A few weeks back I was offered the opportunity to interview legendary radio personality Tom Leykis. Originally I was reluctant to say yes, as Leykis was not, in the truest sense ,a comedian despite being considered funny by many, intentionally or ironically. I myself wasn’t much of a fan of the man, but this had more to do with my never being a listener of talk radio than anything else. However after some deeper research and a few hours of listening to his program, I decided to take the interview.
Leykis, in my opinion, did have something to offer comedians. It wasn’t his politics or his social agenda, but rather the courage to have both. In many ways the Tom Leykis Show is a five hour experience not unlike stand-up comedy. He’s on stage in front of an audience of 400,000 and he’s speaking his mind, even if that doesn’t work for every listener. Leykis is himself on air, and that’s something few comedians can do so comfortably. So with a strange feeling that I was heading into the lion’s den I headed out to meet them man behind the microphone.
I was heading, as it turns out, to Tom’s new internet radio studio. After ending his terrestrial radio show on 2009 Leykis had taken a sabbatical while developing his web radio broadcast hub and podcast network (and honoring his lucrative non-compete clause). He launched “The New Normal Network” in 2010, and brought his own show back to internet airwaves in 2012. His listenership for the new endeavor was over 400,000. Leykis also spent his sabbatical working with social media, and has tied his Facebook and Twitter pages into his show, updating them live on the air and interacting with fans in real time.
Arriving early for the interview I made small talk with Tom’s engineer. Tom arrived shortly before airtime. Tom is a tall man, somewhat heavy set, and is more imposing that one might think of a radio personality. I was ushered into his studio where the interview went forward mostly during his show’s commercial breaks. Watching the man on air was impressive. He wasn’t broadcasting to my wheelhouse (he was talking about sports and sportscasters for the time I was in the room) but I could see his passion for the subject, and his control of himself and the audience. Again, it wasn’t stand-up, but it had a lot of the trappings of the best performers.
Could I boil this down into something worth reading?
Well enough NPR-ish setup, here comes the interview:
What do you find funny? What is your style of comedy?
“What we do is spontaneous. I don’t know if you’ve heard the comedy of Jimmy Brogan (who was the head writer of the Tonight Show for many years) but his whole act consisted of coming out on stage and talking to the audience, and he was the best at that, I thought. That’s really what I do. We go by the seat of our pants. The idea is to have a strong presence that allows the caller to shine through, either as someone unique and fascinating and funny... or a complete moron.”
What comedians are you a fan of (Tom traditionally had Comedians in on Fridays)?
“Joe Rogan is a classic example of somebody who comes in and we have a lot in common. I like when people come in and have something to contribute to the show. There are many people who come in and just want to tell you they’re at the Brea Improv for two nights and don’t want to do any material on the show.”
Let’s talk about the ability to be yourself on the air. You have strong opinions and some people like them an others don’t. All comedians face a version of this same issue. You’re speaking your mind to 400,000 people and they know your phone number. How do you unabashedly do what you want to do on air?
“Everyone feels equal: dial my number and you can be heard just as easily as I can be heard. So you have to be confident and comfortable and have a thick skin when people call and talk to you. Imagine if comedians had to deal with hecklers who had a microphone. Then that person hands the microphone to somebody else and another person starts heckling you.”
How long did it take to develop that skin? When you started was it as easy as it is now? When did Tom Leykis become Tom Leykis?
“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, I was the youngest guy doing this. Just like when you’re a comedian you have to develop and act. I worked in small towns like Staunton Virginia. In Albany the owner of the station was an aspiring comedian and he game me complete freedom essentially. I was on 7:30 to midnight, six nights a week. We had all this time to fill so he really did not micromanage what I was doing. We took that show to an 11-share in one book.”
(Editor’s note: An 11 share means that 11% of all the radios in the market were tuned to Tom’s show. More than one-out of every 10 radios!)
You have over 400,000 listeners (give or take) and many of them may not agree with you on every point. When you're speaking your mind on the mic, do you often consider who will or will not respond?
“The important thing for me to always be focused on is what got me here: speaking honestly and outrageously. The minute I start worrying that people will disagree, I'm through. What makes our show interesting is that someone will disagree. If everyone agrees, I'm talking about the wrong topic. Honestly, I never worried about this, which is why I've had so many run-ins with competitors and even with people I've worked with. Adam Carolla canceled my scheduled appearance on his podcast merely because I had responded frankly to a question from a reporter who asked why our old station, KLSX, changed format. I told the truth that, among the reasons we went away, the ratings showed that listeners didn't embrace Adam as Howard Stern's replacement. I took great lengths to say that I had nothing against Adam; it was just the truth. And now he's pissed. I don't ever regret telling the truth. But in order to be on Adam's podcast, I have to accept his narrative that he invented the podcast after wrapping up his wildly successful radio career. And I refuse to lie.”
What advice do you have for young performers (comedians and radio personalities) who may be afraid to take a stand for what they believe in? How did you form your own stage courage?
“ Your unique perspective is all you have that makes you stand out. If you don't stand up for who and what you really are, what is your act, anyway? This is especially true in a long-form art form such as a call-in show. Unlike a comedian, I can't do 20 good minutes and go away. I am on for 3, 4, maybe even 5 hours at a stretch. There's nowhere to hide. If I'm a phony, the audience picks up on it right away. My "stage courage" came from working at radio stations in small towns talking to practically no one and getting no calls and realizing that, the more I personalized my content, the more compelling people seemed to think it was, and the more they responded.”
On the show I had a chance to see you addressing a letter from a listener who was upset with you, which clearly you had turned to your favor. Is it true that all publicity/press/attention is good attention?
“Just about. Even Kobe Bryant is now pretty much universally beloved. Of course, there are exceptions such as Jerry Sandusky...Not the kind of attention anyone should be striving for.”
You've made it this far by being yourself, which seems like the hardest thing for any performer to do. Where did that ability come from? How can other people make this choice?
“As a precocious kid with a high IQ, I have always been somewhat of an outsider, and an annoying one at that, in the view of some. As a kid, I always strived to be the center of attention, and I often did that by engaging in bad behavior. Some things never change! One night in a comedy club purely as an observer will tell you what you need to do. Recently, I spent a night at one of the Hollywood clubs. Most everyone was doing similar Kim Kardashian and Lindsey Lohan jokes. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Then, someone totally out of the box named Trevor Noah came on and brought the house down. Why? Because he has constructed a completely unique and compelling narrative about who he is, and his jokes and approach seemed in no way influenced by all of the regular comics. You feel like you've met someone totally new and different, even though he's also engaging in the time-honored tradition of simply standing alone on a stage with a mic and telling jokes. The story he's constructed about his life seems so different and compelling. I walked out of there feeling as if I'd seen something really fresh and new. How many comics can walk off the stage and truly say that about themselves? If you can't, it's time to infuse more of who and what you are and your unique point of view into what you bring to the stage.”
What issues have you addressed that you feel are done now, battle won?
“I've proven that you don't need a transmitter, a satellite dish or a big conglomerate to produce a compelling call-in show. I've proven that I can do this without consultants and other so-called "experts" ringing in my ears. This year, I will do something with our internet radio stations that the three biggest broadcasting conglomerates couldn't do last quarter: make a profit.”
I walked out of the interview feeling as if I had learned something. I would suggest any comedian interested in bettering himself could learn the same. It’s not about what he says, but that he says it, and with the courage and conviction in which he says it. I’ve listened to Leykis a few times after that day, and to be honest it’s still not for me. Not entirely anyway. I respect the man’s convictions but it’s not my wheelhouse. I even passionately disagree with him from time to time. Nevertheless, I still hear the skill in his delivery and remember watching him in studio, turning his face from the mic between comments, keeping the audio clean. He’s got “it” and I can’t begrudge that. It’s strange but I consider Leykis a influence on my career from here on out, as it’s a respect of his method and his work ethic, but less so for his message. I suppose all performance is the same art form, left, right, center, and backwards. I don’t have to want to be a ballerina to appreciate the effort it takes to be good at it, and in that same way I have nothing but respect for a man who has refined the art of holding an audience more than most. Even if he would look less good in tights.
The Tom Leykis Show broadcasts live from Monday through Friday starting at 3:00PM PT and is available free to all listeners by going tohttp://www.blowmeuptom.com. The Tom Leykis Show can also be heard live and on a 24/7 streamed replay through all the major media players: TuneIn, Windows Media Player, iTunes, iPhone, Shoutcast and Winamp.
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