosts: some are really hilarious, some are not funny and do purely admin, some try really hard to be funny – and fail. The audience can always tell when something is wrong.
Remember you are the host, not an act. When you are an act, you have your set, tight 20, or something like that. As a host you cannot do that, because you are managing time, and sometimes time will run short. So you cannot host an event and think “these are the jokes I am going to tell”. Remember, you are just there to facilitate the event.
[Question] Would you stop the show if somebody has a heart attack in the audience? I would check if it’s ok, then ask for a medical person, take the person out of the room. And then reset the energy of the room. Don’t bring the next act right away.
Remember, you are a candy wrapper. You are not the candy. Nobody is there to see you. You don’t have to fake high energy. A common mistake I see is people trying hard to be like “hello! welcome to the show! make a big applause!” – when maybe that’s not their natural energy. An audience can always feel when something is off. If you are a low energy host, be a low energy host. It’s perfectly fine, you don’t need to dance or jump. Don’t try to be the person you are not. What makes you comfortable, will make an audience comfortable.
Have a good time. You have to be there the whole night, so make sure you enjoy the process.
Don’t lose hope: here is the thing, if you as a performer die on stage, that’s it, you can go to the bar, have a couple of drinks, go home and sleep over it. As a host, if you die, you have to keep coming on stage, so you will have to die another 10 times that night. Don’t give up, you have to keep confidence, because once you lose confidence, the audience will feel it, and that’s the end. You can make fun of yourself being a bad host, but if you start looking defeated on stage, the audience will feel it. The best way to bounce back is to tell everybody that you are feeling defeated. That will get a laugh and will relax the atmosphere.
Be a professional. This is a line I use a lot. Often at shows only two people get paid, the headliner and the host. So when you are hosting, you are no longer doing a hobby, you are doing a job. Behave professionally.
Get there early, at least 15-20 minutes before the show, it will give you a chance to settle down and relax, so you don’t have to run on stage, but also you can check if everything is OK, maybe sometimes chairs need to be arranged, or there is a last-minute change with the line up. Maybe you have a VIP in the audience – do you mention them, you don’t mention them? And also, you can go to the toilet.
Check with the showrunner: get all the last minute information, and to make sure you know where they are at the end of the night. They are the ones who will pay you.
Wear a watch: I have seen many comedians 15 years into the business who don’t wear a watch, and they don’t get booked on big shows or on television because nobody trusts they will keep the time. As an MC, always wear a watch, you are the timekeeper, and always be on time. You cannot expect discipline from your performers if you are not disciplined yourself.
I recommend a simple, plain watch, don’t wear a big shiny Rolex because it will distract the audience. I use a very simple rubber one, with a white background and black numbers. Easy to see. Some people wear a little Fitbit, because you can see the shiny numbers on the display. How to check the time on stage? There are many tricks. Maybe I ask the audience “How is everybody doing? Make some noise!”, and sneak a peek at the watch. Or I ask a question to somebody in the audience, and look down. It’s a little bit of a cheat, but it’s OK.
Have 15-20 minutes of material as a host. Not a set, just bits. You don’t really need to do 15 minutes. If the show is running well, all you need is 10 minutes, maybe. 7 minutes at the start, 5 minutes after the break. If you are doing your job well, you shouldn’t be doing material in between acts. When hosts get on stage and do material, that confuses me. You don’t need to, if the act does well, just bring on stage the next performer. If they die, then sure, you need to maybe do a bit to reset the room, but you really don’t have to.
I have seen shows that run half an hour or 45 minutes overtime because the host insists to come on stage between the acts – who are killing it! – and do 5 minutes of material. The thinking is “I also want to get a laugh”, but no, you are getting paid, you are doing a job. The less material you do, the better. Because then the comics will have more time, and they will like you more if they have more time. Also, you are getting paid anyway, so do less. Always be lazy as a host. Do as little as you can.
[Q] Did you learn this from your life and stage experience, or did you get trained yourself?
No, I didn’t get specific training. It’s all life experience. I started hosting when I was 2 years into comedy, and I was really terrible, I needed to get better, or I wouldn’t be booked again. That’s why I want to do this, you can do a lot of workshops on how to be a comic, but nobody will tell you how to be a good host. And hosting is very important.
Timing. How do you time an act? Personally, I am very much a time nazi. If it’s ten minutes, I will ding or flash at nine. You can ask what is each performer’s preference, if they want a one minute warning, or two minutes. If you are doing open mics, don’t ask. You tell them. They can’t be a diva at open mics. When you are doing a showcase, ask before, because maybe a performer wants to know when they have 3 minutes left, because they have a bit set as an ending that lasts three minutes.
Also, when you flash, make sure the performers see you. This is the most common mistake I see: a lot of people don’t see your light, or if they are arrogant, they will pretend they didn’t see the flash.
[Q] What to do then?
Tell them before, this will be the ding, this will be the light. If you think they are going to be problematic, ask them to get on stage before the show starts and check with them: “do you see the light from there?”. And if they don’t see the light, just go as close as you can to the stage. It doesn’t matter. Yes, it’s going to interrupt their flow, it will annoy them, but the show is more important than whether they are happy or not. It’s the show you need to take care of.
Cut or give more time is subjective. If you have more time, give them more time but if the show is running late, just flash them.
What happens if they don’t want to get off stage? Do not be shy about it. I have cut mics on comics. I have literally taken the bell and dinged them as I walked on stage. Or take the light and start waving at them like at a concert. Do not be shy about it. Yes, it is not the best because it will disrupt the show, but the comic is disrupting the show by not getting off stage, so you are limiting damage.
[Q] Would you do it even to a headliner or to a famous comedian?
Depends. If we are running seriously out of time and need to clear out, they will understand. But I would tell them before the show: “Hey we have to close at this time”. With professionals the thing is, normally they are famous because they are really good. I have to do all these things when performers are really bad. Or they are running way over and they are not the closing act, but if they are not the closing act they are not the most famous person on the bill, so they can shut the fuck up and get off the stage.
Unless, of course, Bill Burr comes to town and he goes waaay over, you don’t get Bill Burr off stage. That would be the one exception to the rule. Everybody else, if somebody complains and has to tell you that they are big, they are not really big.
[Q] A visiting comedian or famous comedian comes to town, would you always put them as the headliner?
Yes of course, because people are there to see the famous person, nobody is there to see the comedian after the celebrity.
[Q] What if it’s a surprise appearance?
If it’s not planned, you do your show as you planned it, and then after the end you announce “Hey guys, this is the end of the show as we planned it, however we have a bonus performer visiting tonight, a very special guest…”. Always have them at the end. If it’s possible, make the announcement before the break, so the audience knows “Oh my god, there is an extra performer at the end”, and nobody leaves. If the celebrity has to leave before the end, have a break right after them. Nobody wants to follow the most famous act. Give the room some time to reset.
How to make Announcements: before the show, as the “voice of God” (offstage), make all the announcements like where the toilets are, where is the smoking point, you are starting in 5 minutes. This is important so people can get their last drink or go to the toilet, and be there when the show starts. “Hey, this is your last call for drinks before the show starts”.
Project confidence is a very important rule, you can break this rule if your character is the uncomfortable host. You are the face of the show, show that you know what you are doing, even if you don’t know what you are doing. This is a tip for every type of performer, really.
Different ways to start:
Voice of god (VOG): off stage, a voice goes “Ladies and gentlemen, your host for tonight…!”. This could be done by you, or someone else.
Someone’s intro: another person gets on stage and introduces you: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host for tonight, <this person>!”
Your own intro: you walk on stage and introduce yourself, “Ladies and gentlemen, I will be your host for tonight, <name>!” I sometimes combine these two, I say “Please welcome on stage your host, Sam See!”, then I walk off stage and on again: “Hello, it’s me, we don’t have money for a proper introduction!”. Just for the laughs.
Just start: this is the worst, just walk on the stage and “Hey, welcome to the show!”. It’s the worst because all the other ways force the audience to give an applause, to focus attention. With this one, often there is no special result.
How to start the show:
1. Say hello: just be polite.
2. Welcome them in: welcome to whatever the name of the place is, let them know where they are – sometimes when you are in clubs with many rooms, people don’t know where they are, there may be more than one event in the venue. And it’s always nice to acknowledge the place that is hosting the event.
3. Force them to react: make them cheer, make them scream, make some noise. Why is it important? Because it stops the conversation. People are there chatting with their friends or outside smoking: when they hear the first applause, they know the show is starting. It’s a Pavlovian response. So it gets them focus on you, lets them know they will have to obey your command, it stops the talking, and lets people outside know the show is starting.
This is even before introducing yourself.
Now this is important, don’t jump straight into the show. Let people know what is going to happen. If it’s a show in two halves, how many acts there are, if there is a special headliner, etc. This is especially important when a scene is new or the audience doesn’t know how comedy works. By doing this you set the expectations for them. Let them know how many breaks there are, so they know when they can go for drinks, and so on.
This is also the moment to set ground rules, things like no pictures, no filming, room etiquette etc. This is not so necessary anymore…
[Q] Well, not so much, sometimes you have stag parties, rowdy tourists… how do you manage the “shut the fuck up”?
What I do, personally, I say “Let them [the performers] talk. They have all this good stuff prepared for you, and maybe you want to say something, but it’s going to ruin the moment, it makes everybody’s night worse, people are here to hear the acts. If you want to say something, come talk to me as a host, between the acts or when I am on stage, but when the comics are on, respect what they are doing”.
[Q] And do you do this before the show, or only if something happens?
Normally, only if somebody starts to yell. I always set the conditions, if you guys behave, we are going to have a good show. So when they don’t, you warned them. When something goes wrong, you can go “I told you”.
After all this is done, start with your stuff. The question is, material or no material? Crowd work yes or no? I say, don’t listen to so many opinions from people. Do what works for you. Sometimes you have to base it on the show, I would say a healthy balance is ideal. You have to listen to the room. Crowd work is great to get the room ready for the [comedy] material. And sometimes if the crowd is very new to comedy, it is my job to do a little bit of material, to let them know how jokes work.
[Q] Right, so you would do it to educate the audience?
I don’t say “here is how a joke works”, I show them. And if it doesn’t work, it’s me biting the bullet, and I can always say this is how things work, and these guys [the performers] do it better than me. You must always be willing to fall on your sword for the acts, if you suck on stage, it’s fine, as long as they don’t.
When, as a host, you do 3-5 minutes and you get an applause, great, you don’t need to do any more material or crowd work. I know hosts who will go on stage, get an applause after their first joke. Great. But then, they go on with the rest of their bit. Why do they do that? Audiences have an energy level. The more you are on stage, the more you burn their energy. The fact that you are getting an applause means that the audience is ready for the show, for the acts. Let them have it.
Why shouldn’t you do all your bit? Because a) you are just eating the energy of the audience, b) you take too much applause for yourself, c) so the next time they come and see your show, they’ll go “oh, you wrote new material!”. No, you just did less the first time. They think you are a better performer than you are, let them have their fantasy.
It’s important to remember that you want the comics to get the biggest applause, when you are about to peak, get off and bring the acts on.
Manage the time: if you go over, don’t do material in the second half, just bring in the next comedian. Some hosts do just a quick banter or joke between the acts; if you know you are running out of time, don’t do it and just bring on the next act.
Don’t do John Atherton. If you don’t know who he is, I will tell you. He is the best and the worst host in the world. He is just an amazing performer, can crowd work with anybody, knows seven or eight different languages, he makes everybody feel at home. The problem is, he does thirty minutes in between each act. The shows last three, four hours if they are run by him. Comedians are basically guests in his one-man show.
Also, don’t do the “mic-stand cha-cha”. “Alright, I will bring on the next act” <puts the mic in the stand>, “He is from the Czech Republic” <takes again the mic from the stand>, “So I was in the Czech Republic last year…”, and tells another joke. No: when the mic is in the stand, leave it there and bring the next act. It’s so tempting when the audience is good, and you are killing it. But you are not the act, you are hosting the show, be a professional.
Introduce the acts. When introducing a performer, say their name last. That always triggers a response from the audience. “And now, a great performer, <name of the persooooon>!”.
Credits. When you deal with people who have very long names, or names you can’t pronounce, or have credits to be mentioned, don’t be afraid to bring a piece of paper on stage and read it. A clipboard will make you look even more professional, like you are in charge. If people give you too many credentials to read, ask them “ok, give me just one”.
The best is to ask the acts how they want to be introduced. Sometimes you bring an act and you may have a little joke, like “the next guest is from Russia, it’s such a democratic country”… and that was precisely the first joke of their set. Make sure you are not eating into their material, ask them first.
Or I know a guy who used to do this, when introducing an act: “our next act is a great comic, he has this joke…” and then, he told the joke! That was years ago, he doesn’t do it anymore.
Ask headliners or visiting acts how to pronounce their names correctly. You don’t need to ask everybody else: if they care, they will let you know. They will always let you know. And if they complain “Why didn’t you ask me?”, you can say “Why didn’t you let me know”?
Some hosts like to insult or make fun of acts, or of their accents. Don’t do it too much, you look like a dick. If you want to insult an act, do an insult sandwich: he is a great comedian, a wonderful friend, he has got a tiny penis, but I have known him for years and he is a great act. So, you see? Praise-insult-praise.
Don’t say things like “The only female comedian of the night”: guess what? They will find out. Let the audience see it by themselves. It’s not helping performers, actually, it’s putting more stress on the act. Bring them on as you would any other act. “We have an Indian man: the only Indian in the line-up!”. Don’t do that. Just treat everyone with respect.
Outros. After the acts have done their sets. You can’t always ask the audience to clap it up or make some noise, it gets annoying. Change words. So sometimes just use a phrase like “This was <name of the performer>, everybody”.
Virgins. Always tell the audience if a comedian is doing it for the first time. Because it gets goodwill on their side, and it lets them fuck up, the audience is willing to allow fuck-ups if it’s a first time performer. Acknowledge it also in the outro. “Would you guys like to see them another time here with us?” Do it even if it’s an open mic. If they did poorly, don’t say anything, but if they did well, make sure to acknowledge it.
A similar situation if a comedian has been away from the scene for some time, maybe introduce them in a little different way, “this guy has been away, he is a little bit rusty, but let’s welcome him back…”.
Visiting acts: just say “We have a visiting act from <there>”. This guy may not have a complete mastery of the local language.
[Q] Would you mention it?
Depends. I wouldn’t mention it in a negative way (“He cannot speak English so well”), I would highlight the positive: “Here is a guy from Japan, he speaks Japanese, he is performing here for us and it’s not even his first language!”. It’s pretty much a “show, don’t tell” thing. Also, after an act, I wouldn’t say “Well, this was shit”, I would say “Hey, these are all the things he has to go through!” and let people interpret.
First act. It’s one of the toughest spots of the night. I always put more effort into introducing the first one, getting the audience warmed up, saying “You are going to give them everything you have, right?”.
Don’t spoil the acts: some performers do a variety act, with a musical instrument, puppets, magic tricks, etc. Check with them. You don’t want to spoil the big reveal of their act, check with the performers what they want you to mention. If you don’t know what to say, just go with “The next act will be something a little bit different from usual”.
What happens when they die? There are three options. Number 1, you don’t mention it, carry on, do a bit of material to clean up the show, or bring on the next act if you don’t have time. Number 2, address it but supportive: “Hey, comedy is hard! Let’s give it up one more time for <name>”. Number 3, if they die and they were horrible, hating on women or racist and so on, then you have to call them on like, “This is not what we support”, fuck it.
[Q] Would you literally say on stage “This is not what we support”?
I would maybe say something like “So, that happened. Don’t worry guys, we are not all assholes like that guy”. Do it in your own way. I mean, you don’t have to get all serious, “We don’t condone those words”, but let everyone know that even if it’s a comedy show, that is bullshit and you know it.
[Q] Would you then confront the performer off-stage?
Yeah, I would ask what the hell was that about? Because, sometimes when people do really fucked up stuff, they try to hide behind a character, but everybody can see it’s just them being assholes. You have to approach it better. I would say that when you do really dark jokes or fucked up material… jokes are like currency. You do a joke that they like, you get some coins. You do a great joke, you get a lot of coins. You do fucked up jokes, they cost “money” to buy. And if you keep doing it, you have no money left, you are basically getting these “IOUs” [an IOU is a debt notice] from audience members, and they will stop it at some point. So either you get behind a persona and you do it well, so people can say “Ok, this cannot be true”, or you are good enough on stage so you can do some nice jokes, earn a bunch of coins, and then burn them back.
Going to break: just before going to the break, thank once again all the acts of the first half. And after a break, welcome back the audience, and have them make some noise.
End of the show: wrap things up, no more material or bits after the last act. You can do a few finishing quips, say thanks to the bar staff, the technicians, check with the showrunner if there is any promotion to be made, upcoming shows and stuff. Give it up for all the acts, the headliner, the audience if you want – not a big fan of that – introduce yourself one last time, my name is so and so, here is where you can find me, and good night everybody!
Get paid. Go find where the showrunner is, and get what’s yours.
How to deal with compliments: 80-90% of the time when dealing with compliments, performers go like “Yeah, but I didn’t really do that good of a set”, or “That didn’t work”. Never tell them what went wrong. Never reveal your secrets. Always say “Thank you”, because it takes a lot of courage to come to you and say it was nice, they made the effort to find you and say you did a good job, don’t tell them “Oh but that didn’t work”. If they say “I liked this bit”, regardless of what you think, even if it’s the bit that died the most, just say “Thank you”. Take the compliment, and move on. Because if you say something bitching, it makes it awkward for everybody. Then go on and tell them where can they find you, promote your work.
[Q] How to deal with criticism? Some mad guy comes at you and says “I really hated that performer”, or “I hated that joke”.
I say “Thank you so much, I’ll take it into consideration”. Take it like customer service. “Thank you for your feedback, we’ll get back to you in three to fourteen days. I hope you enjoyed all the other comedians you saw”. And if they still go “Yeah, but that guy…”, “Well, comedy is such”.
[Q] There is also “You should never joke about…”. Sometimes they want to lecture you.
Well, I’ll go: “Thank you for your feedback, it’s nice to know that you are passionate about this. Thank you for coming to the show, I hope to see you again”.
[Q] You don’t engage then.
No, I am not going to fight them. Unless I am really tired, or they are really dumb, if I get really annoyed at them, then I am like “Oh? Here is my rape joke. Does it make it worse? I don’t give a shit”. Sometimes people who are not in the industry just need to complain, but don’t know what they are talking about. So, “Thank you for your feedback”.
[Q] What happens when a room dies? Or when it goes really crazy?
You need to reset the energy, either you do material, or you go into a break. If somebody has killed it very hard, also reset, make life easier for the next performer. I would just talk to some people. “How are you doing, sir?” That would level down the energy.
Heckling: most of the time hecklers are not mean, they are just very excited. You ask: “How many people have been to the States?” Somebody answers: “I have!” and then the comedian goes “Shut the fuck up, bitch”. They are not heckling! Once you ask rhetorical questions, be prepared that somebody may answer it. Sometimes they want to add something: “I have a child too, and it’s very noisy!”, then you can just go on, or take it on board, like “Thank you”, or “Really? Me too, and let me tell you what happened”. The only time when you really have to deal with hecklers is when they are really rowdy, or when they aggressively insult you or the performers.
I normally use a rule of three, “Hey keep it down”, number one. Number two is “You are talking a bit too much, you kinda have really to shut up”, number three is “Ok, you want a fight”. Give them a chance to learn they shouldn’t be doing this. But if they insist, go for it, insult, everything goes. It’s ok, the audience will be on your side, they will think “This guy warned you, why you won’t listen?”
[Q] Would you involve the audience then? “What should we do with this guy?”
I would be careful with this one, because the audience has to be on your side. If you can see they are really annoyed at the guy, and they love you, you can do it. But there was this once when the heckler was being funnier than the comedian. That didn’t end well.
Building the line-up: mix them. The things that matter are: energy, content and experience. Balance them. Put your best acts closing the show, the not so good acts in the middle. If you have five acts, three and four can be the weaker spots.
[Q] You are based in Singapore. How did you start?
I started on the first of April in Singapore in 2012. I won a television competition, and one of the other contestants was a drag queen, of all people, who also did stand-up comedy. And she said, “I want to take you to an open mic”. I tried, I was terrible, and I thought “I love it, and I can do better”.
[Q] Give a tip to performers who fail real bad.
Don’t worry. The one tip I give is the 11 AM rule. No matter how much you die, or how much you kill, you can keep your emotions with you. But the next day, try to look at what happened objectively, what worked and what not, and start focusing on the next gig. Always focus on the next gig, not on the last one.
[Q] Two inspirations for you?
John Hopkins, the Renaissance Man of comedy, he does everything. He taught me that I can do what I want, just to be entertaining. And of course, Joan Rivers and Don Rickles. The King and Queen of crowd work, interaction, being a dick to people, but getting them to love it.
Thank you very much, Sam! I loved to meet you. And a big thanks to Joanna Sio who introduced us, great comedian and teacher of comedy herself.
Best of luck with the rest of your European tour and may the odds (of comedy) always be in your favor!