There is something mysterious and exciting about working in the writers’ room of a late-night show. Maybe it’s because the hosts are presented as these paragons of humanity, so the writers are then like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. There’s enough excitement in the late-night world that Mindy Kaling wrote a movie set there — Late Night, in theaters now. (Also here’s a shout-out to The Larry Sanders Show.) But what’s it like in 2019, when things have felt on fire for so long we can’t remember what the sky looked like before it was filled with smoke? Was it clear? Yellow? And the moon was at night and the sun not at night?
We asked some late-night writers, live, at 92Y. The panel included Jenny Hagel (Late Night With Seth Meyers), Ziwe Fumudoh (Desus & Mero, The Rundown With Robin Thede), Kat Radley (The Daily Show With Trevor Noah), Kate Sidley (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert), Nicole Silverberg (Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), Rebecca Shaw (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), and Josh Gondelman (Desus & Mero, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver). They talked about why female late-night hosts are judged differently than their male counterparts, the limits of empathy, and friends who recognize your poop jokes on air.
The recording of the panel discussion is this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen, below. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. We will be doing an L.A. version of the panel at NeueHouse on June 27!
You’re writers and artists in your own right, but these are shows with the names of the hosts in the title. How do you balance expressing yourselves with speaking in the voice of the show?
Jenny Hagel: You want to write about something you care about, but it also can’t sound too much like you. Every once in a while, your voice sneaks through. I wrote a monologue joke not too long ago and the show tweeted it, and then I got screenshots from other people being like, “Was this you?” It was about white men not being great, so pretty on-brand for me.
Nicole Silverberg: It’s hard enough to convert the news into jokes, and you’re putting your voice through a machine, but it would be a much harder job if I didn’t have overlap in the Venn diagram of my voice and Sam’s voice. The longer you do it, the more you get their voice in your head — what they would say and what they wouldn’t say. I’m always trying to push our show as far left as possible, like, “Let’s do something really socialist!” Pieces about the Green New Deal or universal childcare. I feel proud when I’ve pushed the show’s voice into something I believe someone else wouldn’t have pitched in the room.
Kat Radley: Voice is interesting for us because you switch. This week, I did a piece for Lewis Black, who is a 60-something-year-old, very angry white man. I like that our show isn’t like, “Okay, I’m a white girl, I can only write for Desi.” I’ve written pieces for all of the correspondents, contributors, and Trevor. You have to shift quickly from one voice to another, but your voice is always in there somewhere. I get friends who text me if there’s a poop joke on the show — they assume that was me.
Josh Gondelman: Desus and Mero have a real wide strike zone for stuff they’re willing to do. They’re so smart and so silly that the breadth of references is totally bonkers. I personally like making them react to, like, real dork stuff. Each story of the show has like a title card that’s some kind of pun — the dumber or more intricate the pun, the better I feel about myself. Where I used to work, at Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, I took great pride in the dumbest jokes. A joke I wrote last year, I don’t even remember the setup, but the punchline was John in kind of like a surly Brooklyn accent saying, “Suck my dog dick!” I was like, I’ve earned my pay this week.
In the past year, a lot of late-night shows fronted by women were canceled: Busy Philipps, Sarah Silverman, Michelle Wolf, Robin Thede. How would you articulate the problem here, beyond the obvious?
Nicole Silverberg: I’ll voice a little pet peeve I have, writing for a woman-fronted show, which is whenever a new woman-hosted show comes onto the scene, it only gets talked about in context of Full Frontal. It’s always like, “It does this! And Full Frontal does this differently.” You know, “Busy’s on a couch, and Sam stands.” Like real deep comparisons that are really thought-provoking and important. It’s frustrating for there to be a separation just in the general conversation when you’re talking about what the late-night sphere is like.
Also people need time to figure out late night, and everyone does it a little differently. People who write for these shows, especially who are there from the beginning, like Kate and Jenny, it takes time to get settled. People are impatient. They expect for a woman to have this unique and immediate spot where they totally understand what they are doing — which, in the case of Busy and Robin, they did. From the get-go, those shows were unique and excellent. But I think people just evaluated it in a different sphere, which is a bummer.
Kat Radley: If we learned anything from the election, our country is still way more misogynist than we might want to admit, and people bring that to female comics. “Women’s voices are really shrill. People don’t want to hear them.” There’s still an aversion to a woman who’s trying to be funny. Like, they use that word try, as if there’s a baseline assumption a man’s going to be funny. Yet for some reason, women still have to prove themselves that they can be funny; they’re not just automatically accepted as funny. Women hosts have a harder job to get the viewership because there’s that subconscious misogyny that people may not even be aware of when they view these shows.
Kate Sidley: There’s also this false and frustrating concept that there is “lady news”? I pitch sports constantly for my show because that’s what I know a lot about. I don’t know anything about The Bachelor or The Bachelorette or things that are considered, like, “lady’s subjects.” So when those shows do get a chance, they’re evaluated by different criteria. It’s like, Well, this is where I’ll get my lady topics, and then I’ll get everything else from the neutral, which is male.
Ziwe Fumudoh: I know a lot about The Bachelor and Real Housewives. I wear a lot of pink. I love feminine stuff. Late night reflects the world we live in. How many women CEOs are there, right? We need more shows by women that are different in every way — some can be super-pink and about The Bachelor, some can be about sports. It doesn’t really matter; we just need more opportunities for women. We don’t need to pigeonhole ourselves. You have to be your true self. That’s all you can do as a performer and a writer, and that’ll connect with people.
As you all know, covering Donald Trump is a unique challenge. How do you and your shows approach it?
Kat Radley: Trevor is not American, so he’s not a Democrat, he’s not a Republican. He always wants to learn as much as he can about every side of all the issues. We tend to lean towards the Democratic party because they’re not monsters, but it’s nice being able to have that distance and see his perspective. It’s refreshing to be like, Maybe I’ll look at both sides and make sure we’re being objective as we approach Trump and what’s happening in the news.
Jenny Hagel: There are two levels of Trump. There is the stuff where he had toilet paper stuck to his shoe and the wind blew his hair. Then there’s his really insidious immigration policies and him trying to eliminate protections for LGBTQ people. It’s easy to get caught up in the toilet paper on the shoe. Every once in a while, I try to, like, re-center and be like, If I can put a joke on TV, what do I want to write the joke about? The weekend Michelle Wolf hosted the Correspondents’ Dinner, everybody got really upset about her eye-shadow joke and spent 48 hours talking about that. But that same weekend, Trump held a rally where he asked if there were any Hispanics in the room and then he goes, “Okay, good.” That’s scary, and that’s real. I came in on Monday and wrote a piece about it because I felt like, Ooh, let’s try to keep our eye on the ball.