Friday, March 7, 2008

How to write comedy for radio

"Few people probably realize the preparation that goes into Bob Hope's flip treatment of jokes..."

So begins an amazing piece of work by Johnny Carson that I discovered on the Internet today. It's his 1949 senior thesis created at the University of Nebraska. Johnny recorded it on real-to-reel tape. It's entitled "How to Write Comedy for Radio".

Johnny explains and illustrates "the most often used and most widely adaptable forms of gag construction and various speech forms that are used in creating and building comedy". It's all based on his analysis of the most successful and widely known comedians at the time including Jack Benny and Bob Hope.

He covers lots of comedic devices including running gags, insults, exaggeration, repetition, misunderstanding, the painting of a silly or ridiculous picture in the listeners mind, choosing the right words to strengthen a joke, intonation, abrupt vocal change and "topping", where a punchline is followed by a punchline. He examines the "three departments of humor to which a radio program can lean:" gags, situations, and comedy characterizations.

This is a great stuff. It's timeless. The audio quality isn't so good. No big deal. I'm just grateful Johnny had the foresight to record his wisdom.

One of my favorite moments in the 45 minute presentation is a comedic dialogue between Jack Benny and a car salesman. Johnny uses it to illustrate the "two-way gag". It had me laughing out loud. It must be heard to be fully appreciated, but I think it works in written form, too. Here is a sample of the exchange between Jack and the car salesman:

Jack: "Gee, the more I see of this car the more I like it. But, tell me, Mr....
Car salesman: "Just call me plain Bill."
Jack: "Well look, plain Bill, what are all these other buttons for?"
Car salesman: "Well, they are for the heater, the radio, the light, and the top."
Jack: "Uh huh. What's this red button for?"
Car salesman: "That red button is for emergencies."
Jack: "Emergencies?"
Car salesman: "Yes. Like if you stall the car on the railroad tracks and the train is coming at 100 mph, you press the red button."
Jack: "And, that gets the car off the tracks?"
Car salesman: "No. It makes a reservation for you at Forest Lawn (funeral home and cemetery in Los Angeles)."

Johnny's thesis is a must listen for aspiring comedy writers and radio personalities who want to improve the comedy on their shows. It's a reminder of what skills, techniques and practice can do to enhance natural talent. Clearly, this was Johnny's recipe for success.

Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and the other comedians Johnny chose to highlight in his presentation also reminded me that great comedy does not have to be vulgar and base.

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