Tips from a pro on how to write funny radio commercial scripts. An important task worth doing well. If you’re laughing, you’re doing it right.
These suggestions and secrets are intended for copywriters, script writers, radio producers, voice actors, students: all those who love radio and want to make it better – and funnier.
These tips come from my 40, count ’em, 40 years of writing funny radio scripts. (Here are 15 of the funniest.)
If you’re writing radio spots for a living, and you’re laughing while you’re doing it (because your scripts are just so darn funny,) you’re doing it right. If your brow is furrowing while you’re doing it, you’re doing it wrong.
Enjoy the ride, I say. And laugh your ads off.
Tip #1 for Writing Funny Radio Scripts: End Big.
Why would my first tip about “How to Write a Really Funny Radio Ad” be about the ending of your radio script?
Because the Big Finish is the Big Secret.
So, so many spots start strong – with a funny character, a clear point of view, an ear-catching effect – and maintain it (mostly) throughout the spot, BUT completely give up about halfway through, as if to say, “my work is done here.”
You know how it is, even as a listener. Once a funny “concept spot” hits that mid-point, any comic conceit is thrown out the audio window.
Then it’s pure drudgery; copy points being drilled, one after another, all comedy left behind, then, worse, those white-noise wrap-ups, from “Member, FDIC,” to those long, speed-talk legal disclaimers: unnecessary (why not kick the listener to a URL?) and, for the radio listening experience, an insidious kind of evil.
Weak endings let the listener down. “I gave you my full attention for this? I will remember to tune out your brand’s messaging from this moment on.”
Instead, reward your listener. Say, “thanks for listening all the way through,” with a funny punch at the end. It’s a climax, in all senses of the word, just as in there is in all good story-telling.
Example: our “Beat-Yourself-Hotline” spot for Smartship.com. In it, a frazzled fellow practices a very fine form of self-recrimination. Until his skill is rewarded at the spot’s Big Finish.
“Beat-Yourself-Up Hotline” | Sixty-second radio for Smartship.com
Put the biggest joke, the sure-fire, laugh-out-loud moment, at about second :50, just in time to really invoke a reaction, then bring it home with a denoument (“falling action”) in the form of a final call to action.
Your listener will experience something close to delight, and will gladly give listening focus to your brand’s next message, knowing there’s something attractive to paying attention.
Here’s another example of Finishing Big.
It’s our “Laugh Catalog” spot for the stand-up comedy TV series “George Schlatter’s Comedy Club.” A Clio-winner for Best Use of Sound, this seminal Paul & Walt spot has a simple list structure – “cataloging” types of human laughter, with laughter itself being the benefit of watching the funny show.
But the best gag, and the best laugh, is held ’til the end. It’s a guffaw, literally.
“Laugh Catalog” | Sixty-second radio for George Schlatter’s Comedy Club
There are other radio writing best practices demonstrated in that spot: the idea of writing for a voice, the value of a “list” structure, the need to use a sonic, ear-driven medium in the most “sound” way.
But it’s here as a great example of a satisfying conclusion, of holding your cards to that climactic moment, in which you as a writer, say, “Here. I have a royal flush.” It’s that ace up your sleeve.
So try it, radio writers. Drive. Keep going. Through the copy points, through the brand promise, even through the legalese, and honor your listener with the gag they deserve.
Your spot will be more beloved, and perhaps have a life beyond its initial airing. In the memory of listeners. In the memory of marketing officers. In the memory of ad award judges.
Experience the climax, radio writers.
Then enjoy the afterglow.
Tip #2 for Writing Funny Radio Scripts: One Copy Feature to a Spot
What’s the one thing that will keep your spot from achieving capital-C Comedy?
Too many damn copy points.
If your creative brief has more than three features it wants to communicate about a brand, business or product, it’s not worth the shiny, yellow paper it’s printed on.
And even if it does have three, your job is to take those copy points one at a time. Let’s just you’ve just been handed a brief for Smilin’ Sam’s Fashion Farm. We must, must, must say it has:
• The biggest selection of Spanx in town
• The lowest prices of any second-hand clothing retailer
• Plenty of free parking
Those are three different spots. Each one worthy of its own, separate demonstration of the benefit of the feature. What’s the benefit of having the biggest selection of Spanx? (More spanx.) What’s the benefit of lowest prices? (More spanx.) What’s the benefit of plenty of free parking? (More spanx.)
Hmmm. I guess “More Spanx” should be the tagline of Smilin’ Sam’s.
Here’s our somewhat famous commercial for the syndicated TV series, “Matlock.” (It won a Clio Award for Best Radio Copywriting.) Praise Matlock! There are a lot of things to say about the well-remembered. long-running, Andy Griffith courtroom drama. But the only thing the TV station client wanted us to do was to tell viewers that the show had changed time slot. Blessed is the client who just wants to say one thing!
“Missing Persons” | Sixty-second radio for “Matlock”
Okay, what time is Matlock on? You got it.
The power of repetition – power of repetition, write that down – really is doing the work here. And performances. And production. I based the script’s staccato rhythms on Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” series. But the conceit comes alive through Paul Fey’s direction, those great Hollywood actors and sound design that puts us in the room where it happens. Or the phone call where it happens.
Lesson: One major copy point to a spot. One. A few others can be sprinkled around the edges if need be, but: one.
Urging: If your client or account director wants to say ten different things, they just bought ten different spots.
Tip Number 3 for Writing Funny Radio Scripts: Take Sh•t Out
Less is truly more, especially in radio, when giving a message time to breathe is better for the sender. And the receiver.
If you’ve timed your script – and you are timing your scripts, with a stopwatch, multiple times, of course – and the thing is coming it at :30 or :60 if you read it fast enough, with each FX faded under and every nanosecond accounted for…
You don’t have a spot yet.
You have to take sh*t out.
And the spot will be better for it. There’s no prize for getting all that sh*t in there. The overall listening experience is compromised for the pyrrhic victory of making the account team happy; if nobody is paying attention, the fact that Smilin’ Sam’s Fashion Farm has Spanx in sky blue won’t be noticed anyway.
Let the script breathe. Give it some “white space” in the form of beats of silence or beats of music. Let a “reaction shot” linger. You can do it. You have to shorten the sell (best) or even kill one of your gags or dialogue exchanges (difficult but necessary for the greater good.)
An example and an anecdote.
“Robert Goulet” | 60-Second Radio for” The Simpsons”
Listen to the luxurious pace at which the famed orator reads from “The Writings of Bart, the collected after-school blackboard writings of young Bart Simpson.” At Paul Fey’s direction, Goulet adds somber import to each line reading, almost in harmony with the dignified music, all a contrast to, you know, those goofy words. “I will not bring sheep to class,” Goulet intones. “A burb is not an answer.”
If the pace had been performed any faster, I offer, the spot would not have won a gazillion billion industry awards, including the $20,000 Mercury Award for Radio Humor. But it did.
I can think of time after time when cutting a few lines made everything better, and I can remember the first time I suggested it. Spoiler: I was a client.
In the 1980s, I was managing advertising for Southwestern Bell from a job on the inside. I was supplying brand positioning and strategy. Storied agency DMB&B was supplying the creative and media plan. I was 30 and had a budget of something like $3 million to manage; I was a good steward, I think.
As a copywriter at heart, it was a bit hard (but not impossible) to remove myself from the radio scripts that were presented to me. I encouraged the funny, hoped to break through, and let the writers do their thing.
I remember the writers, account executive, engineer, voice talent and I were gathered in a recording studio in New York – we recorded in New York back then, when job costs and expense accounts were flowing with green.
The writer’s spot – something about a cop stopping a speeder, with some Southwestern Bell benefit thrown in there – was coming in a few seconds too long. The performers sped up until the spot was in time, but the comedy went up in smoke, just like the account guy’s cigarette.
From the booth, I said: “I know what we can cut.” And I highlighted in the script a few lines of the sell.
Everyone was shocked. The client is cutting the sell?
“Sure,” I said. “We’ve already made one solid point. We don’t need those other points. We can save them for other spots. The overall listening experience will be better. We’ll get more listens, a better reaction.”
Nobody argued twice. The lines were cut. The spot was good. The results were good.
A week later, a gift arrived from the agency to my corporate cube. It was a plaque, a meticulous homemade thing, looking all official and shiny.
It was from the agency.
It said, in huge type, “Good Client Award.”
We all laughed. Good Client Awards weren’t really a thing. But I appreciated the gesture.
And this time, as every time:
I was glad I cut those lines.
Tip #4 for Writing Funny Radio Scripts: Be Anything But Ordinary
In 1981, as a novice copywriter at The Flynn Group advertising agency in Colorado Springs, Colorado, I was assigned to create a 60-second spot for Baron’s Saloon, a TGIF-Friday’s-like restaurant chain with a single location on South Academy Boulevard.
I was given some basic copy points: Big menu. Low prices. Atmosphere of fun, fun, fun. And a mandate to do something “breakthrough.” (That was the big ad phrase then.)
At the time, a popular book about advertising and pop culture was “Subliminal Seduction: Are You Sexually Aroused by This Picture?” by Wilson Bryan Key, which claimed to find hidden messages in TV and radio commercials and print ads.
I was sitting in the public library in downtown Colorado Springs on my lunch hour when this spot, a parody of that concept that allowed for lots of copy points and lots of attitude, came fully fleshed into my mind. I could hear every beat of it.
The client loved it. I cast voice talent and baritone Herb Beattie as the announcer; he brought the right deal of skeptical gravitas to the role. I cast myself as the “Subliminal Voice” you hear throughout. We recorded it in about 3 takes in the basement studio of Rick Zahradnik’s Alpha Productions.
Here’s the spot.
“Subliminal Seduction” aired on about a half-dozen Colorado Springs radio stations, and was an instant hit beyond my wildest, young expectations. I heard people in stores and swimming pools reciting it to each other verbatim. Denver radio announcers played it for free just for the entertainment value. (Free airings? Unheard of!) It started to win awards: local Addys, regional Addys, and amazingly enough, “Best in Show” in the Denver Art Directors Club Awards. Imagine: a radio spot winning an art directors award! There’s not a bit of art direction in it.
A couple of years later, comedian Kevin Nealon did a similar “subliminal” bit on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” It was a coincidence, I think: a similar comic mind finding a way to poke at the concept for laughs.
But meanwhile, with this spot and more like it, Baron’s sales continued to grow, and they opened more locations in Colorado. I was interviewed by the local press for articles about the power of radio, and my copywriting career got a booster rocket. Herb Beattie, too, climbed into the stratosphere, and worked as a popular voice-over talent for many brands until his death in 2019. Rick and I continued to make quirky comedy, including the funny parody video YouTube sensation “Offices in the Raw,” in which a group of Colorado actors spent a Saturday semi-nude. It was the 80s.
I guess the tips embedded in this story for beginning copywriters is: Push it. Try it. Be outrageous. Be anything but ordinary. Find a truly entertaining way to represent the copy points. Cast great voices. Cast yourself. Sell the concept like, “Of course you should do this. Who wouldn’t want a spot like this?”
I think back to that quiet, moment in the Colorado Springs library. If I knew then what I know now…
I would have done exactly the same thing.
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