Monday, April 13, 2009

Writing for late night TV

“If you tell a joke in the forest, but nobody laughs, was it a joke?”

- Stephen Wright

It’s easy to be funny once in a while. It’s a lot more difficult to be funny every day.

Guys like David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien are funny, right? You know who’s as funny, if not funnier than they are? Their writers. The guys who write upwards of a hundred jokes a day hoping that at least one of them will be amongst the top ten picked for that night’s monologue. Then there’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s not just funny, it’s brilliant. Continually blurring that line between satirical and factual news, night after night. It ain’t easy.

Writing satirical comedy for late night TV may well be the hardest job in the writing community. It’s relentless, unforgiving and does not allow for marginal writers, at least not for very long. Late night writers are those hooligans that never left the back of the high school classroom. They still play with their pencils and mutter barbs at authority figures under their breath; the difference is now they get paid for it. In order to write for these shows you have to be intelligent, well informed, up-to-date, politically savvy, hip to pop culture… and all before lunch.

With that in mind, this week I spoke with Rob Kutner, who I had the pleasure of loosely working with on a coast-to-coast basis during last year’s writers strike. He is a man of integrity and pretty funny to boot. But that’s no surprise because Kutner is a four-time Emmy-award-winning writer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and contributor to its bestseller, America (The Book). He has also written for HBO’s “Dennis Miller Live,” as well as humor and feature pieces for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Esquire, and Maxim. He is the author of APOCALYPSE HOW: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times!

Jeffrey Berman: How did you get your start writing satirical comedy for TV?

Rob Kutner: I actually headed out to LA intending to be a sitcom or feature writer. I wrote scads of specs (is that the proper collective noun? Seems like it should be “a murder of specs”), did the Warner Bros. Comedy Workshop, etc. On the side, I was faxing a few jokes into a friend working at HBO’s “Dennis Miller Live.” None of which were used. But after a few PA jobs on sitcoms left me unemployed, that friend recommended me for a Writers’ Assistant position on DML. After two years of Assisting – and pitching my own jokes, some of which Dennis was starting to use – a vacancy opened up and I was promoted to Writer. That show was subsequently cancelled (coincidence?), but a colleague there introduced me to the EP [Executive Producer] of the Daily Show, who was looking to hire. I applied, interviewed, wrote a few sample packets for them, and eventually got the gig.

JB: Are there a lot of opportunities for freelancers in the late night market and is this the best way for someone starting out to find work?

RK: I honestly have no idea what the “best way” is to get your start, but it does seem like I know more comedy-variety writers for whom this was their first job. And between the new Tonight Show with Conan, the unexpected new Jay Leno show, Jimmy Fallon, and the newly announced Wanda Sykes Fox show, it does seem like there are at least opportunities opening up – though you might be competing with better-connected, more experienced sitcom writers, whose market is tighter.

JB: Walk us through the writing process of a typical day on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?

RK: It all begins in a hail of gunfire. No, actually, we come in in the morning and watch snippets of video selected by our awesome, 23-TiVo-fuelled footage department. Sometimes Jon has some ideas already; sometimes they come out of this meeting. A few people get assigned to write a Headline. Multiple people write the same thing, and the best jokes are pulled together into a draft that one of the writers helps with later in the day. Others [writers] pair up to script the top-of-the-show, lighter topic story, or the “chats” – those dialogues between Jon and correspondent at the desk or green-screen. Both of those go through a few notes sessions and rewrites with Jon. As the script comes together, there are often joke holes, for which whoever’s available is gathered en masse to pitch until we have some options. Same thing for our signature pun-titles. The Field Department usually needs people to brainstorm jokes, lines, and games for the correspondents to take with them when they go out to interview/humiliate real people. Every day is ad hoc, and you don’t usually know what you’re doing ahead of time. By day’s end, we do the technical rehearsal to see how jokes play out. We watch that to pitch better jokes if needed, and then, after a last rewrite, the final product is taped around 6:00.

JB: The nature of your work forces you to write a lot of material every day, week after week. So what do you do when you get writer’s block?

RK: We have very tight deadlines – usually a few hours’ turnaround time – so writers’ block is not really an option. Also, the sheer deluge of material coming down the pike – only a fraction of which we can even use – kind of juices the motor. There’s rarely a “blank page’ in the classic sense of the term. And even if you are really dry, fortunately there are 10-12 other people, at least one of whom will be on a tear that day. It’s like the moral hazard of comedy writers. And honestly, not all that hazardous.

JB: What advice would you offer writers looking to work in satirical and late night comedy?

RK: Like many forms of writing, you have to do a TON of it to polish the craft. But that’s even more so with late-night, where it’s a volume game. As I said, we have to pump out the material in a short time, and it took me many years to get to that point. Definitely faxing in those jokes on a regular basis helped get me there. So I think you need to find a way – whether it’s a blog or contributing to a local free paper or web site or radio show, or even doing live standup – to force yourself to write topical jokes in a regular, structured way. It’s like building up a muscle, and there’s no steroid for it. With the possible exception of cocaine.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview Jeffrey. Really interesting stuff. Rob is awesome.

    Jason "Rubberpoultry" Moore


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