|Since I can't find an appropriate photo...|
Back in the ‘50s, rock & roll emerged and radio stations viewed it the way a dog views a pork chop. Top 40 radio was born.
Quick history lesson: Why Top 40? The legend goes that a Kansas City station owned Todd Storz was in a bar one night and people were playing the same songs on the juke box. Over and over. And then when they left and the staff was cleaning up they played the same songs, even though they had heard them repeatedly. A light bulb went off. Program only a limited number of records and play them in constant rotation. Since disc jockey shifts were four hours and they generally played ten records an hour, they decided to call the format Top 40 allowing every disc jockey to play every hit. By the mid ‘60s that became the Top 30, and WABC in New York reduced that further to where the top 5 played every 70 minutes. I know. Just reading that probably sends you screaming for your itunes.
When two or more Top 40 stations competed in a market they did so by trying to make the most noise, have the loudest presentation, craziest contests, and wildest disc jockeys. They screamed, talked from echo chambers, rang cow bells, did voices, played wild tracks – anything to get attention.
Don’t worry. I’m getting to the comedy.
Then in the mid ‘60s, two radio visionaries – Bill Drake and Ron Jacobs – realized that 80% of the time D.J.’s were just spewing nonsense. So they created a format the restricted disc jockey chatter. Music was the key element of the format and disc jockeys had to limit their rap from endless to however much time they had over the intro of a record. How long were song intros back then? Usually between 8 and 15 second.
So that’s how long the D.J. had to talk. Here’s what might surprise you: 15 seconds is an eternity. A skilled disc jockey can say the call letters, his name, the time, song title, artist, and still get in a one liner – without speaking all that fast.
By the ‘70s when I joined the ranks of the hit spinners, this restricted format was now the norm. Since I don’t have the typical James Earl Jones voice I felt compelled to compensate by really being funny and entertaining. You talk about “brevity boot camp.” After a few years of this, and ignoring program director memos saying that I wasn’t funny and should not even try, I did develop a pretty amusing act. (Ironically, once I got out of radio and became a TV writer, limiting my disc jockeying to weekends at TenQ in Los Angeles these same program directors who said I sucked now said they knew all along I was a comic genius.)
When you only have ten seconds you must select the right words and the right number of words, and you must put them in the right order. The punch line has to come right before the vocal. And you learn delivery. You can’t rush your one-liner. Yes, you might squeeze it in, but if the audience doesn’t hear it clearly they won’t laugh. And here’s something else to consider: pauses are effective. Just because you have ten seconds doesn’t necessarily mean you have to talk for all ten seconds. A seven-second joke with a well placed pause might get a bigger laugh.
For me, this was an invaluable training ground. Four-to-six hours a night on the radio talking over record intros for several years greatly prepared for TV comedy writing. There too, time is of the essence. The tighter the joke construction the better. Jokes often have two functions in sitcoms. – to get a laugh and move the action forward. Characters rarely just stop to do a joke (at least on good shows). The jokes are woven into conversations and situations as the story barrels on (at a faster pace today than ever before).
Unfortunately, radio in any tangible form no longer exists. There aren’t weekend jobs in Bakersfield for young wannabe broadcasters to cut these teeth. There aren’t Top 30 stations that encourage disc jockeys to talk-up records. But it’s worth keeping the concept in your head. 10 seconds is a long time. 18 seconds is an eternity. When you write a joke, go back. Can you trim it? Is there one word that can replace three? Is there a funnier word or concept? The good news in writing vs. jocking – when you write a joke you don’t have 2:35 to come up with the next one. 10 seconds may be an eternity, but 2:35 goes by in a blink.