By Tom 'duke of some media' Waters
June 1 , 2009
I've spent my life overloading my brain with comedy: stand-up, situation, literary, radio, you name it. Most professional comics will tell you they appreciate standard jokes, but it's the twisted stuff that makes them laugh out loud. Comedy isn't something I digest in moderation, and over time, you build up a tolerance for standard cuisine.
Last May, an unusual opportunity was offered to me. After years of being on the receiving end of a number of radio interviews on AM, FM and beyond, Richard Wicka (the creator and producer of Think Twice Radio) offered me my own show. Being something of a late bloomer, I asked him if he'd give me a few days to think about it. After mulling it over at a bar that evening, I emailed him back with a resounding hell yes. What did I have to lose? What did I want to call it, he asked? As a firm believer in name branding, I responded with the only show title that seemed appropriate: The Big Words I Know By Heart Radio Hour. Some forty episodes later, the podcast has drawn a lot of attention, controversy and popularity locally as well as nationally. I really didn't know what to expect when I started the show and tinkered with the format as I went along, but as long as my guests and I keep having fun recording the shows, I'm going to keep doing it. That, and there's a certain perverse pleasure derived from having a side career that allows me to deduct bicycle horns, train whistles and whoopee cushions from my taxes.
Before my first studio date, I spent two weeks listening to radio talk shows to study the back and forth banter of each interview format as well as the intonations, tone, and delivery of each host. Every conversation has its own natural ebb and flow, but talk show hosts attempt to control that dynamic by guiding each conversation and keeping the ball in the air to avoid long pauses, uncomfortable silences or gaps of dead air. I noticed during my research that some hosts were in love with the sound of their own voice, other hosts quizzed their guests out of a genuine interest for their work, and others still devoted too much time to goofing around without really accomplishing anything in terms of guest discovery.
As an author, I tend to stick with humor, so there was no doubt that the show would be comedy-centric. Radio and podcasts are a different medium, though. I don't have time to compose my thoughts, organize my arguments, or follow a progression in a logical manner. Not without a blueprint, at least. Having conducted multiple print interviews for Night Life and ArtVoice over the years, I hammered out a show prospectus for each guest with a bullet point list of topics, questions and screwball anecdotes based on the research I did before each show. In comedy, spontaneity is important, too, so I left each show wide open to improvise, wander off topic or simply riff with my guests once we found our rythm. And (as a fail-safe in the event that my scheduled guest is deplorably boring), I employ a rotating co-host to keep things interesting. Three people are a lot less likely to stop talking than one, and that format has served me well.
By the third show, the formula started to solidify. I was interviewing artist/writer Alex Robinson with co-host Intentionally Bald Mike (a show favorite) and the three of us broke each others' balls, practically destroyed the bicycle horn we purchased for the show, and goofed on Robinson's wealth of riches in the comic industry. It was funny. Outlandishly funny. And the fun we were having while we did the show carried over to the listener. Every time I planned a show, I made a promise to make each one a little bit different and to push the envelope a little bit further every single time. So far, I'd like to think that I've kept that promise.
I've spent my life overloading my brain with comedy: stand-up, situation, literary, radio, you name it. Most professional comics will tell you they appreciate standard jokes, but it's the twisted stuff that makes them laugh out loud. Comedy isn't something I digest in moderation, and over time, you build up a tolerance for standard cuisine. Growing up, I admired comics like Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles and Andrew Dice Clay for their ability to a)improvise with little rehearsed material and b)make fun of absolutely every race, creed and nationality in attendance. Some time in the '90s, political correctness made the practice of picking people off based on their background an endangered art. Why? Because it might offend someone who takes it the wrong way, so it's become an endangered art form.
We live in a world now where the most popular comics steer far away from offending anyone in their audience. Where comedians cling tightly to universal topics (relationships, religion, politics, etc.) so that they don't draw any fire for crossing an arbitrary line instituted in the last decade. Screw that. This may come as a surprise, but I'm the least prejudiced person around. And this is why I feel comfortable attacking any of my guests from every conceivable angle for their gender, their country of origin, or their beliefs, and I welcome them to do the same to me. The comedy that makes me laugh doesn't pull any punches. It doesn't stop short of making listeners gasp and I don't stop short out of fear that an insult will run the risk of upsetting someone. Real comedy takes risks. It doesn't make sense to me that only gay comics are allowed to make gay jokes now, only hispanic comics are allowed to make fun of hispanics, and only black comics are allowed to make fun of blacks, etc. These are jokes, we're a melting pot, and we should all have free reign to shoot holes through any convention that pops into our heads.
You can't please all the people all the time, so why bother? Even if I piss off half of my audience, I'd rather maintain the half that's in on the joke. And believe it or not, most people get it. The ones who don't tend to have a stick up their ass anyway, so I really don't care whether they listen or not. After ten years of writing vicious, vitriolic and inciteful humor in print, it was the radio show that got me banned from speaking at a public school. I was a bit shocked. I've been promoting the books and 'talking straight' with 'the kids' for years now, and all of a sudden (because of the radio show), administrators gathered the impression that I'm some snarling beast who'd come into the classrooms dropping f bombs and exposing myself to their children. With great exposure comes a higher spot up on the lightning rod. Since Big Words Radio's inception, the show has doubled the number of individual hits on the Think Twice Radio site and beyond. It's too bad that our public schools can't tell the difference between an on-air personality and the actual person, but such is life.
When we record a show, I try to amp my personality up to the nth degree and turn off all my filters. I attempt to be more out of control and tap into whatever unchecked aggression, offensiveness and outrageousness I've held back on in my day to day life. It's not the way I act in my everyday activites. There is a difference. While I can be (and often am) a goofball in the real world, all of these behaviors are magnified for the sake of getting a laugh. Too many people take things at face value, which is their own damned fault. It was this line of thinking that led to Episode 31: The Large Verbiage We've Shared Through Rote Activity Podcast. The show was an inside joke while we made it, and we recorded an episode that was intended to be the complete opposite of every other show we'd done so far. Instead of being a Conservative, myself and my co-host (Luxurious Head Of Hair Michael) were ardent Liberals. Instead of screaming and snarling at each other over heated debate, we never raised our voices and we agreed on practically everything. The intro/outro music was bland, our guest was the rampaging maniac (my wife Lindsay), and we 'shared' our verbal contributions concerning what a triumph it was that Barrack Obama had won the battle for all of us. After pushing the conventional limits of just how awful we could make every show, we took the next logical step...milquetoast.
It's been an absolute blast so far. Two months ago (through a great deal of aggravation and three weeks of trial and error), I built a web site just for Big Words Radio (www.bigwordsradio.mypodcast.com). After that, I submitted all 40+ shows to Apple for inclusion on iTunes and was pleasantly surprised to see that they accepted the show. If you've never heard it before and you have an Ipod, you can now subscribe (for FREE!) to the show by searching 'Big Words Radio' under podcasts on iTunes. Now that I can track the sucess of the show individually (instead of looking at lump numbers for a collective web site), the early stats are pretty impressive. In the first three weeks (before making any big announcements), there have been over 300 downloads throughout the country. This number is only going to expand as we enter into our next year and the word of mouth continues to spread.
Writing is my bread and butter, but the radio show compliments my chosen professional admirably. And, to be honest, transribing print interviews is a huge pain in the ass and it's a lot easier just to record one instead of conducting one for a newspaper. So far, I've interviewed award winning writers, world-renowned porn stars, and multiple Buffalo Music Award winning musicians. I've made a lot of new friends and most of us still keep in touch. If you want to know which ones, you'll just have to download the shows.
This month, my wife and I will be hosting a one year anniversary bash for Big Words Radio. Every former guest will have the opportunity to tear me a new one for five minutes at a clip and I'll be posting the show up on it's new home (www.bigwordsradio.mypodcast.com) afterward. I've never done a show before where I'm not even on it, so the idea of a tradional roast is intriguing and well within the show rules. The studio shows will still continue to be posted on the Think Twice Radio site, but from here on out, all 'One Man Mobile Units' (on location) will run exclusively on the new web site as well as iTunes. As for the next year, I'll be implimenting the same guerilla interview tactics that worked so well in the first place with bigger guests, more horrendous jokes and a treasure trove of new co-hosts. If you've heard the show before, thanks for listening. If you've never heard it before, what the hell are you waiting for? Drop the paper this instant and start listening!