By Dave Foxx
Every morning when I come into work, I make sure that I have a fresh new joke to tell our receptionist here at the New York plant. Anita is a very special lady who has an amazingly infectious laugh that always ratchets my day up to a ‘superb’ rating when I hear it. Most of the jokes are a bit risqué, and I would think twice before telling them to just anyone. Very few would ever make their way into any of my production, which brings us to the topic of this month’s column: humor.
Humor in promos and commercials has a long history of being the single most powerful tool in our arsenal. Getting a listener to smile, or better yet, laugh out loud, is the ultimate means of breaking down that natural barrier every listener puts up when they turn on the radio. The barrier that is partly indifference to what we say and partly wariness to being sold a bill of goods, and is what kills a LOT of the production I hear every month. Finding the means to tear it down is one of our toughest jobs.
Like any powerful tool, humor is also dangerous. Wear your safety goggles! It’s a two-edged sword that can truly cut both ways. If the humor does not strike a chord in your target audience, it’s as though you give the listener a free pass that says, “You can ignore everything I’m saying because I have a lame sense of humor.” That’s not going to sell many cars now, is it? It sure isn’t going to compel them to listen all weekend to your radio station.
Several months ago, I wrote about a producer friend in a large market with a PD who insisted that he use jokes that the PD found funny. I heard a few of them (off the air) and laughed out loud myself. The problem was, I am NOT in the station’s target demo. Maybe if the station was a Classic Rock format that caters to older male listeners, they would have worked fine, but this was a mainstream CHR, which in most cases should have a young female audience as the target. Needless to say, the PD was killing his own radio station, rather quickly. (It takes almost no time at all for the wrong humor in the wrong place to shred a station’s credibility.)
When my friend called and asked for help, I told him to do something really simple. Laugh raucously and then suggest he tell the same joke to a couple of the young programming assistants. The PD was so convinced that he had “A” material, he did. A few minutes later, a somewhat chagrined PD came back into the studio complaining that they just didn’t have a sense of humor. Then my friend said, “Wow. They’re right in our demo too.” That stopped the PD dead in his tracks… the light bulb plainly visible above his head. The following week, the PD made a policy shift, and the young female programming assistants found themselves in a weekly mini-focus group.
Just so you know, humor about a certain male anatomy part is almost never funny to a CHR target. That might be different in a private setting, but we’re hardly a private medium. What you and I howl about when we tell jokes will either repulse or mystify most of the CHR audience.
So, what DOES work? Self-deprecating humor will always work. Having mister or miss announcer be the brunt of a joke is always amusing to the audience. You can even make fun of your radio station, as long as you’re careful. I’m reminded of a promo I did a few months after we took Z100 back to the center of mainstream CHR several years ago. Z100 had gotten a bit off center during the grunge era, really trying to be something we could never be: a real rock ‘n roll station. In the promo I chronicled the musical history of the station, claiming we always played the hits, from Eye Of The Tiger to whatever was popular at the time. When I got to the grunge, I stopped the music and said, “Well, most of the time.” Music purists groaned, but our target demo was delighted. Music purists don’t spend much time listening to CHR, so I couldn’t possibly care less.
The best humor for today’s listener is gentle humor. Try to make ‘em smile. Don’t go for the big belly laugh. The smile lasts a bit longer and so does the promo or commercial. If it’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s usually only funny once or twice. After that, it wears pretty thin, pretty fast. By the time the majority of your audience has heard it, a very large percentage of them will have heard it far too many times and it will desperately need to be replaced.
You can even make an occasional pun, as long as it’s not a major groaner. I’ve always been a big fan of some alliteration (stringing some words together that rhyme) because when you can do it well, the listener smiles because you’re being clever… but not obnoxiously clever. Making a “play on words” makes you seem smart, but not highbrow, something the average CHR listener finds appealing. (The absolute KING of wordplay is Eminem, in my opinion. Whether you like his music or not, his rhymes are amazing.)
Stay away from politics. No matter which side of the fence you sit on, you risk alienating the folks on the other side of the fence. Leave that stuff to the talk-show pundits. That’s their gig.
Stay away from religion too for the same reason. No matter how many Christians, Muslims, Jews or Atheists you might have in your audience, you run the risk of upsetting one group or another, and quite possibly, groups within those groups. We ran a parody one time that Jewish people on our staff and several hundred Jewish callers thought was outrageously funny, but an Anti-Jewish Defamation organization threatened a lawsuit, forcing us to take it off the air.
I have one last “stay-away-from” for you: stay away from long set-ups. This requires far too much intellectual involvement from your audience. Believe me, it’ll almost never happen.
I know, it seems like I’m telling you a lot of DON’T rules, without giving you too many DO rules. Let’s make it simple. If it’s a joke you would feel comfortable telling anyone, it’s probably OK. If you have the slightest reservation, think of something else. Remember that you’re juggling with swords here, so you’d better be very sure-handed or you’re going to end up in the emergency room.
For my sample track this month, I’ve selected a promo that’s not so much funny as it is amazing. If you’re a fan of Gwen Stefani, you’re probably marveling at how she was able to step right back into the lead of No Doubt without breaking a sweat. Talk about the extraordinary strength of a woman! As I chronicle her life in less than 10 seconds, the humor is in the amazement in my voice. It’s just a smile. If anybody laughs out loud, I’ll be worried.