Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Ten Second Comedy Writing Course

Since I can't find an appropriate photo...
Some of the best training I got in television I got from radio. I came of age in a long ago distant time when there was a thing called “radio.” Radio stations would play music and provide hosts to introduce it. These hosts were called disc jockeys. And here’s the real amazing thing: people listened. Not just those few who are in too big a hurry to access their Pandora station or itune playlists. Everybody listened. Generally they listened every waking hour of the day. In every city there were usually two or three stations who all vied for the attention of these eager young ears. Listeners selected their favorite station and bonded with it. Their allegiance was fierce. You could be on the fence as to whether you were a leg or breast man but you damn well preferred KHJ over KRLA.

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.

Funny disc jockeys had to adapt and tailor their humor to this new format. And some became masters of it. Robert W. Morgan, The Real Don Steele, Dale Dorman (pictured: right) , Dan Ingram and Gary Burbank, to name just a few.

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.


Igor said...

Ken, thanks for today's post. I have found constraints to be good things (that is, when you know what they are up front, versus finding out after you've finished the project and the customer/boss says, "Uh, the doorway is actually only 29 inches wide.")

And while I do not expect to ever enter the amazing and exciting world of on-air radio broadcasting, your story still provides some nice, motivational, what-if scenarios: What if I need a punchline - some/any punchline - to spew-forth in the next 7 seconds? What if my character had to do that?

BTW, when you bought your ticket to see "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (or when you had your older-looking friend buy them so you could sneak in), did you do so expecting you'd soon be seeing-seeing Natalie's tatalies?

Gary Mack said...

It was a pleasure to influence your career.

McAlvie said...

Ah, those were the days. That was when businesses made an effort to appeal to customers instead of listening to bean counters. Radio isn't the only industry that made this mistake. And then they wonder why the customers went away.

Interestingly enough, in the DC market two stations have been humming along pretty well. I don't doubt that they've felt the pinch, but they survive because they know their target audience. The audiences for those stations are c&w and classical listeners (yes, the local NPR stations are doing better than commercial radio). Yeah, it's an odd duo; but if you think about it, these markets are very specific and don't allow much room for the bean counters to mess up. And thus they keep a decent audience share when every other station changes format every six weeks and wonders why they can't keep listeners. Ah well.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

After all these years of listening and performing in radio, I'm still unable to adequately describe how engaging it was to hear The Real Don Steele on Boss Radio 93/KHJ in Boss Angeles.

I'll try: He was a master of language, enthusiasm, culture (boomers')and showmanship. And it all, all happened inside the short intros of rock 'n' roll songs.

See, I couldn't do it. Couldn't do his work justice.

The radio industry today is a wasted Vastland of transmitters, accountants and satellite-delivered, impersonal chatter.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...and a shout-out to Gary Mack, one of the Original Boss Jocks!

Pat Reeder said...

Thanks for this post, Ken. As a former radio jock and still commercial voice/writer, former head writer of the Morning Punch radio service, and for over 20 years, the founder/co-writer of the Comedy Wire syndicated radio service, I can say that last paragraph pretty much sums up my life, only take all that stuff and do it between midnight and 5 a.m. I am always looking for the perfect word for a line, preferably one syllable instead of two, unless the joke absolutely requires the precise four-dollar word. Usually, if the joke fell on a certain word or section of the line and required a particular wording or rhythm, I'd look for ways to tighten the set-up without making it feel rushed.

One of the reasons our service survived so long, and people were willing to pay cash for it, was because every line was so carefully constructed for maximum impact. I would sometimes see competing services and looking down the page think, "Good line...sorta funny...idea for a joke but not a joke...might've been funny with the right wording," etc.

We finally had to end the Comedy Wire because of what you said: changing times in the radio biz. We now write similar material for national shows for Cumulus, but I still write 15 or so one-liners a day for All Star Radio's Daily Comedy Exclusive service. We radio writers might not get the press that the TV guys do, but nothing pleases me more than when I see the media quoting some line of Jay Leno's or Jon Stewart's, and I can say, "Yeah, I thought that was a pretty good line when I sent it out 12 hours before he said it."

vicernie said...

this reinforces my thought that comedy writers would do well writing TV commercials. if they are entertaining and funny, I will watch them over and over.

Victor Velasco said...

Thanks very much for todays post. I collected each one of the KFRC Top 30 surveys, picking them up from the 'auto music' store on El Camino in Millbrae (Muntz 4 tracks plus new fangled 8's)

Pamela Jaye said...

Recognized Dale Dorman even without all the hair. So he was in SF before Boston? I think he's still in Boston...

Definitely , TV commercials can be funny. If I like them, I try to find them and share them.

Pam - WRKO when everyone else was WVBF

Steve said...

Interesting post about hitting the post.
It seems that Twitter could be great practice for writing tight, short form content.
I'm lucky enough to have a career in radio and have worked with some talented creative folks along the way. Currently at a great heritage Classic Rock station in Philadelphia. WMGK has a roster of jocks that all have 20-30 year on-air relationships with our audience and we're privately owned by a family that just owns radio stations. We're doing a lot of things right and are a market leader as a result. Most of my career has been with private ownership and what a difference it makes.

404 said...

I have to say, though, that even though I understand why it was done (At least, according to this post) I absolutely HATE when DJs talk over the beginnings of a song. It's like if they aren't singing yet, the music playing isn't important. I disagree. And what annoys me even more is when the DJ cuts off the end of the songs. Aargh! I need closure!

Hamid said...

This is off topic but I read something today which made my jaw drop. It was a review of a new book by Shirley Maclaine, "What If", in which she expounds on her various wacky supernatural beliefs. Now, I already knew she's into psychic/cosmic/past lives crap but I'd always taken that as just a funny quirk which shouldn't detract from her talent.

But according to the review, Maclaine asks in her book what if some of the victims of the Holocaust were simply getting karma for past lives in which they'd been Romans killing Christians?

Wow. If there's a line between a cute quirk and flat out offensive and obscene, she's crossed it. Ken, I don't know if you ever take suggestions for topics to write about but I'd love to read your opinion on this. One of your brilliant and witty "rants" as you call them would be great.

Dave Creek said...

Great to see a mention of Gary Burbank -- I grew up hearing him on WAKY and, later, WHAS in Louisville. Always brilliant, with a cast of characters that skewered local personalities/foibles.

Jim said...

I used to jock, and by talking up the record you could surprise yoursef with the things you would say or come up with. Sometimes, it was like someone putting a loaded seltzer bottle to you face and say "be funny."

It was a great training ground to think on your feet. Although I've been out of radio for a couple of years that work has prepared me when I would have to give a small speech or talk to a group.

Some of the best talk show hosts in television history started out as disc jockeys who started out this way: Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Deavid Letterman to name a few.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I see the Golden Globe award nominees have been announced. THE GOOD WIFE is again the only network show to be nominated in the drama category. My question is how on earth Edie Falco gets nominated for best actress in a comedy. NURSE JACKIE isn't remotely funny, and as excellent an actress as Falco is, neither is she.


Anonymous said...

I was out of radio by 1980, but back in the 70's when I was working at a small station in ND, the real career training was in commercials. At the small station, we did everything from swabbing toilets to selling. Writing funny, memorable spots, producing, doing voices and characters, and then getting them approved by the client and on the air to live or die--that's an education in process. Yes, we wanted to do well on the air, but having hilarious commercials that people loved and that sold our client's product or service, that was where the ego got stroked. Some of the best moments in my life can be traced to a single line: "You wrote that?"

Unknown said...

I was a regular listener to Jackson Armstrong on WKBW in Buffalo... problem was, I lived in Nova Scotia and you could only pick up KB on nights without fog, rain, snow, etc.

Still, even the nights he came in only intermittenly, were memorable. He was a fast talking, energetic jock who could talk to the lyrics like no one I've ever heard--and haven't heard since. When the Faces hit "Stay With Me" made KB's playlist, it was always a treat since the song had a 56 second intro before the lyrics hit. He'd talk, joke and scream right to the second. Amazing, really. I doubt disc jockeys have ever been considered artists--but Jackson Armstrong was a close to one as I can imagine. His presentation was magic. Always funny, always tight, always faultless amd transcendent.

For a naive kid listening from far away in Nova Scotia, his delivery turned the Top 40 into something vibrant, hopeful and dangerous. Which,looking back, was very much a reflection of the time.

By Ken Levine said...

I had the privilege of working with Jackson Armstrong at TenQ in Los Angeles. An AMAZING talent and wonderful human being. He left us way too soon.

Gary said...

This may be a dangerous thing to say in a room full of former jocks, but I was one of those weirdos who hated the jock talking overr the intro to the record, all the way up to the vocal. Maybe because I was/am a musician and wanted to hear what the guys on the record were doing more than I wanted to hear the D.J., funny or not.

Rodger OBrien said...

Nice to see you mention 'Big' Dan Ingram who was my favorite DJ back in the 60s on WABC. I preferred him over all the other guys on WMCA & WINS who had Murray the K. I listened to him at my after school job using a little AM radio with an earbud while working an Addressograph machine.

VP81955 said...

In Syracuse, the Top 40 rivalry was between WNDR and WOLF. WNDR was sort of a WABC-style station, whereas WOLF was a bit wilder in the early '60s, temporarily went to country about 1966, then returned to Top 40 with a Bill Drake-like format in early 1969. Each had some fine alumni who wound up in big markets, such as Don Bombard (now Bob Shannon on WCBS-FM).

Albert Giesbrecht said...

One of the best one liners I heard was on a TV commercial for Chicago radio station, WNDE,

"It's eleven O'clock, with Scott Wheeler, here's Neil Sedaka's Laughter In The Rain; I wonder if that's anything like a giggle in the shower?"

mdv1959 said...

Really interesting-- probably more than I learned being a Radio/TV major at a local university 30 years ago.

I work on a lot of live television shows these days and one thing I can confirm is that 10 seconds can be a really long time. As it runs out, the only thing worse than running over on a live show is running short because even coming up with 30 seconds of something to say can be death to the host.

Back in the early days of "America's Got Talent" Regis Philbin was the host and in the finale of season one (or two?) the winner was crowned with a few minutes of air time left and nothing more to do or say. Lucky for them Regis is an old pro and was able to keep talking for a couple of minutes until the credits rolled.

Kosmo13 said...

At my first professional radio job, the Program Director discouraged the on-air people from talking over the instrumental Intro. He told me "the musicians spend more time working on those opening seconds prior to the vocal than they do working on the rest of the song."

His feeling was that we shouldn't drown out that intro unless it was unavoidable.

Whenever I hear an air personality who does talk over the intro, especially just goofy, inane chatter, I think "Oh, shut up. You're ruining the record!"

Anonymous said...

Here's a one-liner I tried to squeeze into a normal conversation:

On an airplane, a Steward approached the group of us who were sitting at the Bulkhead.

Steward: "Now, you are sitting near an Emergency Exit. I need to make sure you're prepared to help the cabin staff an emergency situation. Are you all OK with that?"
Me: "Are you kidding? I'd serve drinks if it meant I had more legroom."

Mark in Auburn said...

Ken, Why didn't you link any of your airchecks posted online? Too humble? You were very tight and witty as "The Beev".

The one I grew up listening to was Chicago legend John Records Landecker. (Records truly is his middle name.) He not only did the song intro thing to near-perfection; he came up with quick, snappy responses to his "Boogie Check" callers with amazing spontaneity! I had high hopes when he was hired last year at WLS-FM because they promoted him heavily using samples from his WLS-AM glory days. But I was disappointed because the show was too music-intensive with minimalistic voice-tracking by John.

Pat said...

I think my favorite line-over-the-song intro I ever did was many years ago, in my first job at a 250-watt country station in Texas. I came out of a PSA for the Campaign for Human Development into Dolly Parton's "Here You Come Again," and said, "And speaking of human development, here's Dolly Parton."

Half an hour later, the news director came in, glared at me, and said, "When you said that line about Dolly Parton, I laughed so hard, I nearly ran off the road and hit a telephone poll."

It was the ultimate compliment for a jock: a one-liner that literally killed. At least he would've died with a smile on his face.

Pat Reeder said...

Sorry, that note above is from me. Didn't mean to post semi-anonymously, but the site jumped the gun and posted it before I finished typing. Maybe it thought of Dolly Parton's human development and suffered premature exclamation.