How to write 150+ news satire segments for radio

How-to-news-satire-radio

Time sure flies when you are making fun of the news of the week… every week.

It has now been over three years and over 150 episodes of ‘What a week?!’ / ‘Was fuer eine Woche?!’ on SBS German radio.

If you speak German, you can listen to it every Saturday on air or just listen to the segment online at sbs.com.au, just look for W.f.e.W?! So I thought, it might be time to give you a behind the scenes look at how the segment gets made every week.

Disclaimer: This is just how I do it, and I am pretty sure there might also be a better way, but so far this has worked quite well for me.

 

The making of: Funny stuff about the news

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Step 1: Find good sources (and plenty of them)

This is the most important step. My go to places are the major newspapers and radio/TV broadcasting stations (and their websites) in Germany, Austria, Switzerland (so that I got a feel for what is going on over there and get the ‘lingo’ right) followed by the same big players in the US, England and Australia. Unfortunately I don’t speak any other languages fluently enough to really understand the big issues.

There a plenty of reasons for having a good list of news sources from different countries:

  • If it a slow news week in one country, another country might have an “over-supply” of news stories.
  • It also means I can double-check the stories on other reputable news sites because sometimes they might not be true at all or the reporting on the topic is actually quite one-sided.

When looking for stories, I am mostly looking for the “real news”. In the last few weeks for example we have talked about everything spanning from the NATO summit, the European Central Bank data loss and the Scottish Independence referendum as well as the World Cup and the recent outbreak of the plague in China.

Yet, every once in a while a story pops up that is already quite bizarre in itself (e.g. giant golden cookie gets stolen in German town, cookie monster sends ransom note) and then that of course will make it onto my shortlist.

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Step 2: Read, watch or listen to the news as much as possible

It is not surprising that the more I try to take in, the easier I find the actual writing process. However sometimes even that doesn’t work.

Over the last years I have found that there are only three different kinds of ‘weeks’.

  • Weeks where really, really horrible stuff is happening and gets reported in the news.
  • Weeks where it seems nothing is happening at all.
  • Weeks with just the right amount of serious news that could have a few funny angles.

The first two require a lot more thinking and work, but in all three cases I try to casually test initial ideas during the week. This ‘early testing’ happens mostly in conversations with friends and family and sometimes even on stage at a new material gig.

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Step 3: Piece it all together with a bit of glue and sticky tape

Selecting the news stories if often the first hurdle for when I am writing the segment, so when my SBS ‘segment-co-host’ sends me a link to a story he or she thought could be included, that just makes it a lot easier.

Since ‘What a week?!’ / ‘Was fuer eine Woche?!’ is part of the German language program on SBS radio in Australia, I try to have one Australia related news story, one from Germany and one internationally focused story in the notes. Having said that, this is really just a rough guideline and we have deviated from it plenty of times. Either because other stories from around the globe were more important or because we have done a ‘single focus’ special on stories about i.e. the last Australian federal election, the Olympics or the Nobel Prizes.

The next part is simply writing jokes as outlined below. This might sound like a very structured process, but it is really just about getting it all out of my head and off multiple pieces of paper into one document and playing around with it until I get to a first draft, then a second draft, a third…

The key steps in my joke writing process are:

Phase 1: The treasure hunter approach

  • Choose the topics or news stories.
  • Make a list of everything that is associated with that topic (or several topics in a news story).
  • Then as a first step – I remember the basic joke structure: Set-up (misdirection) – punchline.
  • Write down every joke that comes to mind – even the super silly jokes or stupid jokes. At this stage, it doesn’t matter, because you can edit them out later. I find that if I start editing these jokes in my brain instead of writing them down, it will simply take too long to come up with ideas.
  • It is time to decide on the order of the three or so news stories. Once the order is locked in, I like to go back and see if that itself could lend itself to creating more twists and jokes.

Phase 2: The alchemist approach

  • In this phase, I firstly use Joe Toplyn’s Punchline Makers and Joke Maximisers (from his book: ‘Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV’) and his blog explains what some of them are.
  • Write and rewrite jokes based on those principles.
  • Then I go through Tim Ferguson’s joke principles (from his book: ‘The Cheeky Monkey’ and also briefly explained on his website) to see if there are other options for a joke to be made.
  • Write and rewrite jokes based on those principles.

Phase 3: Then start the testing and rewriting process

  • Then I will read it out loud, to check for flow and how the jokes are balanced between the two of us, which of course means more writing and re-writing and maybe even re-ordering. “Rinse and repeat” as many times as you want or can.
  • Sometimes I test some of the jokes of this week’s episode in conversation with friends or – even better – at an open mic comedy night.
  • One final word about re-writing jokes: It means writing jokes, re-writing jokes, cutting or discarding jokes, re-ordering jokes, writing more jokes, thinking there are no more jokes, writing new jokes, re-writing jokes. Discarding jokes is super important if they just don’t work as a joke (that’s easy to do), if they don’t work in the flow of the segment (a little harder), if there simply is not enough time (also not too easy to discard a good joke in that case).

I then send the final draft to the SBS German Radio inbox as the “starting point” for this week. Sometimes we record it as outlined in my final draft, and other times we make changes to it a few minutes before the recording. Either way, it is always fun and since I had already cut some of the weaker jokes from the draft before I emailed it, I never mind more cutting or changing, because two minds think better than one.

 

Let me know how you do it or if there is a better way

So if this helps you, then that is great. If you have a better strategy, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, via email or on Facebook or Twitter @CJDelling.

In other online broadcasting news…

It took me only two years to realise that all of the news stories, that I find, read and watch every week, could also be used for a comedy podcast IN ENGLISH. So almost coinciding with the 100th episode on radio I also started my own podcast called Under the News Desk. This is where a guest (a.k.a my co-anchor) and I talk about one news story that happened during the week.

You can also listen to it on itunes, at underthenewsdesk.libsyn.com or on Stitcher.

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