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What It’s Like to Write for a Late-Night Host Now

Vulture’s L.A. late-night-writers panel. Photo: Vulture, Getty Images, Danny Ricker/Twitter, Courtesy of Jocelyn Richard, Cindy Trinh, and Just for Laughs

After recently chatting with a group of late-night writers at New York’s 92Y, we went to Los Angeles to talk with West Coast writers at NeueHouse. The panel included Jessie Gaskell (Conan), Jenny Yang (Busy Tonight), Danny Ricker (Jimmy Kimmel Live), Jocelyn Richard (I Love You, America With Sarah Silverman), and Matt Gunn (Real Time With Bill Maher). They talked about why 90 percent of what they do will never be seen by the public, how they learned to tailor their writing to fit a specific late-night host’s voice, and nonsensical ratings wars in the age of YouTube.

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.

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On taking chances
Danny Ricker: If it comes from a place of, This might be a crazy idea, but I think it could work, Jimmy appreciates that. The first-ever “Lie Witness News” we did, it was like, Let’s ask people what they thought of the First Lady debate between Michelle Obama and Ann Romney last night. Jimmy’s note was, “There’s no way this will work, but let’s try it.” Then it did, and it became a signature bit for us. The writers do feel comfortable because we throw it in and if he doesn’t like it, he kills it, and it’s fine. It’s not this big thing. I imagine for you guys at Conan, though, it’s the fact that you’re producing stuff; it feels like probably way more of a swing. If it doesn’t
work …

Jessie Gaskell: … I’m the only one to blame. Yeah, it would be nice sometimes to have a little more cover, just a few more people to throw under the bus. But no, when it goes well, it’s really rewarding because you feel like, I handled that from soup to nuts. Then there’s also so many places where you could make one tiny mistake and that can mean the end of it. It’s such a volume business that you do have to just not feel too attached to anything and nothing is too personal. You hope that if something humiliating happened, hopefully people have at least forgotten about it the next day.

Danny Ricker: The most freeing thing is there’s just another one tomorrow. You can’t be too big of an asshole if your bit goes great. Because it’s like, I feel like a day later people are like, “He’s still talking about that bit from last night.”

Jessie Gaskell: I feel like the success feeling is very fleeting and the failure feeling lasts for a long time.

Danny Ricker: Yes, I think that’s internal. It’s not like everyone else is like, “Boy, that was really terrible,” but just because we’re crazy.

Jenny Yang: I don’t perceive Matt to have any confidence issues.

Matt Gunn: I don’t have a lot of confidence. It’s just that all my stuff is amazing.

On writing about Trump and other political issues
Danny Ricker: It’s easy to grab at the low-hanging fruit of like, Did you see what he tweeted? and See what he said? We are the more classic variety show, and we do feel an obligation to have fun. The toilet paper on a shoe going into Air Force One — it’s like, the guy who everyone knows is bad, look how bad he is. We’ve got to show some of that. However, I think there are also a lot of great candidates. The oxygen is getting completely gone by the time it’s time for them to talk about stuff.

Matt Gunn: It goes without saying that Trump is the best writer we’ve ever had. The setups are the punchlines with Trump. I never thought we’d get a gift from the comedy gods, as much of an ass as George W. Bush. Then Trump just obliterates that. Now I think there’s definitely, for all of us, some fatigue that’s setting in. He came on the scene in like 2011 with birtherism, and now it’s almost a decade of just dealing with this guy and it becomes so hard. I can’t even help myself, but “cocked and loaded.” One of our writers looked it up, and it’s a gay porn film, of course. The joke he did, it didn’t get on the air: “I think Bob Woodward has the title for his next White House biography because that’s just perfect.” Anytime there’s a Trump joke, I try to put it to the test of, Do I have to? Is there something more interesting? Because I think people are getting tired of it, too. Trump’s ratings are down.

Jenny Yang: Well, the solution of Busy Tonight was very early on, we decided not to try to even name him, because there’s plenty of other people like you all who can handle it. It’s on E! E–exclamation point. Our focus was weird internet ephemera but mostly pop culture. If there was an entry point that was interesting and it can go satirical or political, then let’s try it. She would editorialize about tougher issues. [Busy Phillips’s personal monologue about abortion] was a little bit right breaking out of making sure that there needed to be a joke every other few seconds.

Danny Ricker: Jimmy got a lot of attention for the health-care stuff, and I think Busy really got a lot of attention for the bravery of that, too. Everyone can shout at the headlines, but going, There is a human side to this that is not on Twitter, that is not on CNN, but it does affect people? That’s a great way you can actually get a message out.

On writing in the host’s voice
Matt Gunn: The great thing about late night is you have instant gratification pretty much. You do a joke that morning, sometimes it’s on that night, and you got to have a closer’s memory. If you blew the game, forget about it and get back to work. I find it pretty satisfying. The other great thing about it is it’s a little cowardly, but there’s some stuff that I wouldn’t want to say in front of a crowd because I don’t want to face the blowback. I work for about the best guy on television for that because he doesn’t care. I’m lucky too. I should say, I agree with him most of the time. I remember right around the time I interviewed to be Bill’s writer’s assistant, I interviewed to be Dennis Miller’s writing assistant. I sometimes think of that because I would’ve quit. Dennis Miller, I find him horrific, and so I couldn’t have been able to do it. Luckily, I found the right person to write for.

Jocelyn Richard: I personally feel very comfortable chameleoning myself to fit a host’s voice. I’ve written for a lot of different hosts over the years, male and female and RuPaul, which is a little bit of both. For me, it’s a little bit of a puzzle because you’re trying to figure out, How do I say this thing I want to say, but from the perspective of, in Conan’s case, a middle-aged white guy? Then I have to rediscover my own voice, and I’m like, Wait, who am I?
I don’t know what my point of view is anymore. I’ve gotten too good at slipping into someone else’s voice.

Danny Ricker: We had an interesting experience in the last couple of years as we’ve done a handful of guest-host shows. Jimmy was out when his son was born and the medical stuff was going on. Obviously, we had nothing to do with that. He came back, and we had already lined up guest-host shows because he was just going to take two weeks of paternity leave, and then they were surprised by all of this. He goes, “I want to come back, host the first one just so I can tell everyone what’s going on.” We asked him, “Do you need anything from us?” He’s like, “I got it.” He sat in his office all day, and he just went out and did it. As if we didn’t respect him already, but that was a not-easy thing to do. He became part of the news cycle and got involved in it. It was an amazing moment for us, too, because we all knew what was happening, but not in that way that he phrased it. I know that they met lots of parents who were in all these situations, and they wanted to do something to help, and they still do that to this day.

On what the term “late night” means now
Jenny Yang: Remember the news stories about women who are marrying ghosts? We got a lot of mileage out of that. Some of it was jokes about ghost fucking. Maybe that’s what makes it late night? Some of the conversations around what made Busy Tonight a late-night versus a daytime show was very gendered. Busy has an edge already, but she also is a woman. For whatever reason, the ideas around being a woman or a mother are always “relegated” to the daytime category. I want the business model to completely change and to take down the patriarchy. Which is the bottom line of what Busy did, if you look at a bit like “Bra Buddies” — she brought the staff to a bra shop to have a bra fitting and cheer each other on. We got so much feedback from women saying, “I cried watching this because you are so affirming. You showed different colored and different shaped bodies.”

Matt Gunn: Everybody has our job now. People have gotten increasingly interested in politics, and everybody has got to take on everything, and it’s instant. One thing I like about the format of our show is it’s really old school. It’s live, the way television used to be when people had some longer attention spans. We’re part news and part comedy, and hopefully the comedy makes the news easier to take. Now people grow up on YouTube, so everything’s those bite-size bits. I’m finding myself increasingly attracted to long-form stuff, where you have to stick around and really penetrate.

Danny Ricker: It’s this double-edged sword. YouTube has greatly increased the spread of our shows. You look at the live TV numbers versus a bit from your show that did well on YouTube, and you go, Wow, 10 million people saw that. Ten million people are not watching TV at 11:30 at night anymore. The business hasn’t totally caught up. The ratings wars, that’s this big topic. It’s nonsensical that we’re still talking about ratings in that way. If someone told you, “Every night at 11:35, I sit in front of my TV and watch a show live,” you would think that person was mentally ill. “You don’t DVR it?” “No, I like the commercials. I like the commercials.” If people ask me where I work and
I say Jimmy Kimmel Live, the No. 1 thing they say is, “I watch it on YouTube.”

Jessie Gaskell: That was a big reason for Conan going to half an hour — most people were experiencing the show on their phones and watching clips. Initially, the conceit was, Well, it’s half an hour for TV, but we might tape extra stuff that was only going to go online. That’s going to get just as many, if not more, eyeballs. TV has been displaced by Netflix and other streaming services, which are now actually just becoming TV. It’s all cycling around again. My theory is just in ten years, we’re going to ingest our comedy through crackers. The delicious Triscuit will deliver your daily comedy dosage.

What It’s Like to Write for a Late-Night Host Now