Stand-up Comedy, Improv Comedy and Morning Radio


by Frank Murphy



I have heard program directors tell their morning show hosts to be more like Jay Leno. I disagree. Here's why.

Jay Leno follows the paradigm of stand-up comedy, which makes sense because he has been a stand-up comedian for years. A stand-up comedian writes tons of material, which he tries out on stage. Perhaps you have heard how Leno tries out monologue jokes on Sunday nights at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. Before his last HBO special, Jerry Seinfeld tested his material at comedy clubs in L.A. Any comedian who is booked to appear on television will work on his or her material in the clubs for weeks before the TV show tapes.

A stand-up comedian is constantly reducing, removing and tightening his material. He may start with an hour's worth, which he will boil down to half an hour, then to 20 minutes. His goal is to have a tight 5 minute set he can do on David Letterman's or Leno's show. A headlining comedian has been doing it long enough to have several tight sets he can group together into a 45 minute show.

Imagine stand-up comedy as an upside down triangle with the fat end on top and the point at the bottom. The top represents all the ideas the comedian has for jokes. The ideas are reduced, removed and tightened to get a funny set at the point at the bottom. Jay Leno and his staff of dozens of writers start with hundreds of jokes each day. They reduce, remove and tighten them into an eight minute monologue.

Leno has to fill an hour a night. He has a staff of writers for the monologue, segment producers for "Jaywalking" and the other bits he does, talent bookers to get him guests and so on. In morning radio we have to fill four or five hours a day. To do what Leno does the same way he does it, each morning show would need a staff five times bigger than Leno's!

Obviously that is not realistic. And it doesn't need to be. There is another paradigm for comedy. Remember the triangle of stand-up comedy?  Turn it right side up so the point is on the top and the wide end is on the bottom. You now have the paradigm of improv comedy.

In improvisational comedy, the actors take something small and expand on it.  They add jokes and references to build comedy on the spot. An improv comic needs to be well read and aware of references that will make his audience laugh (in radio we call that "showprep").

Imagine a morning radio show as a timeline. A stand-up comedian would need a lot of overlapping upside down triangles to fill a single morning show with the points. An improv comic needs one point that he can expand to fill a whole segment of the radio show with the wide end of his triangle.

In an improv comedy class, the participants have to practice listening. The most basic rule of improv comedy is "accept and advance." This is practiced in an exercise called "yes and" in which one comic listens to what his partner says and adds information to it. Without listening, the comedy is lost. This is a valuable skill for morning radio as well. Many radio hosts think they should be the only person talking on their show. A good host listens to his sidekicks, callers and support staff in search of relatable material.

I recently shared this theory with a programming executive for a group that owns radio stations in several large and major markets. He decided to send his morning show teams to improv comedy classes and has been pleased with the results.

There are stand-up comedians who are terrible radio guests because they don't want to use up any of their material. There are other stand-up comedians who are good radio guests because they have enough material that they don't mind doing some of it on a radio show. And there are some stand-up comedians who are great radio guests because they can improvise and make up jokes on the spot. I think great radio hosts can be found using the same criteria.



Copyright 2001 Frank Murphy. All rights reserved.