What It’s Like to Write For a Late Night Talk Show

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Comedy is an industry. For every performer on stage, there are hundreds of people working behind-the-scenes. These creative and business jobs, which exist in all disciplines and levels of comedy, collectively make up the comedy scene. In this column, we’re looking a comedy jobs that are less visible than that of a performer, and talking to the people who do those jobs about what they do, how they got there, and how that job has affected their perspective on comedy.

The past year has brought a crop of new late night talk shows to television, and that means more opportunities for late night writers. One of the most sought after comedy writing jobs in the industry, there’s no set route to becoming a late night writer. Many develop their voices in standup, sketch, and acting, while others hone their skills in online videos. The Daily Show’s Elliot Kalan began as an intern at the show, serving as a production assistant before applying for his writing job, while Jimmy Kimmel Live head writer Molly McNearney began as an assistant to the show’s executive producer.

The practical path to becoming a comedy writer is much the same as most writing jobs. “The best piece of advice I have, and it’s the simplest, is just to write,” McNearney told Splitsider. “I think a lot of people say they want to be a writer, but you actually look at their day, and they’re not writing.” Being deeply involved the comedy scene, or already working for a show, are the best ways to find out about job openings, and from there, the next step is writing a packet of jokes that are appropriate for that particular show. Nikki and Sara Live co-host Sara Schaefer’s tips on looking for a late night job and actually applying for the gig provide great insight into the application process.

For a creative job, working on a late night show is fairly structured. But each show, whether weekly or daily, requires it own specific organization and routine. On TBS’s Conan, for instance, the show’s writers are divided into separate teams of monologue and sketch writers. “Our day is a series of deadlines for turning in what we term “batches” of jokes (because we’re Keebler Elves) and meetings with our team and Conan to winnow down the joke-herd,” said Rob Kutner, a monologue writer at the show. On the sketch side, the ideas can be so last minute that “by 11 o’clock, there’s a few ideas,” said writer/director Scott Gairdner. “Writers are dispatched to work on some of those ideas, and hopefully you have some version of it somehow miraculously together by 1:30, when the rehearsal starts.”

It’s a very different style at ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live. “Every writer is responsible for writing monologue jokes,” McNearney said, adding that, “most nights, each writer usually has an assignment for a celebrity guest coming on the show who wants to do a comedy bit […] I would say Jimmy Kimmel Live is known in the industry for putting together really smart, funny pieces for their guests.” That show also employs four Clip Researchers, who’s sole job is to watch TV and pull clips.

Over at Comedy Central, The Daily Show writers are responsible for monitoring their relevant television channels. “When you’re not working on a particular assignment, you’re watching the news and looking on the internet for stories to pitch, or angles to pitch on stories on larger news stories,” said Kalan. “So we all know that there is a government shut down happening right now, so you wouldn’t write a pitch that was like, ‘Hey, we should write about the government shut down!’ But if you came up of an angle for it, you would pitch it.” And each show’s focus determines the basic research; at MTV’s pop culture heavy Nikki and Sara Live, says writer Emmy Blotnick, “we meet in the morning to talk about whatever things Miley Cyrus has dry humped, and then we usually break off and start putting scripts together for different parts of the show.”

And writing for a regular television show is not quite as free-wheeling as many imagine. “Working here as a writer is not everybody sitting in one room and tossing out crazy ideas at each other,” Kalan said. “I think there’s this feeling that comedy writing works the same way that it did during The Show of Shows, where they where just sitting in a room acting out characters and making stuff up.” Gairdner agreed. “I think a lot of people would be surprised at how much it is less sitting in a room and joking and figuring out ideas and more sending out emails, telling people how big the green screen needs to be and that kind of thing.” The biggest misconception, according to The Daily show’s Zhubin Parang, is “probably the 30 Rock-suggested idea that we’re all schlumpy early-20 slackers who pee in jars. Most of us are married, and we’re generally all social, put-together people. I’ve got a plant on my desk and everything.”

Inevitably, working long hours on comedy will change a writer’s perspective on the genre. “I’m a tougher comedy audience - some might say ‘a dick’,” said Kutner. “You see and hear so many types and just so MUCH funny all day long, it takes something just way more insane to really tickle me. And because of the factory-like nature of what we do, I’ve usually had my fill of comedy by days’ end.”

But churning out material at such a rate invariably improves its quality in the long run. “The more you write, especially the more you write comedy, the less it becomes like this mysterious process that you’re trying to capture,” Kalan said. “After years of doing it professionally, instead of staring at it and hoping for some inspiration, it becomes much more of a systematic process than, ‘Oh well. I guess I’ll sit here until the back of my brain thinks of something and tells me what it is.’”

“The big thing I’ve learned is the importance of hard jokes,” said Parang. “I think in improv and sketch comedy, especially the kind done around New York, there’s a tendency to be intellectual and absurd, which plays well with the hard-core comedy audiences here (including me), but TV moves way too fast for that. You need to hit jokes hard and often, and not just trust that a general comedic concept will be enough to power a segment.”

“I got my start making videos on YouTube,” said Gairdner, who works primarily on video sketches for Conan. “My speed was approximately one three-minute video every two months, because I would agonize over every choice. But now, having made a lot of things for YouTube and a lot of things for Conan, I’ve started to get a better perspective on what are the important fights to fight and what things to let go.”

Although late night talk shows are are amongst the oldest, and in many ways, most stable formats on television, they have have also had to adapt swiftly to the new media landscape. For one thing, late night shows no longer exist exclusively in their time slots. “12:30 late night is not a 12:30 show anymore,” former Late Night with Jimmy Fallon writer Anthony Jeselnik told Splitsider last year. “It’s a 24-hour show now, because everything is online the next day.” And shows now must contend with more competition on television and the Internet. “I’m envious of people who got to work on these shows 20 years ago, when there were a quarter as many of these shows, and there weren’t all of these websites too, because you’re just constantly competing against other shows and them getting to the idea first,” said Gairdner. “Topicality and the shelf life of parody targets is getting slimmer and slimmer because there a thousand of these shows, all waiting to jump on something and parody it.”

For many writers, that breakneck schedule is both the best and worst part of the gig. “It is a real grind, but every day is a new day,” said McNearney. “Your successes are short lived, but then so are your failures. So you can have a great bit on the show and you can really enjoy it for about an hour and then you have to start thinking about tomorrow’s show. But if you didn’t do that well, that’s also short lived and you have the next day to prove yourself.”

“Every job is a job and it stops being magical after a moment,” said Kalan. “And you have to remind yourself like, no, this is really amazing. Things that seem magical or impossible to you become mundane reality. You lose perspective and you get lost in the non-amazing parts of things and you forget how amazing comedy is or how lucky anyone who gets to do it is.”

Elise Czajkowski is an Associate Editor at Splitsider. She promises to start tweeting more.

Photo via Getty.