Being funny is hard, because funny is subjective. You have to catch people at the right time, in the right mood, with the right line. Radio shows and hosts across the country attempt humor everyday – many fail. Somehow, along the way, we’ve confused the idea of “entertainment” with “comedy’ (but that’s another blog for another day.) Many of these shows are producing parody songs. Bravo. That takes some guts. Not only are you trying to be funny, but you’re singing. Good Lord, are you insane?
Let me tell you a story.
I almost didn’t get my first radio job out of college, because of a parody song. I sent the wrong demo tape to the PD and instead of my awesome DJ-ing at Solid Rock 101 – WOBN, it was me…singing…a very bad rendition of New Edition’s “Cool It Now” to parody lyrics about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, which I cleverly titled, “Kill It Now.” When I called the PD to see if he received my air-check and resume, he said, “Wait a second, Gifford?”
“Yes!” I said excitedly.
“Hold on.” I could hear him rummaging through some cassettes. He plopped one into his boom box and said, “Is this you?” and he held the phone up to the speaker and I heard myself singing back at me. It was horrible. It wasn’t funny. It was six months after the Dahmer story.
I was mortified.
I actually – true story – blamed my Mom. Swear to God.
I was hired by this guy under one condition, ”You can NEVER go on the air.” I took it.
And I never sang a parody song again…
…as far as you know.
That brings me to Paula Deen. I stumbled across Bobby Bones Show parody of Paula Deen. The only thing that impressed me was that they wrote the song based on tweets from listeners. What a great way to use social media and engage fans. It’s how I found out about it. Listeners were re-tweeting the song, because he used their lyrics. Woo hoo!!
It’s also the problem. Here, listen.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. SOMEONE thought it was funny. Sure, I get it. There are no rules for funny.
Except… there are. Kind of.
Here is my easy-down-home-cooking recipe for parody song success also known as THE GIFFORD LAWS OF PARODY; which I’ve likely stolen from someone.
Rule #1 The more timely the parody, the less funny it has to be and the less polished the performance needs to be. By timely, I mean minutes and hours from the event or catalyst of the parody, not days.
Rule #2 Funny can mean anything; a chuckle, a chortle, a snort, a knee-slap, LOL, or a guffaw. The less funny your parody, the more timely it needs to be and the more polished the performance should be.
Rule #3 The better the performance; the singing, the imitation, the production value – the more entertaining it will be. Period.
Rule #4 Less is more. Don’t parody an entire song unless your name is Weird Al Yankovic. Singing a verse or two and the chorus is more than enough. The longer your parody, the less funny it becomes and the more chances it has to fail. Write the parody as you want it and then edit it. Cut it in HALF! (Keep the best jokes.)
Here are two parody songs about Paula Deen, featured on Episode 7 of the Radio Stuff Podcast, that I think are top notch.
Paula Deen is a Candle in the Wind by the 98.7 KLUV Morning Choir
Not everyone is going to have the production facilities to duplicate this kind of quality, but everyone should strive to be as funny and relevant.
Before we get into this, I’d encourage everyone to read Steve Gleason’s guest column as Monday Morning Quarterback on SI.com and support the Gleason Initiative Foundation’s efforts to find a cure for ALS, if you’re so inclined.
THE LEAD IN
When I was PD at ESPN radio, Colin Cowherd would tell me his that his job is make me nervous at least once a day and my job is to trust that he knows where the line is. That works most of the time. But, as demonstrated by the guys in Atlanta, it just takes 2:10 to erase everything you’ve done up until that moment.
I get it, PDs ask a ton from talent: be funny, relevant, insightful, entertaining, credible, unique, distinctive, opinionated, memorable, edgy, but not offensive, and appealing to a younger audience — for four hours, live, every weekday. And don’t say “uh.” And break on time. And promote the ticket giveaway. And tease better. And…
Talent will cross the line. It happens (see: Lex & Terry) . In most cases, I’ll defend the talent and I have in many cases. The Atlanta case is indefensible. It’s making fun of a guy who is dying a horrible death from an even worse disease.
RADIO SPITS THE BIT
update: Nick Cellini has deleted his twitter account.
Nick Cellini has changed his twitter bio to read “short order cook.” Nick was one-third of the Morning Mayhem on 790 The Zone, all of whom were fired yesterday for…this (Audio, transcript). Go ahead listen and read it before we dive in — context helps.
It’s a “stupid” gag they did about Steve Gleason, the former Saints player suffering from ALS. All three broadcasters; Nick Cellini, Chris Dimino and Steak Shapiro have apologized. Too little, too late.
Cellini tells AccessAtlanta.com that the dismissal is “a relief, really. The station is a sinking ship.”
Shapiro, who once co-owned the station under Big League Broadcasting also spoke out, “The ironic thing for me is that I’m an aficionado of the Saints and Steve Gleason. The bit was ill-advised.” He added the bit was not representative of the work they had done four hours a day for 16 years.
Dimino posted a long apology on facebook and realized, “how quickly a stupid and worse than that non thinking moment can change all of it (19 years in broadcasting, 30 years as a grown man, and 10 years of being a father.)”
HOSTS ALL A TWITTER
The bit had broadcasters across the country abuzz.
Rich Eisen (@richeisen) from NFL Network tweeted,
“I just heard the stupid ass Steve Gleason “bit” on the Atlanta radio station and it’s beyond appalling. Those guys deserved what they got.”
Mitch Levy (@kjrmitch), the morning guy on 570 KJR in Seattle had a string of tweets late in the day,
“While I’m sure that I’ve been over the line too many times to count, that’s about as mean-spirited & tasteless bit I’ve ever heard in radio. We all do and say things on-air at the spur of the “live” moment that we’d like to have back. But, this was a premeditated, thought out, pre-produced attack on a good man who’s losing his battle with perhaps the most vicious & senseless disease. Really had to image that someone at that station who was aware of the “bit,” didn’t say “stop” before it aired.”
Heath Cline (@heathradio) is the afternoon host at 107.5 The Game in Columbia, SC,
“How could anyone have thought this was going to be funny. Thing is, I know those guys are capable of much better. I’ve heard them do it. Baffled how they misjudged things so badly today.” This is a spattering sample of the reactions. There were also a lot of “OMGs.”
Another interesting perspective on the mishap comes from Chadd Scott, APD and host at 1010 XL Sports in Jacksonville who was fired from an Atlanta sports station in 2011 for tweets. He claims his negative tweets about Delta Airlines, a major station sponsor, lead to his dismissal. He tweeted when he heard the news yesterday,
“Feel bad for friends @NickCellini & @chrisdimino. I’ve been in their shoes & know what today feels like.” “I only ever “wanted” to work at 1 station & it wasn’t ESPN, it was 790 the Zone years ago & I did. That WAS such a good station.” “All 3 made big $ for failing station & bit gave 790 a reason 2 dump salary.”
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
“What lessons are to be learned from this?” I asked on Twitter. Bean, from KROQ’s Kevin & Bean (@clydetombaugh) tweeted back at me,
“Morning show host truth: Your company has no opinion of anything on your show and probably doesn’t even listen. But, if somebody ELSE complains then it is easy for them to say it’s obvious what you did was wrong and stupid.”
How do you know when a bit has gone too far? Shan Shariff (@newschoolSS), the host of “New School” on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, responded.
“Larry, as you know, TOUGH question. Best answer I have is feel. If I wouldn’t even make the joke off-air to my buddies, I DEFINITELY wouldn’t say it on-air. What these guys in Atlanta did was just sick. Interesting side note: I actually sent this to my guys this afternoon as a warning to watch the line. We tend to flirt with it.”
The reality of the situation is, regardless of ratings or talent, most radio hosts walk up to around the “line” everyday. They are the stunt actors of radio willing to dive off the top of a building, walk through fire, or wreck a motorcycle to get a laugh, to get some ink, and to increase ratings. And we love them for it. From time to time, they’re going to cross the line. It’s going to happen. PDs need to be there more of than not. Truth is some will lose their job (See: Dan Sileo) and some won’t (See: Rush Limbaugh).
I’ve had to deal with many obscene, indecent, and profane incidents with varying degrees of controversy over the years. The hosts who I had to terminate are the ones who wander into at least two of these four areas: personal attacks, lack of filter, off-brand remarks, and negative intentions. Here are some ways to avoid your own “instant unemployment” in the future.
- Don’t Get Personal. Being edgy is okay (depending on your station brand), but know your target. Keep your sights on actions, decisions and behaviors and avoid getting personal. Nobody likes a bully. Attacking people’s traits, conditions, impediments, handicaps, etc. is just mean, not humorous. While there are some exceptions, people generally do not respond well when you ridicule or are disrespectful to someone who has been touched by misfortune.
- Appoint someone the “content filter.” One person on the show has to have 51% control and veto power on all content. If you don’t, no one on the team has the authority to kill a bit. If that person doesn’t green light the proposed piece, then re-edit, re-write and/or re-record it or trash the bit. Get it right before you air it.
- Be Consistent. Make sure the bit is reflective of your show and station’s brand. The Atlanta guys say this bit wasn’t what they typically do – so why do it? Be authentic to yourself and serve the expectations of the listeners.
- Have pure intentions. If your intentions are to honor someone with a parody, are all in jest, and in the spirit of camaraderie — listeners will pick up on that. If you’re vengeful, spiteful and trying to tear someone down – that too will come across. If you find yourself preparing a bit with a negative intention, might I suggest canning the bit? Otherwise, it’s likely to cost you your job.
Listen to the inaugural “Radio Stuff” podcast with Deb Slater (@deb_slater and www.debslater.com) and me. This first podcast we listen to how different radio sources treated the Cleveland story about the three women found after years in captivity; WTAM, Fox News Radio, NPR, Rush Limbuagh, BBC, and Radio Australia. We also talk about Paula White who got drunk before her final Friday night shift at BBC Radio Stoke. We listen to News Talk 980 CJME (Regina, Canada) and host John Himpe’s thoughts on a would-be seriel killer allowed to watch Dexter. We listen to radio station imaging from 100.3 The Sound in LA and 99.3 The Vine in Wine Country. We talked to XL 1010 Jacksonville’s Chad Scott about a new sports radio chat on twitter #srchat, and we debate the decency of a Fresh N Easy commercial. There’s a lot here! Enjoy. Let us know what you like, what you want more of, and what you could do without. And please send contributions, tips, audio, insights to both of us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Luke Burbank‘s podcast titled “TBTL” was named, because he thought his night-time radio show on 97.3 KIRO FM was “Too Beautiful To Live.” He was right. The show was cancelled after 395 shows, but the podcast persists and is thriving after over 1,000 episodes.
Last year, in 2011, TBTL was downloaded 24,085,650 times. He currently averages about 2,000,000 downloads per month. I sat down with Luke for about an hour and talked to him about the show. Even he can’t believe the success of the show.
Full disclosure: Luke is one-half of the Ross & Burbank Show on 97.3 KIRO FM, which as Program Director, I oversee.
Luke is a radio veteran with an impressive resume including producing, reporting and hosting NPR shows like “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition,” and has reported for This American Life in addition to his employment at 97.3 KIRO FM. Transitioning from traditional radio to podcasting, Luke quickly shed the formatics and realized even the worst segments could be fodder for days, where in terrestrial radio he doesn’t feel that freedom.
What is it about TBTL that makes it work? work. Luke treats it like a “real thing.” His producer gets a real salary, they invested in broadcast quality equipment, they do show prep and produce the show consistently at that the same time.
Luke’s success isn’t without some direction. He got some early advice from Adam Corrolla. You’ll find Luke appearing on other people’s podcasts, he is a panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and he recently did a commentary on CBS Sunday Morning.
One lesson Luke learned along the way is that the more obstacles you put between your content and your listener, the less they will listen.
So, after all of this you still want to start or continue your podcast? Cool. Here are the parting words of wisdom from Luke.
If you are going to launch a new podcast, be a narrow-caster. For instance, Luke says, “If someone did a podcast about just Marshawn Lynch‘s teeth, I would listen to that.” The more specific your podcast the better. Serve your niche and serve it better than anyone else.
You can watch the full interview here…
For the better part of 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with big voice guy Jim Cutler (ESPN Radio Network, E!, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The CW, and gobs of radio and TV stations across the country including 97.3 KIRO FM and 710 ESPN Seattle). Jim and his awesome wife Dawn are on vacation and stopped by the Bonneville Seattle studios yesterday. If Jim wasn’t blessed with a big voice and the talent to use it, he’d likely be a professional photographer. He takes his Nikon everywhere he goes. Last night he brought it to the Mariners v. A’s game and has posted photos on his blog…
Here he is taking some of the pictures…
In a previous blog I interviewed Jim about how what he has learned from photography relates to radio. It’s worth a read if you missed it before…
The other thing that struck me after meeting with Jim and Dawn yesterday is a great reminder that the more often you can work with and talk with people in this industry whose opinions and talents you trust, respect and challenge your own complacency – do it.
Talk show hosts, news anchors, editors, producers, production staff, and programmers need to always know and remember who is consuming the content they are creating. What is your target demo? What news, events, and entertainment were influential and formative in their lives?
If you focus your programming towards a 40-year-old woman or man remember that they were 18 in 1989. That was the same year George Bush Sr. became President, Ted Bundy was executed in Florida, and the Exxon-Valdez spilled 240,000 barrels of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. That was the year Microsoft released its first version of “Office” and Fox debuted a little cartoon show called “The Simpsons.” At the movies, When Harry Met Sally was released along with Back to the Future II, Driving Miss Daisy, Parenthood, and The Little Mermaid. On the radio, these high school seniors were listening to Bobby Brown‘s “My Prerogative,” Paul Abdul’s “Straight Up,” Mike and the Mechanics “The Living Years,” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”
Yet, listen to some news-talk and music radio stations trying to cater to these listeners and the references are still off. I still hear mentions of the Mary Tyler Moore, The Odd Couple and Abbott & Costello. Mary Tyler Moore’s Show was off the air in 1977. It was formative for women who are now in their late 50′s and early 60′s. The Odd Couple came out in 1968. Which means you’re targeting a 61-year-old. Bud Abbott was born in 1897. 114 years ago. Hello radio, it’s time for everyone to update our reference points.
Try this exercise. Let me know how it goes.