Late-Night Television’s Freelance Joke Writers: Underpaid Heroes or Scourge of the WGA?

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Photo: Courtesy of CBS (Letterman), NBC (Leno), ABC (Kimmel), Getty Images (remaining)

Looking to break into the glamorous world of writing monologue jokes for a late-night comedy show, a career that will almost certainly earn you industry-wide respect and millions of dollars? Well, we hate to break it to you, but according to an article in today's Los Angeles Times, you might want to set your sights a bit lower. You see, a number of the jokes that David Letterman or Jimmy Fallon or Jay Leno tells each night are not written by actual show staffers (let alone by the hosts themselves), but rather by an underground network of freelance joke writers who get paid between $75 and $100 for each joke of theirs that manages to make it on air. One writer they spoke to, a 28-year-old New York–based writer named Greg Volk, has been working with the show in this capacity since 2004 and has only gotten an estimated 100 jokes on the air. Still sound glamorous to you?

Well, even if the prospect of scratching out a living $75 at a time sounds enticing, don't go getting your hopes up that you'll actually get credited for your work. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Writer's Guild of America officially frowns on this pay-by-the-joke process, and has worked diligently to ensure that some of the newer kids on the late-night block (like Jimmy Kimmel) don't farm out their joke-writing duties to non-WGA types. Even Conan O'Brien, who, according to this piece, never employed freelancers in this method while he was working as host of Late Night, was gently reminded when he moved out to the West Coast and began preparing to take over the Tonight Show job that this process wasn't kosher.

Yet, the underground practice continues on largely unabated. And the writers themselves don't seem to mind anonymously working for peanuts. "You pour so much time into this," a 28-year-old writer named Matt Little told the LAT. "And you don't find out until the show airs if you got a joke on or not. I like to say that it's like you're holding your lottery ticket in your hand, hoping that the words match up." And by lottery ticket, we can only assume that he's referring to scratch-offs. Because besides that, we're not aware of any other lotteries where the maximum amount you can win is $100.

For some late-night hosts, the laughs come cheap [LAT]