Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” is four minutes and 46 seconds of a basic misunderstanding. It relies on the kind of grade-school wordplay — “No, the horse’s name was Friday” — that would never pass muster on a modern stage, let alone onscreen. And yet nearly a century after it was first performed on the radio, it still, shall we say, slaps.
I often find myself revisiting it, along with the handful of other sketch albums and radio comedies that I grew up listening to, for no other reason than a lack of social adaptation. While other sixth graders were getting their first taste of Linkin Park, I was busy memorizing Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot Sketch.” Most girls auditioned for the summer camp talent show with lyrical dance routines and warbling pop covers; I did so alongside a friend with our best impression of The Vestibules’ “Phillipa and Denina.” (We didn’t make the cut.) But without minimizing the havoc it wrought on my teenage popularity, I continue to champion the humble radio sketch. Because for all the live stage shows (RIP) and series streamed on modern platforms, nothing hits quite like a gag that is heard, but not seen.
As the first real public broadcasting medium, radio spawned a proliferation of comedic personalities, some of whose names are still your parents’ favorite topics of conversation: Jack Benny. Bob Hope. Groucho Marx. This early history is unsurprisingly very white and plagued with racist minstrelsy. But over the decades, radio became a space where much of the trailblazing for both sketch comedy and what we now call “alternative” comedy — the stuff that doesn’t quite fit conventional rubrics — was done. Some personal favorites growing up included BBC Home Service’s The Goon Show, a 1950s radio program that narrated capers replete with nutty character voices, puns, and metatheatrical commentary; compilation albums of Monty Python, which you’ve probably already heard of; Radio Free Vestibule, an early ’90s Canadian sketch troupe who created nonsensical short-form sketches about everything from God to the sounds of the words “bulbous bouffant”; and Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café, a mellifluously narrated series of humorous stories about small-town Canada from the 1990s and 2000s. (I grew up in Toronto, in case you’re wondering why this list of favorites draws so heavily on British influence and becomes suspiciously Canadian toward present day.)
Radio comedy’s sense of humor is largely a function of the sense through which it’s received. Where televised sketches make use of sight gags, sharp physical acting, and deft editing to punch the jokes, radio comedy traffics in the kind of restrained, short-form humor that relies on the lack of visual cues to land with its audience.
Take, for example, The Vestibules’ “Beethoven Backing Up a Truck,” an audio version of what you’d call a “blackout sketch” (under 30 seconds long, punches a single joke, ends abruptly). The segment begins with a voice announcing, “And now, Radio Free Vestibule is proud to present: Beethoven, backing up his truck,” and we hear the alternating two-tone sound of a truck’s beeper. Smoothly and without warning, it transitions into the opening notes of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” End sketch.
The first time I heard it, I laughed so hard I cried, and then laughed harder at the idea of delighting in something so inane.
But the inanity is very much the point. Audio is one of the only ways of consuming scripted comedy that gives the imagination license to collaborate; it is audience participation at its most self-aware. In a radio sketch, our minds build the world we think we hear, with sound effects, expositional dialogue, and the occasional stage direction read aloud as our only guideposts. Wordplay and meta-commentary thrive in audio sketches where they might otherwise make a staged sketch fall flat: The BBC’s I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again poked fun at radio broadcaster inflections by dryly reading news headlines with absurd details, and the modern indie series Left-Handed Radio ran parody podcast ads such as “BoxBox,” in which a fast-talking announcer tries to sell the listener a subscription box for a box.
I asked Colin Anderson, VP of Comedy at Earwolf/Stitcher and a former staff producer at BBC Radio Comedy, about what gives aural comedy its edge. “Radio is truly a writer’s medium,” he said. “The words have so much less to hide behind than video, where acting or camera effects can make a piece feel more satisfying than the writing deserves.” He also added that, from an industry perspective, it’s an appealingly low-budget format for experimenting with scripted ideas. “You can do huge special effects with no budget. You can time travel, jump through space, blow things up, or have talking unicorns just as easily as you can have two people having a conversation in a coffee shop.”
This invites a more vital question: Why aren’t we hearing more radio comedy? Talk shows, or “chatcasts,” make up the bulk of most podcast networks’ comedy fare; public radio favors unscripted and news-based comedy shows like Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, and notwithstanding the commercial success of deep-state satire Welcome to Night Vale, there have been few attempts like it since. Podcasting has certainly enjoyed something of a similar cultural explosion to that of the web series in the late aughts, so why aren’t more comedians taking advantage?
This is not a dig at all the excellent hybrid comedy podcasts out there that blend interviews with character bits, improvisation, and sketch. But the Foley-addled nonsense of fully scripted sketches and series remains in a bewilderingly less populated category of its own. Anderson credits this scarcity to the fact that scripted shows may not be as attractive to the networks footing the bill. “Scripted shows are still harder for me to green-light because there are extra expenses involved in paying writers, cast, and for the production work needed compared to a classic unscripted two person ‘chatcast,’” he explained.
Then again, maybe a new wave of radio comedy is just around the corner. In December 2019, National Lampoon released a podcast revival of its Radio Hour sketch show from 1973, which helped launch then-emerging comedians like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner to Saturday Night Live stardom (the new version features similar rising stars like Cole Escola, Rachel Pegram, and Jo Firestone). And this past April, 30 Rock’s John Lutz launched a Goon Show–style radio drama featuring A-listers like Paul Rudd and Olivia Wilde.
Admittedly, a boom of new scripted audio comedy may not hit the way it did when it first appeared in the 20th century. We rarely gather around a radio together, let alone share our headphones with friends while listening to podcasts. And as Lampoon president Evan Shapiro points out, communal listenership is half of what made radio comedy feel as special as it once did. “I think what you’re seeing [with audio] is what originally happened with video, in that video is so fragmented, and now audio is also equally as fragmented,” he said. “It’s not like you’re sitting in a car, listening to the radio together.”
It’s worth noting that, with the recent death of Above Average and CollegeHumor and the isolationist algorithms of publishers like Facebook and YouTube, audio platforms may well be one of the few remaining accessible sources for creating and distributing — not to mention discovering — bold, risk-taking sketch comedy. At the very least, it seems to be the prevailing model for low-budget experimentation.
“Anyone [can] make and upload a video; anyone can record and launch a podcast. The act of creation and getting your work into the world is as free as it’s ever been,” said Anderson. “The young and passionate people who’d be fetching coffees on a film set or even at a broadcast radio station are allowed to show the world what they can do.”
If you’re going to share something funny with a friend, a radio sketch is the “weird flex, but okay” of comedy fare. It’s less accessible than a TikTok meme, offers little by way of timely or topical humor compared to last night’s late-night monologue, and takes almost as long to contextualize as it does to enjoy. It may never scratch the itch for those who prefer their comedy streamed and not heard, or who find puns and silly sound effects hack compared to some of the more nuanced humor of scripted television. Even I’ll admit I’m far more likely to feel like watching reruns of 30 Rock than to feel like pulling up “Laurence Olivier for Diet Coke” to see if I still remember the words. (I do.)
But when I think about how I first stumbled onto radio comedy and why I held fast to it against the middle-school tides of alt-rock fandom and South Park references, it simply came down to finding something that made me feel misfits like me could have a captive audience. And amid growing scarcity of indie comedy venues and experimental scenes, radio comedy feels like the misfit horse to bet on.