As audience members exit a stand-up comedy club after a show, hopefully high on laughter and a little sore in the midsection, they often discuss their favorite performers or the jokes that hit them the hardest. What they probably don’t cover is the blink-and-you-miss-it critical event that occurs between each act: the “bring-up.” Industry parlance for comedian introductions carried out by a host, the “bring-up” contributes mightily to a show’s success, even if it’s immediately forgotten by almost everyone in the room.
“It’s overlooked, even by us in this business,” says James Mattern, a comic who hosts gigs across the country. “It’s important to sell the next act as much as possible.”
An effective bring-up communicates that sentiment best, keeping the crowd engaged and excited. Comedian Jessica Kirson, who’s hosted shows at Gotham Comedy Club and the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan, says of the bring-up, “There’s an art to it.” An art born of careful considerations and strategy.
Typically, the host opens a show with a few minutes of material to warm up the crowd. They also introduce the comics and keep track of their stage time, signaling them when it’s nearly up. But in the interim, the host carefully plots their next bring-up, taking the temperature of the audience as they respond to the previous performer. Sometimes the circumstances call for the host to dive into some more material — across an as-yet-determined amount of time — and sometimes it doesn’t.
Jon Laster, a regular host at the Cellar, says the host’s aim is to have the crowd’s energy “at a boil” when they execute the bring-up. Likening the job of host to that of a pace car — someone who “sets the rules” of the night — Laster adds that the bring-up also plants seeds of host credibility in the crowd and establishes trust that whomever they introduce to the stage throughout the show will be funny.
If the crowd energy is already where the host wants it by the time they’re back onstage after a set, they simply have to “keep it rolling,” says Tracey Carnazzo, who’s run many shows throughout her career. In such cases, she’ll do a drive-by bring-up, quickly saying something like “I’ve got more show for you!” before announcing the next comic right away.
Jon Fisch, the Cellar host who brought up Ray Romano in his 2019 Netflix special, says he keeps an eye out for distracted audience members between sets. When servers are taking orders, for example, Fisch will do a brief, tried-and-true bit to eat up some time and get a laugh from whoever’s paying attention. Sometimes, even if the previous comic killed, counterintuitively he’ll take an extra moment onstage to neutralize the energy.
“I want everybody focused,” Fisch says. “I don’t want anybody talking to each other about the last act in the audience; I try to bring people up with a clean slate, so it’s a fresh start for this comic and the audience.”
Pay close enough attention to bring-ups and you’ll hear some stock phrases. Cellar host Sean Donnelly calls “Let’s keep that energy going” a cliché but nonetheless an “effective line.” He says directing positive reinforcement at the audience is helpful, too, because “they’re insecure sometimes.”
Bring-ups might also be personalized, with the host declaring that they’re close friends with the next comic or that they appreciate their act. “If I’m working with people that I actually have been around with and care for and like watching, I add some of those things,” Mattern says. “I try and be as sincere as possible so people get that I’m not lying.”
Another staple of the bring-up is the list of credits — like TV shows, movies, or festivals where the comic has appeared. But for something that’s utilized so often to convince an audience that the looming act is worth paying attention to, credits are not an element of the bring-up held in high regard by hosts. Almost everyone in the room will forget the credits seconds after they’re recited, and if the performer is famous, credits aren’t necessary at all. “Nobody cares about credits,” says Joyelle Nicole Johnson, a prolific host and comic based in Atlanta. “Literally, no one cares.”
Laster recalls playing Cellar emcee one night in 2017 when Ryan Hamilton gave way to Dave Attell, who was followed by Jerry Seinfeld, then Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Aziz Ansari, and, finally, Dave Chappelle. The headliner reportedly told the crowd, “You guys saw a billion dollars’ worth of comedians tonight,” and Laster says he had his easiest evening ever as host. All he had to do was say the performers’ names.
Credits can serve a more utilitarian purpose, though, as a timing mechanism that will compel an audience to build applause as the next comic makes their way to the stage. Some hosts also use the credits to set up opening jokes for a comic.
“With Dane Cook, I love bringing up how many times he sold out Madison Square Garden,” says Tehran Von Ghasri, a frequent host at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, where Cook is a regular. Working off that credit, Cook will get a quick laugh when he sarcastically notes that the Laugh Factory is quite a comedown from the likes of MSG. And when Von Ghasri brings up Alex Thomas, he’s sure to mention that all of Thomas’s most notable credits — Martin, In Living Color, The Players Club — came in the 1990s. Thomas will then open his set uttering, “Thanks for making me sound like your grandpa.”
Some comedians admit that hearing a healthy number of credits from a host while they wait in the wings can help boost their self-esteem, reminding them that they’ve accomplished career goals in comedy. Performers can overdo it, however, and give the host a way-too-extensive list of credits. Most experienced hosts will dutifully announce two credits, telling the overeager comic to cut their list down to that figure.
Shoehorning in exaggerated credits can also be counterproductive for a comic. “They’ll say whatever the biggest thing they’ve done is,” Johnson observes about some comics. “It’ll be like, ‘You’ve seen them on SNL,’ and the audience is waiting for a super-famous person, and it’s a person who was on one season of SNL. You can literally feel the audience’s disappointment.”
Among the hardest jobs a host has to accept is bringing up a comic after the previous one bombed. A series of tricks are at the crafty host’s disposal in this scenario, helping them smooth out the transition into the next act.
Running a can’t-miss joke between sets is one tactic, but Donnelly notes that sometimes it confuses an audience. He says they might think, “This person did material already. Are they going again?”
There’s the crowd-work option, too, but if Donnelly is friendly with the comic and they did only moderately poorly, he won’t ignore the unfortunate turn of events. Instead, he’ll address the bomb directly and throw light jabs at the comic for it to break the tension in the room. “I’m not gonna be like, ‘That sucked,’” Donnelly says, emoting moroseness. “I’ve done that, but with assholes.”
Hosts must be “selfless,” says Donnelly, and prioritize the quality of the show above everything else — even their own performance. Delaying the bring-up to tell an unproven joke while riding the wave of positive energy in the crowd, mined by the previous comic, breaks an unwritten bring-up rule. “If you’re trying something brand new that eats it, then you’ve kind of dug a hole for the next person,” Donnelly explains.
“All I ever want a host to do is say my name correctly,” Johnson says.
However, a bad bring-up with a flubbed name can still be alchemized into comedy gold. Tony Deyo, a stand-up who’s hosted his own monthly show at New York Comedy Club in Manhattan, says he once performed at a corporate gig where the host, a bigwig for the show’s sponsor company, brought him up only by his first name. Deyo’s last name had escaped him. “I go up and I make a joke about him forgetting my name, and he goes, ‘I got it half right,’” Deyo remembers. “I’m in a room full of salespeople and I go, ‘Half right? If one of these guys meets half his sales goal are you, like, ‘Eh, that’s okay’?” The gag at the boss’s expense won the audience over, and the rest of his stage time, he says, “went so well I could have recorded an album.”
Johnson always does her best to thwart a dip in crowd energy, even when bringing up a comic she doesn’t care for, as a performer or as a person. “We’ve all had to do that, where you gotta bring up somebody you fuckin’ can’t stand,” she says.
There is one such comic Johnson’s had to introduce on several occasions, and she says that person won’t get an onstage hug at the end of their bring-up. They might be the only one on a bill denied such a show of affection, but Johnson says she’ll still maintain the room’s energy — just with her words.
The art of hosting is arguably more crucial to comedy right now than ever before. Because of COVID-19, in so many parts of the country the club experience has been brought outdoors to parks, rooftops, drive-ins, and parking lots, with varying degrees of success. Zoom also became ubiquitous in 2020. Both options provide audience members an unfortunate amount of distracting environmental stimuli and easy outs. But a good host who sells the comedians on the bill with a tight bring-up can help mitigate these factors.
Taylor Tomlinson, who hosted stand-up performances in her earlier days as a comedian, was thrilled to book a string of outdoor shows in Philadelphia in summer 2020. The gigs did not feature a host, however, to help minimize the risk of virus spread. Her opening act went up cold, did 30 minutes, and handed off the mic to Tomlinson. She says the shows went well, but the host’s presence was certainly missed. “The host’s job is the hardest job on every show, regardless of where it’s located,” Tomlinson says. “When I find one who does a really good job, I try and use them again.”
Two COVID-era stand-up specials last year from Ted Alexandro and Deon Cole shine a spotlight on the bring-up. Both specials feature spliced-together footage of hosts bringing the performers up for a series of sets that ultimately comprise the special. (Safety restrictions didn’t permit them to film a traditional hour at a club or theater in 2020.) Alexandro says the blended opening of his special became a purposeful tip of the cap to hosts. “It’s paying homage to the people you work with and also that specific dynamic of showcasing at clubs, where you can do multiple shows a night, and different people are bringing you up,” he says. “There’s an intimacy over the years; you work with these people so often, so [they’re] your friends, too.”
With clubs beginning to open back up after over a year of shuttered doors, comics are getting the chance to be around those they’ve been closest to in comedy again — and in the case of hosts, reintroduce them to sorely missed stages. “Bringing up people like Adrienne Iapalucci and Sarah Tollemache, and seeing the excitement on people’s faces was incredible,” Carnazzo, who did just that at a recent New York Comedy Club gig, her first hosting gig since COVID-19 shutdowns began, says. “Hosting my hilarious friends helped breathe life back into me as a performer.”
Lessons From Bring-ups
If a comic can master the skills of the job, hosting offers them myriad benefits. “I taught stand-up for a long time, and I told people to try and host, because it really helped me to be in the moment and deal with the crowd,” says Kirson. She adds that skilled hosts work more shows, procuring crucial stage time with which they can develop an act. And in many clubs, hosts are also paid better than the showcasing comics because they have to stick around longer.
The biggest hurdle for many comics who want to host, perhaps, is just checking their egos at the door. “Guess what? It’s not your job to crush,” Mattern says to would-be hosts in the industry. Instead, if the host gives each upcoming act the proper bring-up, he says, exhibiting grace, tact, and — above all — enthusiasm, everyone else on the bill will flourish. “And that’s a win, baby.”