Jeremy Bronson didn’t take the traditional path to become the head monologue writer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Sure, he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon in college, but between that gig and becoming a professional comedy writer, he lived in DC and worked for both the senatorial campaign of Lamar Alexander and the not-so-funny Chris Matthews Show and Hardball.
I talked to him about his career path and what his job is like now that he’s in 30 Rock writing topical jokes for Fallon every day.
Rachael Mason: What led you to comedy writing?
Jeremy Bronson: I wrote for the Harvard Lampoon in college. I tried out for that magazine. You write these short comedy pieces for a semester. They’re non topical and they’re short, each is like a page long, max. A short dialogue piece, or parodies of some sort. And you write them for a full semester and there are successive cuts throughout the semester. And then you hope to make it on [to the staff] by the end. And then when you do, it’s really fun because people take comedy really seriously, they think about comedy, so you sort of learn how to write for the first time.
RM: And so many people have come out of the Lampoon and have gone on to comedy careers.
JB: Yes, it’s two fold. On the one hand, it gets you thinking about comedy at a young age and also, from a practical standpoint, you get to see other grads who made a career out of it. And that it’s something that can be done. And those grads were always coming back to the Lampoon, and you get to see what it’s like to have a life in comedy.
RM: It seems like it’s not a typical college comedy experience.
JB: It’s very rigorous. But it’s not pre-professional. I think there is a sense, for the better, that you should just use that as an opportunity to learn how to write and meet really funny people and be funny together and do funny projects. And then not worry about job stuff until after you graduate. And that’s pretty much the ethic on the Lampoon.
RM: Do you remember anything particular that you wrote from that time?
JB: Well, the way it works is that each writer on the Lampoon becomes the editor of a particular issue. Mine was called “Lost at the Zoo” — it was all animal humor. I just really like animal humor, even in our monologues on the show now. So that issue in particular is something I really remember. And when I tried out for the magazine one piece I wrote was a parody of kids who wrote letters to a fireman who had come into their class that day.
RM: What did you do after you graduated?
JB: So towards the end of my senior year I started to think I really wanted to work in politics. Either in politics directly, or in news media of some sort. And I was taking this class on how to run for president with Lamar Alexander, and he was leaving Harvard to go run for the Senate. So I went down to Tennessee to work for his campaign for a few months, writing radio commercials and that sort of thing. It was fun. Then I left the campaign to take a job working for Chris Matthews for his new weekend show, called The Chris Matthews Show [as a producer]. I think he liked the Lampoon and wanted to hire someone from there. So it seemed like a good mix of things I was interested in. So I moved down — that was in DC. And I did that for three years in a number of roles and it was really fun. And then I left that show to take a job at Hardball, his other show, with a little more responsibility for about two-and-a-half-years. And I would say around that time, I started to miss writing comedy. And I wrote a half hour pilot about Capitol Hill, about being a Capitol Hill intern. So then I started writing packets for different shows.
RM: Did you have an agent?
JB: I had an agent who dealt with news stuff, and I left that agency and got an entertainment agent. They started sending stuff out for me. And then I got hired for Chocolate News [David Allan Grier’s news magazine parody show]. So I got that job while I was living in DC and I flew to LA and then started working three days later. The packet was pretty much standard — like sketch ideas in paragraph form but we actually went out there and pitched them to the producers and David Allan Grier in person. It was a news magazine parody show from an African-American perspective, with long-form Dateline style pieces.
RM: What was a typical day like on that show?
JB: We’d have pitch meetings on Monday, you would go around the table and then David Allan Grier and the producers would call you in to the offices and tell you what they liked. And then you would work on that for the rest of the week. Once it got into production we were writing monologues and coming up with banter and things like that.
RM: How topical was that show?
JB: Not super topical. It wasn’t responding to that day’s news. But you could argue that a lot of pieces on Dateline are feature-y enough that they would work two months later.
RM: What did you learn from that job?
JB: I learned how to pitch in a room, which I think it helps to get practice doing — how to sell your ideas to the group, how to support other people’s ideas. That was helpful. And then obviously writing on deadlines. Those deadlines don’t compare to the deadlines I have now, which are much more intense. But it was still good practice.
RM: After that show ended, then what did you do?
JB: I wrote a packet for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon of monologue jokes. This was before the show had started. I was really into joke writing — so I wrote six pages of jokes and sent my three favorite pages.
RM: So you got hired and have been there from the beginning. What’s the day-to-day like on the show?
JB: The people on the show are definitely hands down the smartest most creative bunch of people I have ever worked with on anything. They just did a great job hiring people. They also found people from really different backgrounds — there are stand ups, I came from news, other people had been lawyers. And it works as a team. And there is a really positive energy that affects the comedy we end up doing on the show, even the monologue. A lot of that comes from Jimmy and the types of people he wanted to hire. It’s a really fun place to work.
There is a sillier kind of feel. And that comes out of the kinds of people who were hired and [Michael] Shoemaker, and Jimmy, and [A.D.] Miles and Gavin [Purcell] are super nice funny guys and they set the tone.
On the monologue side, I would say the first half of your day, you do it pretty much on your own. You sit at your computer and write jokes. And as the day goes on, it becomes increasingly more collaborative. You punch up each other’s jokes, fixing each other’s jokes, write tags for each joke. I like that. I enjoy writing in quiet for a while, I like getting in really early and write while it’s really quiet and then spend a few hours just doing that. And it’s obviously fun to play with each other’s material.
RM: Did they give you any directives in terms of branding or tone when the show started?
JB: I feel it was more organic. I don’t think there was ever an edict to do this or don’t do that. And I think the show really reflects Jimmy’s personality. And on the monologue side you see the types of jokes that do well on the air, so you write more of those, you see what Jimmy responds to and what he writes himself and you try to write jokes in that mold too, but it just sort of happens organically. When we hire monologue writers we don’t sit them down and give them a list of do’s or don’t’s. You pick up on it.
RM: How do you think it has evolved since it started?
JB: One thing we sort of realized is that Jimmy is such a brilliant improvisor and since he’s so good at characters and impressions, those are things that can be worked into our monologue. So we like to have great well-crafted one-liners, but we also like to use this vast ability that he has.
RM: Do you find there is a difference between writing sketch and writing jokes?
JB: Time pressures make a difference, and I think that is especially true on the monologue side. It’s about writing jokes and being able to do it very quickly. What distinguishes our side is speed.
RM: How many jokes do the writers write per day?
JB: I would say about 100 per day. Now I am the head monologue writer, so I have some other responsibilities, so now maybe half that amount.
RM: So what do you do as head monologue writer?
JB: I still write as I used to. But then every day around noon or so, I go through all the material that all the monologue writers have written and select the best of so that we can give it to Jimmy so he can look through it, work with it, and pitch out what he likes. So a lot of it is rewriting, editing and choosing amongst the other writers material.
We usually do a table read and then as we decide which jokes we are going to be doing, then those jokes get punched up. We still work on them before the meeting but the ones that get the most attention are the ones that are increasingly looking like they’ll get on to the show. The other thing we do which is really fun is we have this rehearsal — a monologue rehearsal, where we bring in a small crowd, usually tourists or a studio tour or sometimes tourists from the NBC store in the lobby and Jimmy tells a few pages of jokes and we see which ones work the best and it’s another time where he can improvise and play with the jokes and we can then incorporate those into the final write-ups. Its also really good as a writer to see your jokes do well and to watch them bomb. It’s very instructive.
RM: Do jokes come back if they have been cut?
JB: There have been times when we felt something was close or there was something there even though it wasn’t perfect and if we think we can fix it, we’ll try. But with a topical monologue for the most part you have one day to get it right, and then the next day it’s something new.
RM: Is there a process for figuring out what topics you will concentrate on for jokes?
JB: We’re lucky — we have a monologue writers’ assistant whose sole job is to research stories for us and keep on top of the news, and she’s great at it. On our show, Mike Shoemaker is our Executive Producer, and he oversaw Update [on SNL] for so long, he knows jokes so well, that when you’re in a crunch he can tell you what kinds of things to focus on. And Miles too. But the stuff that also plays best for us is the stories people are talking about. When I started out I used to think the research element was so critical and I increasingly think that’s not the case. You want to be able to write awesome jokes on the five or six things people are talking about. And it also helps to have opinions on stuff when you write monologue jokes. Because that is essentially what you are doing when you write a joke. That’s not to say that — our show definitely has no political point of view. None of our writers are particularly political. I enjoy politics but I’m not partisan at all. But when I say opinion I don’t mean necessarily a value based opinion, but still render some type of judgment.
RM: You read a lot of the submissions that come in for the show. What would your advice be to someone sending in a packet?
JB: I don’t know if this is useful advice at all, but I will say it’s a determining factor in people getting hired. I think you can tell when there is kind of a joy behind the packet. I mean nobody really loves to write a packet, because the goal is to get work. But that said, you can sort of sense a joy behind certain jokes people write. And obviously when you are writing for a show you’re going to be writing in the voice of the host, in this case Jimmy, but you also need to write what you think is funny and that you enjoy or otherwise what’s the point. And I think that comes across. It’s almost perhaps more important then trying to mimic or get the voice down perfectly which I think can evolve for people, and often does.
Also, definitely with monologue writing, you just get better at it, you have to keep practicing and practicing, it’s tough. It’s a tough kind of writing. I think also there are certain monologue staples and on our show we try to stay away from them. Certain joke constructions, an angle we feel has been over done. We really try to not repeat jokes at all. I am sure some things slip through, but we really try as a general rule to do only new stuff. And I think when you’re practicing just challenging yourself to come up with something you haven’t heard before, is difficult and helpful.
RM: What is your advice to people who are interested specifically in monologue writing?
JB: Some writers have websites where they put their jokes on. I do think that’s helpful. It’s smart. On our show, all the packets get read. If people submit, they will get read. This is definitely the most fun job I have ever had. It’s something definitely worth pursuing. And it’s something you can definitely get better at. Obviously some of it is having a certain ability, but within that you can get better. Which is heartening.
Rachael Mason is an actress and writer living in Brooklyn. She teaches sketch writing at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She also performs regularly with her improv group, Rockhammer and writes for the house UCB sketch team, Gramps.