Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Being funny without an audience

Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah were on Stephen’s show bemoaning the fact that without an audience they can’t gauge their comic timing.

Bear in mind they both do shows for adoring audiences that are thrilled to be there, and are TOLD to laugh uproariously. So what comic timing do they really need? Their audiences guffaw at everything. It’s not like they have to earn the laughs.

But they both said that they’ve never had experience doing comedy that wasn’t in front of audiences.

Well, there is a training ground for that. Or at least there once was.


In radio you learn to trust your humor and trust your delivery. Your comic timing comes in conjunction with the music, or pauses for silence for effect. You have to determine in a vacuum just how long a bit should go.  You have to know just how much material to do at any one time.

Some of the funniest performers I’ve ever seen (or, more accurately, heard) hailed from radio. Bob & Ray, Lohman & Barkley, Dan Ingram, Gary Owens, Dick Whittington, Dick Purtan, Don McKinnon, Klaven & Finch, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Howard Hoffman, Dale Dorman, Gary Burbank, Jack Carney, Bob Hudson, Larry Lujack, Howard Stern, the Greaseman, and many others didn’t need a packed house of adoring fans to confirm whether something was funny. They knew it in their gut.

The difficulty Colbert and Noah are having is now doing shows from home they no longer have that crutch. It’s forcing them to communicate and it’s making them both better entertainers if not broadcasters. They’re both enormously talented. They don’t need that crutch. Lean into this.

The one late night talk show host who seems more comfortable in this environment is Jimmy Kimmel. And guess what? He started in radio.


Lemuel said...

There are Bill Maher Youtube clips of his monologues with deliberately over-the-top canned laughter and cutaways to random audiences, some in black and white.

Pizzagod said...

Spot on! No disrespect to anybody on the tube right now, but the examples you cite (including our own Dick Purtan) are one of a kind, and we (the audience) were lucky to experience them.

In the meantime...thank God for Radio Archives so I can get some classic Bob and Ray entertainment. For free!

Dante's ninth circle said...

John Oliver also seems to be getting better at it, I've noticed.

Sheila said...

Hi Ken,

I wanted to know if the audience gets paid to watch the taping of the TV shows? Or at the least do they get some snacks?

Are they allowed to ask the TV stars for autographs. Please share your experience on this, like if any of the stars are kind enough to walk and shake hands with the audience and sign a few autographs.

P.S. : I would love to read your funny take on the "official" release of the UFO videos. Why now?

Jim said...

Trevor Noah and Jimmy Fallon are not funny. In the post-pandemic world I wish they both are kicked out and someone talented and who deserves it, is given that job.

This pandemic has given a golden opportunity to kick out these useless entitled bunch.

Pat Reeder said...

Thank you for saying that. I made the same point a while back and got called a Trump lover. I'm actually a radio comedy writer/DJ who knows coasting, clapter and leaning on the "Applause" sign when I see it.

Also, what Jim said.

Paul Gottlieb said...

The current generation (Oliver, Colbert, et al) grew up in comedy clubs and honed their craft before a live--and sometimes actively hostile and drunk--audience. So they have spent their entire careers working of the rhythms and reactions of their audiences. They have all also honed their skills at dealing with drunk and sometimes dangerous hecklers. I think calling them "pampered" is a unfair. Much as I love some of those old radio icons, I don't think they would all survive being thrown into that kind of shark tank. Working in different environments, you develop different skills, that's all

Barry Traylor said...

I watch all the shows Colbert has been doing from home and guess what I like his monologue better. He seems more relaxed.

Ken Copper said...

Never found Colbert or Noah funny. The smirk ruins it for me every time. I totally agree on the radio greats you mentioned. All were very funny and natural. Another I would add to the list is Jean Shepherd. There was no better storyteller EVER and, though not a conventional comedian, She never failed to weave invariably hilarious tales. A radio genius.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Can I just say Trevor Noah seriously needs a network deal so he can widen his audience outside the confines of cable?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Samantha Bee is doing pretty well in her forest setting. But I like John Oliver's work in front of the blank wall. He's been joking that he's comfortable with silence because he began by doing stand-up in front of English audiences.


JonCow said...

@Ken Copper

Jean was a He, not a She.

JRandall said...

Hi Ken - interesting thoughts! I was on the radio for 25 years and for the last 20 years have been a fundraising auctioneer in front of groups from 300-1200. With the world upside down, this past Saturday I did my first Virtual Auction on Zoom. We had all the pieces in place as usual but I was alone in my office studio, much like when I was alone in the booth on the radio! I still had all the different things to juggle but my "live" bidders were names on a screen to my left, not bid cards popping up all over a large room with lots of excitement and energy.
I had to trust my timing, knowledge and experience to keep the right pace and energy on my part - and it worked! Yes, it was different, however I loved that old Radio feeling it gave me and look forward to the next one!

thomas tucker said...

It is an interesting phenomenon. Bill Maher's show just isn't the same without an audience. And his director needs to tell him to quit clapping his hands together next to the microphone.

Paul Gottlieb said...

Yes, it would be nice to have another Jean Shepherd, and another Shakespeare, and another Caruso! But one-in-a-million talents are one-in-a-million

Fed by the muse said...

Friday Question for you, Ken: Who in show business do you consider one-of-a-kind talents (be it actors, writers, musical artists, etc.), say your top five-to-ten (persons, more or less, of your time)? Thanks.

Unknown said...

You forgot to mention someone on radio now that is hysterical! Rushbo is hysterical! “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” What a hoot! It's theater of the mind (or no mind)!

"Coronavirus Deaths Are Being Inflated to Push an Agenda" He's like Robin Williams painting a picture. But Rushbo is on prescription drugs!

Erich617 said...

I have two unrelated questions about this:

1. Having both written and directed multi-camera comedies -- with live audiences -- do you feel the same way about those productions? Are the audiences there a crutch? I recall you saying previously on the blog that you don't like a lot of the single camera comedies that have been made in the past decade or two because they often don't have jokes and that having an audience keeps writers and actors accountable for getting laughs. Would a show like 30 ROCK that was a single camera show but still packed with jokes be an example of a show that didn't rely on a live audience to provide feedback but still succeeded at being as entertaining as possible?
2. Is it possible that podcasting will replace radio as a training ground for performers? I am curious about your opinion in particular since you have done both.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I agree. In radio you have to be sure of your own abilities because there is so little immediate feedback. You work on the idea that if it's funny to you you hope it's funny to the listening audience as well.

Colbert, has an imrov background. He's an alumnus of Chicago's Second City. So he was trained to react (yes and...) to the words and actions of his fellow performers. As opposed to a stand-up comedian who is used to writing jokes on his own.

I am not a fan of Howard Stern. Never have been. And in the context of this blog he hardly works "in a vacuum." His sidekick, Robin Quivers has been his defacto laugh track for as long as I can remember. However, I loved "Sweet Dick" Whittington. While he did have some people help perform his sketches he didn't have an entourage laughing at everything he said.

Finally, Ken you've stated many times how you prefer to write for a live audience because of the immediate feedback. And you've also worked in radio. If you were in Steven's or Trevor's place could you be funny "at home?"
Your blog doesn't count because people start commenting as soon as it's posted.


Michael said...

On a related note to Ken's point, in the late 1990s, when the networks suddenly discovered game shows again, most of the hosts were older--Regis Philbin and the now ridiculously right-wing thinker Chuck Woolery, to name two; one producer reportedly wanted to hire Bill Cullen, who had been dead for several years and still probably would have been better than some of the people they have used. Anyway, a reporter asked The Reege why networks that wanted young demographics were doing this, and his answer was that he and the others had started in radio and/or live TV, where you had to be able to react quickly, which is what a game show host does. Exactly.

There's also a reason that The Vin (who has an audio message now thanking fans for their support and first responders and medical folks for everything after his recent hospital jaunt) and Dick Enberg, to name two, did just fine as game show hosts, and both Enberg and Bob Costas got raves when they filled in as hosts on The Today Show.

Gary said...

Ken, you are spot on about today's audiences being TOLD to laugh. I once attended a taping of the David Letterman show, and before it began the audience was herded into a room and coached for ONE HOUR about how to laugh, scream and whoop it up at every word Dave said. I couldn't believe the star felt this type of manipulation was necessary.

By contrast in the late 1970s I was lucky enough to see a Johnny Carson taping. We stood in line, were shown to our seats, Ed and Doc said hello, and the show began. There was NO audience coaching whatsoever. Now THAT is a secure comedian.

Pinwheel LeClerke said...

If radio was so great, why isn't it still around? Answer: IT WASN'T THAT GREAT.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm not familiar with Noah but it took me about 30 seconds to realize I can't abide Colbert and his smirk.

kpj said...

Possible Friday question I came up with since I have too much time on my hands. I've been rewatching old episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore show. This time through, I'm really appreciating some of the great moments/episodes Ed Asner had. This led me to think of his series Lou Grant and the following what if question. I don't really remember the sitcom character to drama happening before (I'm not counting something like Trapper John since that had a different actor) but can you come up with any other possible actors who might have been able to take their sitcom role and effectively transfer to drama series. There are great actors on sitcoms that have done quality dramas but it's hard to think of ones that would be interesting to watch with the same character. Using Cheers as an example, I think Kelsey Grammer could have pulled off a Frasier drama series. However, even though I love Ted Danson, I really wouldn't want to watch an aging Sam Malone in a drama. You'd obviously need great creative and writing teams to make it work. I did think of a lot of the cast of MASH, especially David Ogden Stiers if you could convince him to do it. Other possibilities I came up with are Michael J Fox/Alex Keaton as a young yuppie in the big city or maybe Judd Hirsch as Alex Reiger, but I'm not sold on either of those. Most of the others I thought of didn't really seem to work. Any other suggestions?

D McEwan said...

This post makes me glad that I learned my craft working for years with Dick Whittington, and to a lesser extent, with Lohman & Barkley, before I ever began hitting the comedy clubs. A live audience is nice, but I did learn to do without first.

Meanwhile, folks on one-camera filmed sitcoms also learn the art of comedy without a live audience.

" Sheila said...
Hi Ken,

I wanted to know if the audience gets paid to watch the taping of the TV shows? Or at the least do they get some snacks?

Are they allowed to ask the TV stars for autographs. Please share your experience on this, like if any of the stars are kind enough to walk and shake hands with the audience and sign a few autographs."

Audiences are not paid. There are exceptions. On Fran Drescher's The Nanny she eventually did away with real audiences and hired professional audiences who could be ordered to laugh and whom she could fire. Real TV audiences are not paid. Paid audiences are valueless.

At the old Comedy Central show @ Midnight, which I attended five or six times, at one, and only one, taping, Starbucks, who was sponsoring them then, gave everyone in the audience a $10 Starbucks gift card. Of course, most shows shoot out T-shirts or hats to the audience. If you catch one, it's yours. I won a "The Conners" hat at one taping as part of an audience stunt between scenes.

Some shows feed the audience, especially at loooooooong sessions. At Will & Grace way, way back during their very first season, when they were desperate to fill the house, we were given box dinners. In later seasons, when they were a hit and had turn-away crowds wanting in, no food. Before Fran went to audiences she could fire, they gave out snacks midway through shoots to keep the audience's energy up. This season I went to The Conners twice. The first time, halfway through, we were given subway sandwiches and bottled water to keep our energy going. The second time was their live-broadcast, and since you were in and out of the studio in about 45 minutes, no food. I've also been to tapings where we were not given food, but there were vending machines you were allowed on breaks to go hit.

Sometimes, during breaks in the shoot, a star might sign an autograph for you. When I went to a taping of a short-lived sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneris in which her mother was played by Cloris Leachman (So short-lived that the episode I saw shot was never broadcast), during the back-and-forth with the warm-up guy I showed I had brought a DVD of Young Frankenstein with me and Cloris very kindly signed it for me (and screamed "HE VASS MY BOYFRIEND!" for me), but this is kind of rare.

On The Conners Michael Fishman, who plays DJ, takes particular interest in the audience, and came up and answered audience questions, and both times, after the taping, he positioned himself at the exit, and shook hands with each and every member of the audience as they left, thanking every person there personally for coming to the show. At my second Conners taping, he even told me it was nice to see me again, recognizing me from the taping a month before. But this sort of extreme niceness and thoughtfulness with the audience by a cast member is very, very rare. It certainly upped my respect for him.

CarolMR said...

Klavan & Finch! My parents used to listen to them every morning on WNEW-AM.

Paula Simmons said...

This is a very bitter column. I have been to about a half dozen tapings of comedy shows and I have never been "TOLD to laugh uproariously". I've been told to have a good time and enjoy the show. If an audience is "TOLD to laugh uproariously", what happens if they just titter? Are they led out by security? Are they banished from future tapings? Do the celebrities verbally chastise them during the commercials?

And to say that radio comedians never had to rely on live audiences ignores some of the masters of comedy -- Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Martin and Lewis, Burns and Allen, Edgar Bergen -- the list goes on and on. And Howard Stern doesn't have an audience? Have you ever heard Robin Quivers or any of his other hanger-ons? They are Stern's Ed McMahon. Lots of fake laughs to make the head guy feel good about himself.

No, I think that Colbert and Noah have a point and shouldn't be accosted by a sour grapes column.

Craig M said...

I think Seth Meyers has been doing a great job as has John Oliver and Samantha Bee. Colbert has been getting steadily better.

Cap'n Bob said...

I read recently that the audience/gallery at the Judge Judy tapings pay to be there, hoping to get some show biz exposure. I don't know if that's true but if it is, it's mighty interesting.

Charles Bryan said...

I've found some of these "from home" shows difficult to watch and I've stopped watching. I understand that they're muddling through tough circumstances, but I just find it to be a constant reminder that life has gone sideways. It's certainly not an escape.

John Oliver is the one exception for me. There usually were no guests nor interviews, and he didn't interact with the audience much.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with the traditional Fall prime time schedules. I guess that's my Friday Question: If you were a showrunner of a returning (or new, yikes) series, what would you be panicking about? How far behind schedule would you already be?

Mike Doran said...

A couple of random observations:

- When MTM premiered in '70, I was still living with my folks (yeah, it was that long ago).
We watched that first show, and when it ended, Dad said to Mom, "You know, I never saw him do out-and-out comedy before; he's really good."
Referring to Edward Asner, whose whole career before MTM was as tough heavies, tough cops, tough bosses - and never funny at all.
To a lesser extent, the same was true about Ted Knight: when the WWII shows were on in the '60s, Ted played as many Nazi officers as anybody who wasn't actually European, among other serious parts.
And in the midseason, when Carroll O'Connor started playing Archie Bunker, an entire career of serious roles in movies and TV suddenly didn't exist any more.
I'm sure that all of you can come up with examples of your own.

- Have we all already forgotten that one of Johnny Carson's specialties was recovering from missed laughs?
That was something that his live audiences seemed to look forward to; the long pause, the longer take, the "here we are again" grin, the saver line … all taking no laugh and building into a bigger laugh than the original gag might have gotten to begin with.
Johnny didn't really need a warm-up.

- The major thing I'm noticing about the late night home shows is that the hosts are trotting out their families as supporting characters - particularly the younger kids of Fallon, Kimmel, and Meyers.
Colbert's kids are grown (or nearly there, anyway), but they're present and accounted for.
And of course, the wives are as visible as any who've held those positions in the past.
Anybody of a Certain Age remember what any of Johnny's wives looked like?
Or Joey's or Merv's or Dick Cavett's or any others you can name?
(Fully expecting others of you to come up with exceptions, but you all know the point I'm trying to make here.)

Mike McCann said...

Saw Colbert last night for the first time since he switched to the at-home audience-free production. His segments with guests went well. But his opening monologue has devolved into an angry tirade that might make Rachel Maddow wince.

D McEwan said...

"Blogger Mike Doran said...
A couple of random observations:
Anybody of a Certain Age remember what any of Johnny's wives looked like? Or Joey's or Merv's or Dick Cavett's or any others you can name?

Yes, I remember what Johnny Carson's wives looked like. And I know vividly what Dick Cavett's wife looked and sounded like, since she was the fine actress Carrie Nye. Wanna see her? Take a look at the movie Stephen King's Creepshow in which she gives a marvelous performance.

As for Mrs. Merv Griffin, I was not aware he'd ever been married at all. Turns out he was, but divorced back in 1976, 31 years before he died. He used to escort Eva Gabor around, but we all knew she was just his beard.

flurb said...

We, at my house, are mad for - and with - Colbert. If some find his take on current events "angry", well, there's a lot to be angry about, and I find his monologues cathartic AND funny. John Oliver's outrage is sometimes palpable, as is Samantha Bee's. Jon Stewart used to get pretty mad too, back in the yellowcake days, which seem so quaintly distant now. Johnny Carson's time is over so completely that I dare say if he were here with us, he'd have gotten pretty Lewis Black himself.

Andy Rose said...

I find John Oliver's show better now because, unlike most people who started in stand-up, he had a tendency to completely ignore his audience. After every punchline, he paused for a beat, and then continued whether the audience was finished laughing or not. Sometimes it was hard to hear the beginning of the next setup because the audience was drowning it out. Not a problem anymore!

Mike Doran said...

Mr. McEwan:

For the record, I did see Carrie Nye in Creepshow, alongside Viveca Lindfors and Ed Harris, among others.
I also remember her from Alan Alda's The Seduction Of Joe Tynan, in which she played Rip Torn's drunk wife.
Also also, there was her occasional stint on the PBS quasi-panel game, We Interrupt This Week.
And let's not forget her term as a psycho-villainess on Guiding Light.

The point that I was trying to make was that when Dick Cavett was actually doing his show, Carrie Nye had dialed down her career somewhat; many people I knew were unaware that Cavett was even married (much as you were unaware that Merv Griffin was married).

Back then, even celebrities knew how to maintain low profiles.
And there we are …

Mike Doran said...

Very belatedly:

When Ken Copper typed She in reference to Jean Shepherd …

… I believe he meant to type Shep, which is what the man's friends called him.

The Curse Of QWERTYUIOP, to which we all fall victim hereabouts.
It's happened to me as much as anybody.
And it will continue to befall us all …

j gillespie said...

Didn't one of Carson's wives/ ex-wives have a daytime show at one point in the 70s

David from Boston said...

I rarely find any reason to disagree with you, Ken, and this is a small point to be sure, but Benny, Allen, Fibber McGee and other radio shows were performed before audiences. But then... they were scripted programs unlike the radio DJs. I was always amazed at the gift of being able to work without audiences - to rely on their gut to tell them if their material was funny. The ones you mentioned were gifted and brilliant in that regard.

Dave said...

Speaking of late-night hosts, I often remember when I thought Andy Richter was funnier than Conan O'Brien when I'd watch them, whereas Stephen Colbert's interactions with Jon Baptiste always feels so strained.

Do you think it takes talent to be a sidekick? What does it take, and who's shown their chops at that job?

Rocketman said...

I think Andy Richter makes a great sidekick for Conan. A lot of Conan's bits can be conceptual and fall flat so Andy picks up the slack, but I never find his appearance to be annoying comapred to just mindless guffaws from band leaders. I was looking forward to Colbert taking over the Late Show but I find his interview style just way too combative as if he's trying to score points with the interviewee. Conan should have got The Late Show and Colbert should have got The Daily Show in my opinion. Noah and Colbert were the winners in the ugly Conan/Leno fallout. The real winner is John Oliver who has created his own show to fit his personailty, rather than trying to squeeze into a tired late show format.

Rocketman said...

Paula Simmons.
I did go to a David Letterman taping and, while waiting in the queue, we were told that Dave feeds off the audience so to laugh and look like you're enjoying the show. I wouldn't say we were forced to laugh but we were encouraged. Unfortuantely it was A tough sell because on my once is a lifetime trip to see Dave, the guests were some guy from the weather bureau to talk about climate change and Jason Bateman. Jason Bateman may be a great comedy actor but he was not a good guest.

RonRettig said...

I just read this Ken and see the tv diva Wendy Williams agrees with you. https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/05/entertainment/wendy-williams-show-home-coronavirus/index.html?

Thomas said...

With all do respect: Noah has never known funny. He stumbles on it by accidident.