James L Mattern is one of an elite group of the most respected emcees in New York City. He’s steered the ship of countless shows at nearly every club in the city, has appeared on Garbage Time and 2 Point Lead, and co-hosts two terrific podcasts – Robo v The Dog with Yannis Pappas and the Game of Thrones-themed Say It Ain’t Snow. Mattern was recently tapped to host the flagship stand-up showcase for Kevin Hart’s new streaming service, LOL Live, and knocked it out of the park with almost a dozen shows during JFL. James is also a giver, and would like to offer up his comedy Yoda services to all you emcee padawans out there.
Dude let’s face it. Comedy is REAL tough. Drunk crowds, loud servers, bad sound systems, yourself. These are all contributing factors to things going south quicker than the “The Red Wedding” did. So with all these variables, it’s really nice if the host of a show helps make things easier and not more difficult.
I have made a living as a comic in NYC for years without a “major” TV credit. How? Because I’ve been willing to host shows. And to host as best I could to help my fellow comics, the audience and the staff of the club have a great experience. It’s not that difficult to do. Unfortunately on my nights not hosting, I see lots of bad habits that create a horrible domino effect. Host does something to derail the comic, comic then details show, which makes the audience member question why they ever came to the club, which leads to the club hitting the dumps financially. End game? We are fighting dirty pigeons for bread crumbs in the park.
Here’s a few things I’ve learned over the years to help us all stay out of the park.
Remember I’m not an expert. But these tips have helped me pay rent for the last couple years. Hopefully they help you as well.
1. Be Selfless. The key to hosting is realizing that you are not the star. Showcase shows in NYC and LA are exactly that. A SHOWCASE. It’s there to serve as a buffet. A bunch of flavors and styles for the masses to enjoy. The crowds are full of unique people. They are all snowflakes. Even if the show is booked perfectly, there is a great chance that not every act will connect with 100% of the audience. That’s where the host comes in. Hopefully the trust that you build up front leads the audience into embracing acts that they usually wouldn’t.
And if the act doesn’t connect with everyone (or, in some cases, anyone) then the job of the host is to get the crowd reconnected. Win back their faith and make them enjoy the show and help erase any moments they didn’t enjoy.
2a. The time you do is only to service the show and the other acts. To make a sports metaphor: The emcee is like a point guard in basketball. The steerer of the ship. It’s your job to help maximize the skills of all your acts. The emcee is the tone setter. After the time up front, the job becomes passing the ball. Making the situation as positive and comfortable as the next act wants.
If you can crush upfront great. If not. It’s okay. As long as the crowd trusts, likes and listens to you, business can be done. Yes, I want to kill up front. It’s the easiest way to feel like you did your job. In all honesty, it also reminds me that I’m good. But sometimes it doesn’t happen. And unlike the other acts, the host has to keep coming back onstage. Which means pride needs to be swallowed. I have seen too many hosts try and get themselves over throughout the night. Wanting to win the crowd over for themselves. To prove they are funny. Look, just like a point guard, your job is to feed the ball and help the others score. You only score when it’s needed. If other comics are struggling, but you can deliver laughs, please DO IT!! But if everyone is delivering, only do time when needed – Audience member gets up or yells something between acts, a comic kills real hard or dies real hard, a comic’s energy or style does not blend well with the act before which might lead to a rough transition if that act is brought right up – please do time. But try to get in and out. High energy kill in front of a quiet storyteller? Just reset the room with relaxed statements. Stoic joke teller in front of a high energy act? Maybe prod the audience real quick with energy and crowd work. WHATEVER needs to be done to set the next act up as best as possible. Back to the point guard analogy: Feed the wings and post players the ball in the spot that best leads them to score.
Please do not suck up the good laughs of a great club between every act. By the time the CLOSER (we’ll get to this in awhile) gets to the stage, the crowd might be too tired to share the love they have been giving to everyone else. Only do time when it helps the show. The other comics will appreciate it.
Basically what I’m saying is DON’T BE A BALL HOG!!!!
2b. Do Not Do Bits After the Last Act. Part of not ball hogging is not doing bits after the last act.This one drives me nuts. Are you serious?!!!!? You are going to launch into jokes after the show ends? The last act is exactly that. Last. You are the server. Stop bringing food to the table. Everyone is stuffed. Give the announcements, talk from the heart, give your plugs (quickly), and say good night. If a funny ad lib happens in the middle of that, super. If not just close up shop. Doing time after the last act is an unbelievable act of disrespect. On par with calling someone’s mom the c-word or spitting on someone. To be honest, it upsets me more than if you spit on me while calling my mom the c-word. Most comics struggle with loving themselves. Doing time after, even if the act crushes is known to lead an act to a downward spiral of self doubt and possibly rage. Just say good night and thank you. That’s it. The party ended on a bang. And even if it didn’t. If they liked you all night, just close with a smile. It’ll be fine. Now, if everyone struggled including you, just end it. This wasn’t anyone’s night. Don’t try and chase laughs from a crowd that didn’t want to be there.
The only time it’s acceptable to do time at the end is if something crazy happens during the last act. Meltdown, crowd unruliness or an absolute code red bomb. Like, NO laughs at all and utter uncomfortableness. But these things are rare. Once in a great moon they might happen. And if they do, please deliver the goods. Just remember, you are doing that for the crowd to go home happy. Not for your own ego. Once again. It’s all about servicing the show.
3. The last act is not the headliner. There is no headliner in a showcase show. Headliners perform on the road or in a casino (or Carolines or Gotham) for decent to great money with one to possibly three acts in front of them.
Not for $20-75 dollars at a city club with 4-7 acts ahead of them. This puts pressure on the act that the last performer does not need. Especially on a weekday when they may only be working on new material.
Another thing to remember when describing the last act as a headliner is that describing the act as that is simply a lie. This is a showcase. The final act was not the act that everyone bought a ticket for. I was once brought up in Times Square to a bunch of stars-in-their-eyes tourists as “the act you all came to see.” No I’m not. I’m just the guy available to go last that the booker thought was going to send enough people home happy.
Also they didn’t come to see me. The crowd in all honesty thought they were going to see Louie or Tina Fey. And saying the phrase ” the act you all came to see” reminds them of the lie after the actual quality of the show made them forget that someone on the street sold them nonsense headliners. The host that night thought he was helping. But he buried me in a pit of quicksand. On a night where I really wanted to see if my new jokes would work. Instead a proverbial knife fight broke out between myself and the audience.
This can be avoided by using these wordings: Closer, our last act, or final performer. You also just tell the audience there is one act left. And then just bring them up. Done. Good job. That’s it. No huge build up – saving the best for last, the only act that matters, the greatest comic in the world. Just “your last act.” Period.
4. Give the performer the intro they want…unless it’s absolute lies or promoting another venue. That’s pretty simple right? Well this gets screwed up as well. Look, it’s hard to remember names, enunciations, and credits. But try. That’s it. Please try. And if the TV show that the performer is on slips your mind then just say what comes to the head. The credits don’t really matter, to be honest. I personally only use things that I can promote. But whatever the comic wants, I will give. I want the act to feel as comfortable as possible. Once again, give the other players the ball where they want it.
A couple months back I had a host bring me up with a real credit then ask as I’m walking onstage “what were you on?” Then gave a clearly bullshit credit like a fictional title. Thanks, bubbas. Does anyone think that sets up the performer in any way that is helpful? This is once again an example of selfishness. The host was killing all night and doing a lot of time between comics. He felt like it was his show. This was a way of reminding me that he was Superman and that his cape was unflappable. This is an absolute no-no. All else fails and you forget a credit just go generic or speak from the heart – “Very funny,” “plays all over,” “club regular” “one of my favorites.” Those all work. And then apologize offstage for forgetting. Don’t be a chump and give a credit that they clearly have not done. If the act has been on Colbert, but you say Conan, no big deal. But if they have been on VH1 and you say they wrote “Goodfellas” that is going to make the audience question the validity of you, the comics, and the whole show. Just set them up and make them comfortable. That’s it.
In closing. I’m no genius. These are things I’ve noticed in 15 years of comedy and 10 years hosting in NYC. And, of course, these are not full proof. There will be exceptions to the rules at times. I think hosting is just like life. And in life, I simply abide by the golden rule. I do unto others as I would like done onto me. How would you like a show to be run that you are doing a spot on? That’s it. You won’t be perfect. God knows I’m not. However a little bit of effort towards your fellow comic goes a long way in helping them not want to jump off a bridge before, after or even during their set. And y’know, sometimes the crowd finds themselves happy as well. Win win baby. Win win.