Step outside the radio “box” and it’s easy to see that listeners aren’t paying much attention when “listening” and won’t work that hard to figure out what’s going on. Confusion is the #1 source of tune out, and it’s up to personalities to ensure it’s easy to understand or they move on to something else. Jerry Seinfeld calls it giving the audience homework.

Seinfeld’s comedy series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a hilarious glimpse into the creative process. In an episode with Dana Carvey, he made the point loud and clear.

Carvey asks Jerry to help him with a joke he just can’t get right. He goes through the set up, but is clearly not happy with it. But he doesn’t know why. The joke is about how humans age. Then Carvey pays it off with a pivot to how a cat might experience the aging process:

A cat would say, I used to get 17 hours of sleep. Now if I don’t get 19, I’m a total wreck.

Carvey quickly critiques his joke. He says:

It’s not bad. But was 19 the right number? Would something else have been funnier?

Seinfeld responds with a brilliant observation.

You Gave The Audience Homework

Jerry breaks down the joke quickly and efficiently. He tells Carvey;

It’s way too long a set up. And when you talk about consciousness, I’m already confused.

Wow. Just like a listener. When they get confused, the payoff is never heard. They’ve moved on.

Carvey understands the point. He says,

That’s it. I gave the audience homework.

All entertainers must make it easy. That applies to contests, games, promotions, and segments on the air. When it gets even a little complex, listeners stop paying attention. A mentor (I think it was Alan Burns) once told me that everything on the radio should be designed as if it were being explained to a third grader. That’s not taking a shot at the intelligence of listeners. It’s just a statement that it has to be kept tight and simple.

In the episode, Seinfeld didn’t critique Carvey and leave it there. He helped Dana reconfigure the bit:

You need an “in.” What’s the funniest way to bring this up? Like this: “What I like about having a cat is the amount of time we spend just staring at each other.” That gets a little laugh there. You’ve now set the scene of me and the cat. Now we’re there.

It’s a simple solution, isn’t it? Establishing a relationship between the storyteller and cat puts the payoff into context. It simplifies the story. And did you notice that his solution was at least as long-or longer-than Carvey’s? It just didn’t seem like it, because it was connected.

Conclusion

Simplicity is a skill, and it’s difficult. It’s easier to add words, thoughts and ideas. But then it gets complicated. And complicated is never as effective.

I love this lesson from Carvey and Seinfeld, and believe it has a lot of application for air personalities.

 

Radio According to Seinfeld: End on a High Note

Casting a Radio Show: Lessons From Seinfeld

How To Take Advantage Of The Play Along Factor

The Role of Personalities In Listener’s Lives

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