Intro from Jay Allison: Public radio has an uneasy relationship to comedy. On one hand, we’re pretty serious—newsy and public service-y. On the other, we’re not above trying to be entertaining, even wanting to be—but we have some trouble ratcheting above Clever. Hilarious… not so much.
We’re fortunate now to have a guide to being funny in public radio, written by humorous guy, PJ Vogt, co-host of Gimlet’s “Reply All.” PJ describes, with examples, why we might not want to go all the way out on the limb of comedy, but hold back a bit, and maybe even be funnier for doing so. This is a lesson in fractional humor—techniques that are not simple to explain—jokes never are—but he does it. Check out his feature, and then go forth and be funny. Sort of.
By the way, Transom is sponsoring Tape Fest, happening on July 26th in NYC. You can catch PJ there, along with many other public radio and podcast aces.
Comedy vs. Humor
There’s comedy and then there’s humor.
Comedy is what comedians do. Pure funny. You cry. Your cheeks hurt. You pee your pants.
Humor is comedy’s cousin. A good piece of humor might make you chuckle appreciatively, or sigh to yourself. Sometimes you giggle. Humor = New Yorker cartoons. Comedy = Chappelle Show, Inside Amy Schumer.
I believe I’m humor funny but not comedy funny. Which is fine. Funny can still help me make a radio story. And it can help you, too. Here are a few ways you can use humor tactically in your radio stories. (Please know there was a 5,000 word version of this piece in my head, but my friend Phia has saved you from it.)
Funny Can Hide Explanations
You have to do so much explaining in a radio piece. Often you’ll have to write three to five explanatory sentences to get into your next piece of tape. It’s not the fun part of making a radio piece, because after all, the tape is your lead character.
Funny can help you dress up a piece of explanation in a tiny half-joke.
This is from a piece I wrote about a musician. I am using my own work because the good idea here was not mine. This is the part of the piece where I am trying to explain why this person is exceptional and interesting, why you should sit and hear him talk for 15 minutes. Here’s my less than stellar attempt at introducing you to the character:
Matt’s well-suited for this kind of work — fun in an orderly, persistent way. The thing you notice about him is that he makes slightly unusual choices and commits to them. Hard. Like, in 5th grade, when his friends started using swear words, he thought it’d be funnier not to. So he didn’t. And still won’t. Or, he really likes walking. He walked from his house in Danvers to the Boston Marathon, which is actually about the same length as the marathon.
I mean, it’s fine, it’s half working. But this dude walked 26.2 miles, and in this version of the piece, that point sort of sails by. I want to nudge you to pay more attention to it. I want to do a little exposition. Starlee Kine edited this piece, and here’s how she rewrote that last sentence:
Or, he really likes walking so last year, he walked from his house in Danvers to the Boston Marathon. Which is 24 miles. The length of the marathon is 26 miles. [pause] He walked the LENGTH of a marathon to then go WATCH a marathon.
It’s funny! It’s not a full joke, it’s like, a quarter joke. It’s enjoyable. And it distracts you from what that piece of writing is really there to do, which is underline how unusual and interesting the subject of the piece is.
You Can Use Funny To Undercut Yourself
This is one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Sometimes, in a radio piece, you want to express something grand and literary. When these moments work, they’re often the best moments in a piece.
These are also the trickiest parts to pull off.
If you make a tiny little half-joke afterwards, or while leading up to that monumental grandness, you can sometimes help yourself. You can keep the listener on your side by winking at them. Also, this is just a fun thing to do.
Scott Carrier is really good at this. On his podcast Home of the Brave he has a piece called “The Rebel Yell.” It’s about a time he went to a Kid Rock concert performed exclusively (?) for Young Republicans. Also Scott was on LSD.
(You can listen to it here.)
Which, A) what a good story. But also, there’s one part where he writes this very beautiful paragraph about an unexpected thing that happens. Scott is not a Republican, not a Kid Rock fan either. But he has this moment where he sees all these drunken young Republicans dancing, and he feels a warm moment of human connection.
The young Republicans, nearly all men in their 30s, look to be clerks and accountants from Des Moines and Saint Paul. They seem tired. Worn out. Things are not going well at home. Too many kids, not enough money. So they blow off steam at the bar because tomorrow they gotta go back to the power plant or the assessor’s office. They wake up at 4 in the morning worrying they’re gonna get fired, or worried about who they’re gonna have to fire. These are the guys who run America. There the ones who make it work. They make sure the roads get paved and the buildings get built and the pension checks get sent out. It’s a lot of stuff to do. And it can’t be easy. It’s amazing it gets done at all.
It’s too bad they’re fascists.
The main paragraph works beautifully. It’s perfect. But I really love that one line after, “It’s too bad they’re fascists” — I think it’s the perfect amount of joke. The paragraph before made you feel things, and then the “fascists” line is like a gentle cuff on the shoulder, a surprising little blast of funny opinion where maybe you didn’t expect it. When you aim for the kind of writing that that first paragraph has, it can be nice to undercut it a little bit immediately after. It can be like an insurance policy.
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Shenanigans Can Replace Stakes
Oh dear god, do we radio reporters love to talk about stakes. “What are the stakes of this story?” “Are the stakes clear?” “Does this have enough stakes?” You are possibly a little sick of hearing about stakes. Well, good news. Every so often, humor can let you avoid stakes entirely.
When I was starting out in radio, I got to intern for This American Life. Here’s a word they tossed around casually a lot: shenanigans.
As in, someone would be editing a story, and they’d say “Okay, so we’ll have the part where the guy wears a funny coat to work, and everyone thinks he’s the boss, and then he starts making decisions, and then from there it’s just pure shenanigans.“
I never made anyone define shenanigans for me, but in my mind shenanigans are the beats to a story that are just fun for fun’s sake. If you have a series of shenanigans, they should escalate with each example. Meaning, the first thing that happens should be funny, and the next thing should be a little bit funnier, and so on.
Jonathan Goldstein has a classic piece called The Little Mermaid, about a very strange and funny voicemail message that gets passed around among a bunch of college students.
According to the Laws of Stakes, this story should not ever exist. It’s not about enough, not enough hangs on it. But you’re having so much fun listening to it, you just forget to notice.
The whole reason Jonathan does the story is because his friend Josh insists that the voicemail is radio story worthy, and so at the end, Jonathan goes back to Josh and shares his reporting with him, and he reads him the ending of his piece. It’s funny because it’s the ending that a Stakes Story would have — it’s big and serious and Points to What It All Means — and Josh makes fun of him. Which is delightful. One more shenanigan.
Jonathan: I am going to read to you a piece of the script that I’ve written that I’m thinking I might actually end this whole story with, because I want to get some of your feedback. OK?
Josh: Oh, I’m ready.
Jonathan: I would say something to the effect of, “And so a recording intended for one person unintentionally became the beloved property of thousands. And in so happening, the message went from being what might have been considered a rather tragic personal artifact that spoke of dysfunction to becoming a triumph of contemporary American humor.”
Josh: What is that? That’s public radio wussy talk. Be a man. …All right. Whatever. If you want to talk that fancy talk, you do your thing. But don’t drag me into your serious voice nonsense. And you get to speak in this stentorian tone, like, “And then America laughed at this inadvertent piece of comedy. I’m Jon Goldstein.”
How To Edit For Funny
You absolutely have to read your work in front of someone (hopefully multiple someones) who you trust. If they tell you to kill something, trust them. If they don’t snort or laugh or at least exhale loudly at a joke, it’s not working. Assume a listener will find everything 30% less funny than you do. In general, try not to get caught making actual, full, setup + punchline jokes.
(So for instance, a full joke in a radio script would look like this:
Tom Alvarez is a pancake baker in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. And in this economic downturn, he’s facing the same problem as a Little League pitcher: no batter!
Objectively, this is terrible. A groaner. But what makes it worse is that it’s so obviously A JOKE, with a setup and a punchline, that it demands that you pay attention to its badness. (You will hate the reporter who speaks those words, even if they say it in a self-effacing way.)
Also, whenever you can, record your interviews split-track and cut your laughing way down. It is nice to be a generous laugher when you’re talking to your guest, but is also nice to then cut out most of those laughs in post-production. A listener will turn on you if they think you’re finding your piece more enjoyable than they are.
The Sadness Of Shenanigans
Okay one last, untidy thought about shenanigans stories. Some of my favorite ones work like Trojan horses. You lure the listener in with a trail of delicious candy, and then you thwack them in the head with something sad or sharp or true.
I spent a week between writing the previous paragraph and starting this one, and in that week I wracked my brain trying to think of a useful public radio story that exemplified what I’m talking about here, and instead found myself thinking over and over again about Harris Wittels.
He’s one of my favorite comedians. He was a genius of goofy, intentionally stupid comedy. He died this year, of a drug overdose. He was just 30.
Awhile ago, Harris created a podcast called Analyze Phish with his friend Scott Aukerman. The entire premise of the podcast (which ran over 10 hours) was that Harris loved the band Phish and Scott hated it, and Harris tried to convince Scott to like it.
Analyze Phish was stupidly funny. Pure shenanigans. At one point, they go to a Phish show, and Harris browbeats Scott into trying drugs, because his theory is that Scott only dislikes Phish because he hasn’t heard them on drugs (Scott is not a person who does drugs). They record the whole thing — it plays as a very shaggy, very entertaining hour of radio. This was before the extent of Harris’ drug problems were known, so as a listener, the fact of his drug use felt fun. Consequenceless.
Anyway. The show went on, and even before Harris died, there was a point where his drug problems had become public and obvious and frightening. He went to rehab for awhile. Came out. Got sober, got unsober. The show continued throughout all of this.
So there are points where the tone shifts, and this piece of fun pop art that was supposed to mildly celebrate recreational drug use now has to reckon with the places drug use can take somebody. It gets sad. It gets dark. You can hear the strain in Harris and Scott’s friendship. Then it gets funny again. It goes back to sad.
I think about that podcast a lot, as a sustained piece of art. I would not willingly sign on to listen to a 10+ hour radio documentary about a comedian’s struggles with substance abuse. I sure wouldn’t listen to the decline of an artist who I loved. But I would happily sign up to listen to two comedians joke about a jam band. Somehow all of those things became one thing.
There’s supposed to be a lesson about art in this, but I think I’m still figuring it out.
Hm. I guess my point is this: Often, when I sit down to build a radio piece, it feels like building a road in the air. I have a bunch of pieces of tape that I like, and they’re floating islands with no obvious connection between them. Funny can help with the construction. It can hide the ungainly mechanics of your work, it can create connections that might not otherwise scan. And sometimes funny might grab the wheel on its own, and take you somewhere else, somewhere you didn’t plan and weren’t expecting.