Talking Shop with Some Female Late Night Writers at the WGA West Diversity Panel

Last Friday night, the WGA West brought together a bunch of funny ladies for yet another serious discussion on the issue of women in late night comedy. Nell Scovell, who has written for Vanity Fair about her experience writing for Late Night with David Letterman, moderated the panel that included former and current late night writers.

Unlike what happened at a similar panel of different women in late night writing last May, there was never any commentary about how the women were funny because they “wrote like men.” However, there was discussion about the role that gender plays in the tone of the humor. Scovell pointed out that many of the jokes that the women on the panel had written had involved feminine influences such as Oprah, Paris Hilton, Lady Gaga and Sex and the City.

Everyone on the panel agreed there are certain comedic ideas that might appeal more to women than men that are no less funny, but merely come from a different mindset. The issue in late night writing is that it is the writer’s job to write for a host, one who’s usually male. Beth Sherman said there was a difference in writing for a voice like Leno or Letterman than for her current employer, Ellen Degeneres. However, she also conceded that Ellen’s comedic voice is closer to her own. Laurie Kilmartin (Conan) brought up a point that she has in the past about one of the differences she observes between male and female stand up comedians is that women get into it to express their own voices. When you write for late night, you have to sacrifice your own voice for the host’s. This was offered as a reason for why women don’t go after the late night jobs as much as men do.

The only man on the panel was The Daily Show’s Larry Wilmore, who had performed pieces written by fellow panelist, Rachel Axler, in the past. Wilmore brought a unique perspective to the panel by not only being the only man, but the only person of color. When the women joked that it would be interesting to see how their male co-workers would function if the gender count was swapped, they collectively looked to Wilmore who deadpanned, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening to anything you were saying.” I personally was not sure if he was just trying to be funny or if he was revealing something deeper by suggesting that the idea that men wouldn’t listen to women speak is funny.

Another sobering moment came when it was revealed that all of the women on the panel had experienced joke theft in the writers’ room. Stealing jokes is a common, but ugly, issue in the comedy community, but what makes it slightly more insidious is that their jokes were stolen because their pitches were ignored when they delivered them, but celebrated when a few days later a man pitched the same idea. The overall suggestion of the night was that female writers have to be more aggressive than their male counterparts in order to not only get their voice heard, but to land opportunities.

All of the writers also shared behind the scenes stories about their bosses and how each man works. Beth Einhorn, Beth Armogida and Beth Sherman all praised Jay Leno for his accessibility to the writers. Apparently Leno’s door is open all day to any writer who wants to pitch something to him. The only unusual catch is you don’t tell him the pitch, but leave it in writing on the table. The practice of pitching ideas in writing is what led Jimmy Kimmel to suspend formal writers’ meetings. Co-head writer Molly McNearney explained that at one point she and the other head writer realized that Kimmel had made up his mind about the pitches within a few minutes of reading them and so the rest of the meeting was wasted on the art of the verbal pitch. The Daily Show’s Rachel Axler and Larry Wilmore both considered Jon Stewart to be a supportive boss. Wilmore explained that he had bombed during his very first dress rehearsal and was incredibly nervous about the live taping. Before the show, Stewart came up to him and said, “Just look in the camera and fucking give it to America, Larry.” Laurie Kilmartin shared that at Conan all monologue jokes are submitted anonymously. Kilmartin said she liked this because it protects writers from inevitable off days. O’Brien also meets with his writers for an average of an hour and half a day to help choose and punch up the monologue jokes.

If Jay Leno was considered to be the host who made himself the most available to his writers, then his late night rival, David Letterman, was considered to be the least available. Sherman recounted the time that she was brought up to meet Letterman because she was “the woman writer,” and when she returned from his office, other staffers (who had been there longer than she had) asked, in hushed, gossipy tones, “What’s he like?”

Molly McNearney, co-head writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, was the only one on the panel who had experience hiring late night writers. She explained that in about 200 submissions, only about 30 are usually from women. It was never discussed during the panel, but there has been some mention in the press that McNearney is also Kimmel’s current girlfriend. However, she did not know anyone at Jimmy Kimmel Live when she got her first job at the program. This was unusual as everyone else on the panel knew another writer on the staff of the show that hired them. She told the story of taking a huge pay cut to become an Executive Producer’s assistant, and from that position worked her way up to her current post.

According to McNearney, hard work was the most important quality to getting ahead in the world of Late Night. When I briefly chatted with her after the event, she said that she and the producers can pinpoint which interns and assistants will stay on the show based upon how well they complete simple tasks like lunch orders. “It sounds stupid, but you can tell a lot about how smart and hard working people are by whether or not they take the time to get the order right and whether they make sure to include napkins or not.” She also stressed the new importance comedy writing staffs place on online outlets such as Twitter. “The first thing we do when we look to hire someone is to Google them.” She also explained that if you can repeatedly write a statement with a punchline in under 140 characters, it’s proof that you can churn out monologue jokes.

The overall tone of the panel was positive and inspiring. Most of the women wanted to encourage other female writers in the audience to go after jobs on late night writing staffs. However, it was also clear that women who want to go into the world of late night need to be prepared for the grind. All of the writers spoke about the ups and downs of the job and the intense pressure to constantly create new and exciting material. That said, all of the women on the panel seemed exhilarated just talking about their jobs. By the end it was clear that late night isn’t a place just for a specific gender of person, but a type of person who is obsessive about their craft to the point of almost sickness.

Meghan O’Keefe is a writer and comedian who lives in Queens.

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