Radio Comedy Thrives in Many Forms
OTTAWA — For many
listeners, the Golden Age of radio was also the Golden Age of radio comedy.
Before TV forced radio into a music-and-talk ghetto, the wireless was a laugh-packed
medium dominated by comedy legends such as Jack Benny and “The Goon Show.”
Radio’s “Irrelevant Show” is recorded live in front of a paying audience. Credit: Rob Swyrd/CBC
is true that most comedy programming is now found on TV. But radio comedy still
endures and even thrives on the world’s airwaves, if you know where to look.
In fact, it
could be said that comedy is actually breaking new ground in radio, especially
for broadcasters wondering what to do with their declining AM/MW stations.
radio listeners are fortunate. Publicly owned CBC Radio One produces lots of
live comedy for their enjoyment, and airs many original shows every week.
Moreover, CBC Radio’s comedy lineup is diverse. It includes “The Irrelevant
Show” (sketch comedy), “This Is That” (satirical parody), “Laugh Out Loud”
(recorded standup comedy) and “The Debaters” (comics debating everyday issues
in a humorous way).
humor have been important components of CBC Radio One programming for many
years,” said Chris Straw, CBC Radio’s senior director of Network Talk. “From
the early days of radio variety programming, to ‘Max Ferguson,’ ‘The Air Farce,’
‘Double Exposure’ and right up to today’s offerings such as ‘The Debaters,’ ‘This
Is That’ and ‘The Irrelevant Show,’ and others, CBC comedy programs have done
very well it terms of popularity and strong audience numbers.”
CBC Radio’s “This is That” with Pat Kelly and Peter
Oldring covers untrue stories like “Ontario prison replaces 25-foot high
concrete wall with large hedge” and “Man emerges from bunker 14 years after Y2K
scare.” Credit: CBC
One airs its comedy programs on Saturdays. “In recent years we have found we
can also get additional listening by replaying these shows on weekdays,” said
Straw. “We are also starting to see success with comedy online. Some of CBC
Radio’s biggest spikes in online audience traffic have come from ‘This Is That’
stories.” These shows are available through www.cbc.ca.
other forms of programming, CBC Radio does find comedy to be expensive. “The
costs vary program to program, but it is true that much of our comedy
programming budgets go to writers and performers and the production and editing
time can be somewhat labor intensive,” Straw said. “We have been able to offset
some of those cost by selling tickets to live performances.”
In addition, “Because of the ‘evergreen’ nature of some of our comedy
programming, we are able to maximize our investment by replaying the shows in
our summer season and at other times throughout the year,” said Straw.
“Overall, we feel that our comedy programs are worth the cost for what they
provide to our schedule and based on the size of the audiences they deliver.”
The logo of CBC Radio’s “The Debaters,” which pits
comics speaking for and against serious debate topics in very silly ways. Credit: CBC
well-executed political comedy is usually popular. But managing to keep a
political comedy — on radio no less – running for 27 years and amassing an
unbelievable 5,675 episodes in the process. That’s the astounding achievement
of “How Green Was My Cactus” (Cactus for short), a privately funded Australian
syndicated political radio comedy. It is available online at www.cactus.com.au.
Featuring both Australian and global political figures with thinly
disguised names, “How Green Was My Cactus” (a play on the classic film title,
“How Green Was My Valley” currently heard on about 30 stations nationwide, and
online by payable download at www.cactus.com.au.
Visitors to the home page for Australia’s long-running
radio comedy, “How Green Was My Cactus” are invited to click on a nose. Credit: Triffique Productions.
Internationally recognizable characters include United States President
Barack Oh-Bummer — “My fellow Americans. I am here to announce that our economy
is no longer a basket case. Because we had to sell the basket.” — and Osama Bin
Liner: “I like to watch ‘60 Minutes.’ I like the ticking.”
“How Green Was My Cactus” is produced by Triffique Productions’ director
and head writer Doug Edwards, and stars Keith Scott and Robyn Moore as the male
and female characters respectively. It is distributed by Grace Gibson
“We record weekly at Bill Dowling’s TSD Studios in Crows Nest, Sydney,”
said Bruce Ferrier, owner of Grace Gibson. “No one has seen the scripts prior
to arrival and they do one rehearsal of each script before recording each of
the five tracks for the following week. I think the immediacy of all this keeps
everyone on their toes — when they’re not falling over with laughter — and it’s
a great credit to the professionalism of Keith Scott and Robyn Moore that they
can do this. At the end of the record, Bill edits and mixes the tracks, then we
send them out to affiliates that afternoon as an MP3 download.”
Why has Cactus kept going for
27 years; especially given that it was initially only planned for a three month
run? “It cuts down ‘tall poppies,’ which Aussie audiences love, is very sharply
written, utilizing a lot of wry, sarcastic wit, intermingled with some
excellent use of imagery,” Ferrier said. (In Australia, a ‘tall poppy’ is an
unpopular successful/powerful person who needs to be cut down to size.)
“And it’s a bit like a radio
version of the political cartoon that appears in newspapers, which can condense
the day’s major news into a humorous, and often highly pertinent, comment.
There’s many a truth said in jest.”
Ontario’s CKSL is typical of many Canadian AM stations. Once a fan favorite for
its top 40 music format, CKSL(AM)’s young audience abandoned it for FM rock in
the 1970s and 1980s. The station subsequently tried news/talk and “oldies”
music formats — again like other Canadian AMs — but just couldn’t keep its
position in the market. Eventually, CKSL fell to the ratings basement of
London’s 10-station market.
In 2012, CKSL owner Astral (since bought by Bell Media) took a gamble and
signed up CKSL for the “24/7 comedy” format being offered by Clear Channel’s
Premiere Networks in the U.S. The station was rebranded as “Funny 1410,” and
the ratings improved: “We went from 10th place in one ratings book, to fifth
place in the next one six months later,” said Al Smith, operations director at
Bell Media London.
The success of Funny 1410’s comedy format, which is skewed 70/30
male/female, is based on it “being programmed in a top 40 style,” said Smith.
This means that popular comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman are
heard frequently in 1–2-minute “comedy breaks,” mixed in with “oldies” such as
George Carlin and local content produced by Bell Media. The program schedule is
managed like any top 40 music rotation, with popular comics being heard more
often. The difference is that Funny 1410 has “hundreds of comedy breaks to
choose from for each comic,” he said, so there’s little danger of unfunny
Funny 1410’s Home Page Credit: Funny 1410
The 24/7 comedy format has proven to be a winner for CKSL. This is why two
more Bell Media stations have been converted to all-comedy formats: Funny 820
(formerly 820 CHAM country in Hamilton, Ontario), and Funny 1060 (formerly AM
1060 country in Calgary, Alberta).
“FM radio is still dominant in the Canadian marketplace,” said Al Smith.
“But the all-comedy format is a definite alternative to the traditional AM
formats of oldies and talk.”
James Careless reports on
the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.