Monday, July 15, 2013

Why So Emcerious?: On Emceeing A Wedding Reception

I see in this picture a man nervous about speaking in public. Or maybe it's just a crooning Elvis and I'm weird.

Don't take any lip, stay in line, 
Everybody's talking at the same time. 
—"Everybody's Talking at the Same Time," Tom Waits

A couple months back, I went to a friend's wedding. The wedding itself was a slightly loopy affair, taking place in two languages (English and Spanish), with original content in both and little translation from one to the other. My favorite part: the Spanish-only duet from the bride's aunt and mother, sung entirely in unison and with earth-shaking intensity. Seriously, it was nuts. Also: two separate wedding sermons and two sets of vows. Whoa.*

The real spectacle, though, was the reception. It was a many-tabled affair, a vast and frenetic smorgasbord, packed with hungry and talkative people, and Jarritos and bags of coffee on every table.** Yet it was all being run like a well-oiled machine by one man: the bride's brother, who served as the reception's emcee. This man was not only keeping the ceremonies moving, but he was also doing it with style, tossing off little jokes and comments at appropriate moments and with just the right tone, engaging people's interest but still staying out of the way of their good time. "Wow," I thought at one point that evening, "I never gave it much thought before, but being an emcee at a big wedding reception seems really tough. I would probably suck at that."

This guy looks pretty capable. He's got suspenders.

So a few weeks later, when a friend struck up a conversation with me by saying, "Hey James, would you be the emcee at my wedding?" my natural response was "Of course I will, man! I'd love to do that. I'm sure I would do a great job. WAIT, I'm sorry, are you being serious?" I had such a boundlessly low opinion of my ability to perform this critical wedding function that I naturally assumed my friend was joking when he suggested I perform it. But technically I had already said yes, so when I found out he was serious, I agreed to do it anyway. 

Flash forward to the week of the wedding: I'd largely forgotten about my impending emceeing responsibilities, and suddenly I got a Facebook message listing them out, complete with numbers and sub-headings. It started with the following:
1. Dress to impress.
    a. Duh!
    b. You got that under control 
2. You will do a welcome
3. Lead in table games
    a. mad lib
    b. activity...
Regarding "dress to impress:" I have it under control sometimes. And sometimes I look like a sloppy goof.

It got more involved after that, but you get the idea. Lighthearted in tone but not exactly brief. I was a little intimidated, as well as annoyed at myself for not having done some mental prep before now.

Even though I am an acknowledged introvert, I've done some public speaking, and have even occasionally gone out of my way to do so. The trouble is, when I go out of my way to talk to an audience, it's typically because I want to tell them a story, a story I've thought long and hard about, and they're usually there to listen to me. Being the emcee at a wedding is pretty much the opposite: it's not a story—it's who's going to the buffet line next and announcing that the cake is getting cut—and you need to make up what you're going to say on the spot, and no one really wants to listen to you all that much. You need to speak slowly and clearly, or people won't know what's going on and they will be annoyed. But you can’t take too long about it, or people will stop paying attention, and then they won't know what's going and they will be annoyed. It's a tough gig. "Good luck making it funny or entertaining on top of it all," I thought.

Dude will probably be more prepared than I was for the reception. He might be taking it a bit far.

Fortunately, things turned out to be much easier than my worries allowed for. When I got to the wedding, I was handed a piece of paper with a list of things I needed to announce, and told who to talk to if I wasn't sure what to do next. This eased my burden from "MAKE IT ALL UP ON THE SPOT" to "make up what you're going to say about these thing in this order," which was a considerable relief. Then the wedding happened, it was lovely, and we moved into the reception hall, which was a huge gymnasium full of tables and food and party favors and activities, with hundreds of people to corral.

I got on the mic and told people what they needed to do to get started. And then they did those things. I started to feel less nervous as I realized folks were actually going to listen to me. Maybe it was just because I was loud (super good sound system in that gym), but it took surprisingly little effort to get people to pay attention.

 At all events, when the wedding party arrived, I announced them in my biggest most sports stadium announcer-like voice and got the crowd to give the bride and groom a standing ovation. I started feeling comfortable with my role; I dismissed tables, announced found cell phones, and introduced toasts, all with greater ease and enjoyment than I'd expected. I even got in a few jokes, like this one:
"And now it's time for the couple's first dance! Folks, this is, in fact, the first time these two have ever danced with each other."
[look of panic from the couple]
"No, not really, I just made that up."
[look of relief from the couple and laughter from the guests]  
At the end of the wedding, my newlywed friends came and thanked me. "You were definitely the right man for the job," I was told, which made my heart glow. I think I'm ready to try it again sometime.

* I mentioned to a friend that I'd been at this wedding and he remarked that hadn't made it, but that he'd heard it was super traditional. "There were ... traditions," I replied, unable to articulate in any way how unusual the thoroughly bilingual experience had seemed at the time.
** These were from the bride’s family farm in Guatemala. They just might be my favorite party favor ever—in concept if not in reality, as I don’t drink coffee for similar but not exactly the same reasons as Hank Venture (i.e., it will make me jittery and unable to sleep but it won't make me stay up all night building Murphy beds, nor, alas, will it turn me into Jungle Batman).
† I don't think we need to go into detail about my internal debate over whether to spell this word "MC" or "emcee." Suffice it to say my choice was made based on how easy it would be to make the spelling fit into a pun for the title of this post, which is both a reference to a The Dark Knight and a tribute to the emcee in question, who I remember being obsessed with the movie before it came out.

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