How to Be the Lightning Rod

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Lightning rod characters can drive rating and build brands. They make outlandish statements and take extreme positions that either inflames the audience or makes them laugh out loud. By saying the unexpected and inappropriate, lightning rods are highly memorable and give your show impact. They are often the third or fourth mic on an ensemble cast, yet lightning rods can be the main host or cohost as well.

Jeff McHugh delves into the dos and don’ts of lightning rod characters. – Randy Lane

The producers of tonight’s Academy Awards could have hired a safe, non-offensive host like Alex Trebek or Ryan Seacrest. Instead they hired comedian Chris Rock.

Along with his humor, Chris will bring trouble and pain. Watch this clip of his previous Oscar commentary. He will embarrass the Academy over the all-white Oscars controversy; he will skewer powerful Hollywood establishment players, and Chris will offend some viewers so badly they’ll flip channels to “Dateline NBC.”

The truth is, safety is boring. You will capture bigger audiences by playing the lightning rod.

When you are ready to walk the line of good taste and public acceptance, here are some dos and don’ts.


Say it if you think it. The unvarnished truth is rare and compelling. XM/Sirius’ Howard Stern makes embarrassing, politically incorrect statements work because he is vocalizing what the audience is thinking but too afraid to say out loud.

Say what your audience thinks… to the extreme. Many conservative Republicans were disappointed when Obama was elected president. Rush Limbaugh drew headlines when he took it a step further by stating, “I hope he fails.”

Frame indefensible comments with humor. Comedian Bill Burr joked about domestic abuse when he responded to the statement that there is never a reason to hit a woman”Really? I could give you seventeen reasons off the top of my head!” There are PLENTY of reasons to hit a woman. You just don’t do it!

Get management buy-in. Use this article to sit down with whoever signs your paycheck and agree on appropriate topics and premises for provocative content and have a game plan for when (inevitably) sponsors or listeners complain.

Don’t apologize. Ever.  Unless you accidentally violate one of the principles below, in which case you will probably be terminated anyway and will not need to apologize.


Don’t advocate violence. It’s OK if you wish out loud that harm comes to murderers, rapists or terrorists, but stop short of suggesting that people act on those thoughts.

Don’t demean groups that you are not a part of. If you are not black, you are not allowed to use the “N” word. You can make fun of an individual, but be careful ridiculing a group. Everyone hates that shoe bomber terrorist, but avoid incendiary comments about Muslims.

Don’t skewer non-public figures. Bringing John Q. Public into the spotlight for entertainment is asking for legal trouble, unless they are in the news or agree to be on air. The mayor, however, is fair game.

Don’t be in a position of power. If you happen to be straight, white and male, you will need to step more carefully with controversial content than if you are a gay African-American woman. Vulnerability and self-deprecation is key. Make the joke about you.

Don’t criticize advertisers. If one of your sponsors is in the news, cover it as news. But you have too many other content choices to make fun of that won’t cost you big money.

Don’t ridicule physical infirmities and diseases. Make the joke about your own inability to manage an encounter with that person, like the comic Austin Powers movie scene with the spy who has a mole.

Your radio show or podcast may call for you to play a “shock jock” full time, or you may only be a lightning rod on selective occasions. Consider these ideas as a thought starterstowards making your content more memorable, emotional and authentic.

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