Tag Archives: stephen colbert

Prep Your Show With George Carlin’s Scientific Method

You may have seen or heard about the new Judd Apatow documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, now playing on HBO. It is a celebration of the late comedian’s life and career (hard to believe he passed away 14 years ago), and features interviews from fellow comedians including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. Of all the things we learn about Carlin, one thing sticks with me­­—his immense dedication to preparation. The lessons for personalities, from radio morning hosts to podcasters, are clear.

When I started in radio, the idea of researching morning shows was not well-received. It was seen as researching art, and therefore subjective and difficult to measure. Over time, we discovered we could identify components of shows that resonated more than others, and which personalities formed deep bonds with their listeners. Through that process, we learned that the greatest, most successful shows prepare. A lot.

If you watch George Carlin perform, on a basic level, he can appear pretty loopy. His act could give the impression that he was out of control, a free form artist ranting and raving about issues on his mind. But the reality was, George Carlin was extremely practiced and precise. So precise, in fact, other comedians refer to his comedic method as scientific and groundbreaking.

Watch at 6:24 when Jon Stewart explains, “It’s so often when you’re in a creative pursuit that you think, infrastructure or setting up a system is the antithesis of comedy or inspiration or creativity. And the lesson from him (Carlin) is like, actually it’s the opposite.”

The root of Carlin’s system has a home at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, donated by his daughter Kelly after he died. It’s a filing system that includes paper scraps with words and phrases sorted by category. As Carlin estate archivist Logan Heftel explains, “That’s how he built this collection of independent ideas that he was able to cross-reference and start to build larger routines from.” He eventually shifted the ideas to a computer, but the process remained the same.

Carlin was asked in an interview about a routine called “A List Of People I Can Do Without.” The interviewer wondered, how many jokes did he have to write to come up with 25? Carlin responded that it was 40 or 50, and the 25 that did end up making it got reworked and reworked, getting better and better.

Carlin’s process has rubbed off on countless comedians over the years, including Jerry Seinfeld. In “How To Write A Joke,” Seinfeld describes the long and arduous process of perfecting one simple joke about a Pop Tart.

The lesson? It’s not that simple.

Radio talent coach Steve Reynolds works with talent every day and sees their processes firsthand. To him, the correlation of preparation to results is completely obvious.

“There was a day when we in morning radio could wing it.  I’d never recommend that to a show today. When coupled with everyone’s need for immediate gratification, listeners bail at the slightest sense that a show has no idea where it’s going. And trust me, they can tell.  I’m watching lots of Carlin on YouTube, and two things stand out about his comedy and this amazing HBO special. First, George Carlin evolved as a performer. As he grew as a talent, his comedic voice became more genuine. In the iconic version of Carlin we all remember, he tackled big topics and shared his very genuine take on them, thus his comedy was much more authentic. The other thing that stands out to me is his immense prep. He was a student of the craft, working endlessly as is evidenced by those notes you see in the special. Every word of every routine is carefully picked. For us in radio, we must first choose the right topics. Then have a true understanding of our take. Then decide where we want to take the audience. Doing four hours of original radio each day (maybe 16-20 content breaks), there’s just no way you can pull that off without planning.”

These lessons and examples should resonate with all entertainers, not just comedians. If show preparation is sitting around and randomly throwing out ideas, the show will feel random. If the approach is like a scientific method like Carlin’s or Stewart’s or Seinfeld’s, it has a much higher chance of success.

What Air Talent Can Learn From Stephen Colbert

Tuesdays With Coleman

Stephen Colbert had a pretty good gig. From 1997 to 2005, he was a correspondent for The Daily Show, where he broke ground on hilarious, sarcastic and often outrageous news reporting. In 2005, he was handed the keys to his own show, The Colbert Report, which followed The Daily Show on Comedy Central for the following nine years. Colbert’s work on this show is even more remarkable when reviewed with the passage of time. If you think hosting your own show as yourself is challenging, try hosting a topical, relevant news show every night in character. Not to mention the fact that the political views Colbert’s character espoused each night were generally the opposite of his own personal outlook. The Colbert Report was a resounding success for the network.

In 2015 David Letterman retired, and Colbert became the new host of The Late Show on CBS.

Then the wheels fell off.

It wasn’t just that The Late Show got hit hard in the ratings—The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon consistently beat Colbert overall and with desirable demographics in 2015 and 2016— it was that Colbert abandoned his brand. When preparing for the show’s launch in September 2015, he was faced with the unenviable challenge of moving from hosting as a character to hosting as himself.

It was awkward. Worse, it was vanilla.

When Colbert brought his Daily Show BFF Jon Stewart on the show last year and cleverly let Stewart ask him the questions, Stewart asked Colbert about this transition period.

Colbert mentions the difficulty in even talking about his own wife on the show, since he’d spent the past nine years in a character with a fake wife. He says he believes there wasn’t even a good monologue for the first six months. By 2017, Colbert turned the tide in the ratings. So what changed?

Colbert references his interview with Joe Biden, during which the two shared a common life experience of loss and showed vulnerability.

He mentions how he embraced the art form of the monologue and made it his own through authenticity and putting his own spin on it. Being unafraid to go political following Trump’s election didn’t hurt.

Finally, he talks about how a series of live shows gave the episodes immediacy and urgency, and how he learned to trust those around him.

While only research could effectively answer this question, let’s hypothetically play out getting a read on Colbert’s brand during the transition. Had we applied it to our Brand-Content MatrixSM, we may have seen significant brand strength, with viewers familiar with who he is, what he represents, and a clear understanding of why they watch.

Brand Content Matrix

The content on The Colbert Report was undoubtedly great. Note the content on that show was always true to the brand—if Colbert’s brand was snarky and sarcastic, the content was snarky and sarcastic.

We would have measured perceptions of Colbert as a personality and his show’s images and features.

Strong brand and great content would have placed him in the upper right quadrant of the Brand-Content Matrix, which is where you want to be.

The first year of The Late Show provides a lesson on what could have happened had Colbert not recognized the need to adjust.

First, because Colbert was trying to deliver a more mainstream, centrist show, the check mark on the “Content” line may have slowly moved to the left.

While his brand may have remained strong for some time, the disconnect between the  brand and content would have ultimately pulled the check mark down the “Brand” line.

When you’re preparing your show each day, never forget that your brand and your content are intrinsically connected.

Colbert restored his Brand-Content Matrix by recognizing his content deviation. Do you think he aligned the new show to his brand or modified his brand to align with the content?

The lessons he learned are evergreen for all shows:

Be memorable.

Be vulnerable.

Be authentic.

Trust those around you.

Build a strong brand, and develop great content.