Don’t Give The Audience Homework
by Tracy Johnson
Step outside the radio “box” and broadcasters quickly realize listeners aren’t paying much attention, and don’t work that hard to figure out what’s going on. We have to make it easy for them or they’re on to something else. Another way of describing it is “giving the audience homework.”
Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a hilarious glimpse into the creative process. In the episode with Dana Carvey, the two comedy veterans made the point loud and clear.
At a restaurant, Carvey asks Jerry to help him with a joke he’s working on but just can’t quite get. He goes through the set up, but is clearly not quite happy with it yet.
The build toward the punchline is long. It’s about how human beings 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.
Then 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.
The Set Up Makes The Audience Work Too Hard
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. As soon as they get confused, they tune out. And no matter how strong the pay off is, it falls on deaf ears. They’ve moved on.
Carvey immediately gets it. He says,
That’s it. I gave the audience homework.
Don’t Give The Audience Homework
All entertainers must, above all else, make it easy for the audience. In radio, it applies to contests, games, promotions, events and segments on the air. When it gets even a little bit complex, the audience will find something else to reward with attention. Something simpler. Easier to understand.
The play along factor is critical. And we need to work hard to make sure listeners actually can play along.
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. Really, it’s just a statement that it has to be kept tight and simple.
Jerry didn’t just criticize Carvey and leave it there. He helped Dana reconfigure the bit:
You need an “in.” What’s my “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? Now there’s a relationship between the comedian and cat. So when the punchline comes, it’s not so random. It’s natural and easy. 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.
Here’s the segment:
Simplicity is a skill, and it’s difficult. It’s easier to keep building more 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.