How to be Funny

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip April 5, 2005

What does it take to make a truly entertaining morning show? Anne Libera knows. She’s a director at Chicago’s illustrious Second City, ground zero for much of the world’s finest comedy talent. Her new book, The Second City Almanac of Improvisation, is full of pointers and exercises that can make your morning show sparkle.

Take some lessons from the training ground of talent like Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, John Candy, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Bonnie Hunt, Mike Myers, and many, many more. Here are my questions and Anne’s answers:

Why would Improv training would make a better Radio Morning Show?

Improvisation and entertainment-oriented morning radio are the same thing. We are all just making stuff up in the moment. And one of the biggest blocks to success in both media is the fear of failure that manifests itself in judging each word before we say it – this keeps us from allowing our creativity free rein.

Many of the improvisational basics are geared towards specifically building self confidence, self awareness, and unleashing creativity. A lot of that boils down to giving yourself something specific to focus on – what we call a point of concentration. For most of us when we’re performing, that point of concentration is something like “be funny” or “be brilliant” which just invites awkwardness and paralysis. Improv training gives us the chance to play with a variety of points of concentration and take risks in the safe atmosphere of a workshop setting – all things that we can then take and use in the more stressful situation of being on air.

Also, radio is a personality driven medium. Improvisation helps to hone point of view and personal voice of the sort that creates a strong on-air persona. You create a stage (or radio) persona by discovering the truth of yourself and heightening it.

Most Radio Morning Shows are pushed to be funny. Why do you feel it’s more important to be “true”?

I can’t say enough that I think that the absolute best comedy – the stuff that makes us all laugh from our gut happens when the truth is spoken – especially if it is a truth that everyone has been thinking but were afraid to say.

It’s what makes Howard Stern’s work brilliant – even at his grossest. And at the opposite end of the spectrum Garrison Keillor (whom I grew up listening to as the morning DJ on Minnesota Public Radio) points out softer but no less universal truths in Saturday monologues.

What “Rules” of Improv do you think best apply to Morning Radio?

The principle of “Yes, and…” is key for radio – accepting that whatever is said, whatever happens is a gift – it’s supposed to happen and then building on it. “Yes, and…” allows you to keep going no matter what happens because you never stop accepting what has just happened and taking it to the next level.

Here’s another principle: Real comedy comes out of truth. Character is a filter – it’s what a certain person sees, hears, pays attention to or blocks out. And how that information is processed is an enormous part of what makes us laugh – we recognize both what was inputted and what came out as recognizable human behaviour. And that’s what really makes us laugh.

I tell my students that comedy is an equation – truth plus pain plus a certain level of distance (it’s not funny if it happens to me). There are some morning shows where the banter never hits any actual level of truth or pain – its just a little truth and a whole lot of distance.

On the other hand, I also tell my students that the pain in that equation can be what I call the “ewww” factor – gross out or shock value or cruelty. You’ve gotta have a little of it – and I’m the first to admit the perverse pleasure in the discomfort of others (“The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” come to mind) But I’m afraid that there is a tendency in morning entertainment radio to rely on that exclusively as opposed to honestly letting a touch of reality intrude and finding the humor in the pain of our shared human condition.

I guess what I mean is that I’ll laugh at a extreme gross out joke because it makes us uncomfortable but I don’t want to spend the entire morning there.

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