What you do on-stage is the most important part of being a standup comedian, but there are other elements to it, as I’ve outlined here before. When you become a headliner, doing radio shows to promote your shows is part of the salary.
The biggest mistake comics make when on radio is doing their act on the air. There is a completely different energy to radio than being on-stage. The most important thing I think when on radio is speaking conversationally. The more it can seem like it’s coming off the top of your head, the better. Most radio shows have had lots of comedians on them before, so the laughs (if there are any) are kind of canned, as the comic for the week is just another element they use like the traffic report or the weather.
The best comics on radio take over the show. What I mean by that is they are able to riff on anything the hosts are discussing and almost create a circus-like atmosphere. I learned from the best comedian I have ever heard on radio, Frank Caliendo. With his ability to do so many great impressions, he can summon voices from anywhere to fit the conversation, plus he is an awesome improvisational comic, which comes in part because he’s a smart guy. I used to tour with Frank a lot and I would tag along with him to every radio station he went to. Most of the time I didn’t get on the air, but I met a lot of people and got a lot of experience seeing what works best on different formats.
You see, you can’t walk into a country radio station and think you can do the stuff you did at the modern rock station. Same goes for a talk station versus a female demo-oriented show. They have different rhythms. One thing I try to do is to amp up my energy. Your usually doing a 10 minute segment, so I try to blast away during that period. It’s kind of fine line between taking over the show completely and still not stepping on toes, but I’ve become pretty good at it. I always try to listen to a couple segments before I go on the air, so I can riff off of stuff they have been saying. By doing that I’m able to personalize my material to the show I’m doing, which naturally makes the hosts treat you less like a guest and more like a regular.
If I’m booked to do radio or not for the club, I always try to get on a radio show on my own. It has gotten harder and harder to get on radio, though. Combination of too many comics who have come in during the past and didn’t do a good job on air, plus sales people telling shows they can’t have comics on unless the club pays for advertising there has really made it difficult to get on the air. I have figured out a way around that as I get on sports radio shows.
There are some real benefits to doing sports radio shows.
- They are talk stations, so they aren’t trying to jam songs in every few minutes.
- They don’t usually have standup comics on, so they are usually happy to get to see you.
- They are not as competitive with you because they are not a morning zoo doing comedy themselves.
- Their listeners often don’t get pitched standup comedy, so they are more apt to come out to your show.
These things are definitely a benefit, but there is also a reason most comics shouldn’t even try to do sports radio. You have to know your stuff. It’s a little like walking on the set of Politically Incorrect. You need to have a good knowledge of a few subjects or you will be exposed. Unlike standup, where you are the only one on-stage at the time and you can have a unique style which is less confident in tone, when you are a guest on radio you need to have to come really strong and seem confident to have the best chance to succeed.
Now there are a few exceptions to this, as a show like Bob and Tom, which works with comedians everyday, lets you be more like you are on-stage. With as many people in the studio as that show has, you actually have to sit back and let things come to you more, as you don’t want to step on others. It’s the most important show you can do for your standup career, so it’s also the most pressure-filled.
The most important advice I can give on the subject of radio is that if there is anyway possible you can come in-studio to do the appearance, do it. Call-in interviews lack energy and you will end up being on way less time than if you are actually in the studio. Now if it’s a one-nighter show in a small market, don’t sweat it, but if it’s a bigger market, consider coming in a night early so you can come in-studio. It might cost you a little more if the club won’t pay for that, but it will create some goodwill for the future.
This week I’m in the St. Louis area. I have built radio contacts on my own from the 4 different clubs I’ve performed at here over the past decade. I contacted both shows I did this week on my own and then spent my whole afternoon driving to them and waiting until I get on, even though I won’t see an extra penny if I draw an extra 100 people this week because of my efforts. I feel like going the extra mile helps me in the long run build a following as a standup. I also hope that the clubs I perform at appreciate that I went the extra mile to give them free publicity. Just like any other profession, there is good and bad management at comedy clubs, so sometimes it does seem like wasted effort from the lack of appreciation I get for this, but ultimately I know I gave it everything I could do to get butts in the seats for my week.