A burlesque emcee and game show host is nothing I ever would have imagined being, before, oh, six years ago. Now it's an integral part of who I am, and I love doing it. It also happens to fit into my skill set, my education to do my actual day job, and my natural comfort in front of groups and being, well, the center of attention. There's a little debate going on on Facebook about a burlesque emcee in another city (who, I don't know) who made some bad decisions about the kind of jokes and terminology she thought was appropriate, and revealed a key element of a performer's upcoming act IN HER INTRO. I responded to that thread with what I think are the three key jobs of an emcee, and I put them forth here as well:
1. Teach the audience how to act during the show and encourage their enthusiasm
2. Keep the show flowing smoothly no matter what happens
3. Make the performers feel supported and comfortable to do what they need to do with minimal stress
Those aren't exactly rocket science. But I've seen plenty of hosts get that balance wrong. And needless to say, SO many get them right. I've been very, very lucky to learn to do what I do in NYC, where there are so many fabulous hosts of all kinds, as well as being exposed to the best from around the country during Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend and other events.
I treat hosting a show as if I'm the biggest fan in the crowd that night. Which I sometimes am. You CANNOT be belligerent or alienate the audience. They HAVE to be in on the joke. They paid to be there, and they're paying you. That doesn't mean that you CAN'T have plenty of good-natured fun with them; you can give an audience member shit if they seem to be able to take it, you can be foul-mouthed and have an attitude, just don't get mean-spirited about it. It's supposed to be fun, for God's sake. (I could give plenty of examples of how beautifully this balance can be struck, but I don't want to leave anyone out, and you know most of them already if you're reading this--or you should! Ok, one example. Miss Astrid.)
And you can totally call out somebody texting or not shutting the fuck up in the back--that benefits everyone, audience and performers included. Just don't berate the WHOLE audience. And remember, it's not their fault if there aren't a lot of them there, don't remind a crowd that it's small: make them feel like they're the lucky ones who made the right decision to come out that night and give you their money.
There are certainly lots of additional jobs/roles/needs that a host needs to fulfill, and while I'm talking about burlesque in particular, I think most of them apply to anyone on the mike hosting a show of the variety/comedy/cabaret/sideshow realm.
Along with the jobs, I think there are three key RULES to being an emcee as well.
1. Be original.
2. Know your audience.
3. It's not about you.
Everybody learns from others and there are plenty of formulas in every show that all hosts have to include ("How many of you have never been to a burlesque show before?"), but figure out your own way of doing them, dammit. And know whether the crowd, the venue and the time of night at the specific show, where you're about to step behind the mike, is the right place to get really raunchy, to keep it classy and erudite, or, you know, some mix of the two. And I include the performers and producers in "audience" here; don't surprise them with an intro that they're going to hate or makes them feel uncomfortable--that doesn't mean you can't be dirty. They should just know what they're getting into with you. And while I love being in the spotlight, and all hosts love their moment to shine with their own shtick (whether it's singing, magic, sword-swallowing or audience participation games, like I do), the most important thing is that the emcee is there to serve the SHOW, not themselves.
I am definitely not making myself out to be King of Hosts. I feel like I've been doing it long enough to have learned all of these lessons either through lots of observation of other hosts that I both respect and admire, and also some I hope I never see again. (and some good hosts having a bad night, too--I've certainly had those.) And I've learned plenty of them through my own mistakes. In the end, I do think that hosting is a skill just like every other kind of performer we share the stage with--not everyone can do it. And go see tons of them before you get behind the mike yourself, that's what I did.
Sorry, that's long-winded. I promise my next post will be some funny shit on YouTube.