Just think about it, late night used to sit in a quiet corner of the T.V. scheduled at 11:30. It was the program that people watched after the nightly news and before they went to bed.
Now it’s almost glamorous! There’s a news story pretty much every day about the genre, segments and sketches go viral (like with this ‘new’ opening for Late Night with Seth Meyers), and the hosts get splashed across the front page of Vanity Fair, arguably the elite of celebrity culture magazines.
As the news about Late Night Comedy proliferates in the media, I’ve been receiving more questions. The most common question is: How do you get into Late Night TV Comedy Writing?
You’re going to have a love-hate feeling about how simple the answer is.
It’s… (sound of drum roll, then Tympani, building, building… still building and ending urgently with a climactic… sound-effect of a fart )…
Ouch. Right? I know there are a ton of people reading this that just checked out. Which explains why there are so few people that actually make it in Late Night TV comedy writing.
As a writer for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 8 years, where I wrote 80-120 jokes a day, I kinda know how much work it is.
But here’s the thing. It’s not really work.
There’s an old saying. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.
But I know you’re probably reading this to get better answers and I know most people look for a process or steps to help them succeed so I’m going to do my best to map that out for you based on what I did and saw others do.
Step 1: Treat yourself like a professional NOW.
This is one of the best pieces of advice I ever received–besides “You should trim down there!”
The advice was told to me by my comedy writing coach, Gene Perret, (Emmy-award winning comedy writer).
So what does treating yourself like a professional NOW actually mean?
To me that meant that I designed a schedule like I was going to work.
Right now, do you have a day job? Do they give you a schedule so you know what days and times you are working? Do you diligently show up at those designated times? Go to lunch at the designated time and end your day at the designated time?
If you answered ‘yes’ to that question, now ask yourself if you do the same for your writing career? If you don’t you’re not alone, but you must ask why do so many of NOT give the that kind of commitment to the job we really want?
Or maybe you would like to give your dream that kind of commitment but you leave your writing up to some kind of divine inspiration?
If you leave it to divine inspiration that’s fine, but you can’t depend on that inspiration. That type of inspiration is fleeting.
But if you set up a schedule, just like your work schedule, and you report to work on that schedule where you assign yourself writing tasks and goals, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you develop as a writer. And if you develop a process for your writing you will begin to realize that it is much more productive to create inspiration than to wait for inspiration.
When I decided I was going to break into comedy and write for Late Night and do stand up, I set up a schedule. I actually put this in my date book like it was my schedule for work.
From 7-11am every day I wrote jokes from the newspaper and CNN. My goal was to start with 30-40 jokes a day.
At first, I STRUGGLED to hit that goal. But after a month of consistent writing, I started hitting and surpassing that goal.
Step 2: Give daily assignments to yourself:
There’s nothing worse than sitting in front of your computer or notebook with nothing. I would set goals to write 30-40 late night (current event) monologue jokes, one sketch and one Top 10 List. The next day I might assign myself, 30-40 monologue jokes, one parody, and a desk piece and so on…
If I couldn’t think of anything to write, I would look at my recordings on my VCR (yes VCR…shut up! :-)) and I would write down all the jokes that David Letterman did, then try to make them funnier. I did this as an exercise, one day a week, just like I was at the gym doing “leg” day.
Giving yourself direction and goals is one of the best ways to crush writer’s block. Because, you know your task and you sit down to write it. Often I would assign it the day before and go to sleep at night knowing what I had to do in the morning. It helped me wake up with direction and believe it or not the subconscious gets your mind in gear while you sleep!
Step 3: Target the late night show you want to write for and watch
Believe it or not, this is a step a lot of writer’s miss. They just write jokes, but if you watch your shows and study the hosts, you’ll notice that not all hosts do all types of jokes and that their rhythms are different.
Kimmel will do a different style of joke than Fallon. Colbert will do different jokes than James Corden and if you notice from the above video, Seth Meyers might be scrapping the monologue entirely an opening with a ‘Weekend Update’-style, mock news delivery of jokes which includes more ‘drop-ins.’ (jokes that utilize visual imagery to pop the laugh).
Once you know what host uses what style and rhythm it will also make your writing more efficient.
Check your jokes against the hosts. Write their jokes out. Feel the rhythm of their jokes, study the mechanics and see how it compares to yours. Their jokes will usually start out being more economical and less wordy. This process will help you to really get more efficient.
Test your jokes with your friends or at the clubs and mics.
Step 4: Put together a submission packet
Once you become a proficient joke writer and it shouldn’t take long if you do it consistently, then you can feel like you’ve developed the chops to write for Late Night TV.
Once you feel confident about your work, put together a submission packet.
For the most part a writing packet should contain 2 pages of monologue jokes, a desk piece, and a sketch.
The details are too long and out of the scope of this blog post, but I give you a full template; an actual packet that was submitted in my Late Night Comedy Writing & Submission Course.
In the end it’s…
It’s All About Luck
In this business they often say, “it’s all about luck.” Some people equate that to ‘chance.’ I prefer to say, ‘Luck’ is opportunity meets preparedness. If you’re prepared and the opportunity arises, you’ll be the one who has the luck.
So get yourself prepared and make the luck happen!
I’ve been very fortunate in my personal and professional life. I did my first acting job when I was eighteen months old, played on a professional soccer team at 19 years old (for a short period of time because I… sucked.), played in a very cool horn band, (I played the trombone), appeared in a lot of commercials in my twenties, I transitioned into comedy and comedy writing, I played the road for years, (many years 43 weeks a year), I wrote for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno for eight years.
I founded a school that teaches comedy writing, stand-up and improv, develops comedians and gets them working.
I recently evolved and transitioned and added another Me and created, executive produced and co-wrote a major motion picture called Stretch (a comedy-action-thriller), which had a star-studded cast.
Oh and I helped raise a terrific group of kids (most in college, but still with a 15-year-old and 4-year-old).
I did and continue to do, because I keep moving, keep learning and keep innovating.
There were plenty of backslides and points of desperation, (failed relationships, dry spells, periods of lower income, etc.)…
But, one of the things I remind myself of is that that this life is constant. In order to achieve success, you must constantly and continuously reinvent yourself.
One of the most frequent questions people ask is “what’s the secret to success?”
I know this: there is not one secret. But I do know one secret and that secret I learned from Tony Robbins, (who, by the way, got it from Dale Carnegie, who got it from Napolean Hill, who got it from… you get the point).
Tony said, “Find out what the successful people are doing, copy it and you will be successful.”
Which leads me to this post. It’s a little inspiration from Jack Cheng, (www.jackcheng.com). It’s called “The Better You.”
If it inspires you, leave me a comment. Share it. Go forth and conquer!
THE BETTER YOU
by Jack Cheng
Someone is sitting at your desk. There is something familiar about this person. From a distance, this person bears a striking resemblance to you: they have the same frame, the same face, the same features as you. But as you get closer, you begin to notice subtle differences between this person and yourself.
They look like they eat healthier and exercise a little more regularly. Their posture is slightly better and their clothes have fewer wrinkles.
This person is the Better You.
The Better You knows the same things you know. They’ve had the same successes you’ve had, and they’ve made the same mistakes.
They strive for the same virtues and falter to the same vices. The Better You procrastinates, too. The Better You is not perfect. But the difference between you and the Better You is that the latter reacts a little faster, with a little more willpower. They practice their virtues a little more often and succumb to their vices a little less often. They rein in their procrastination a little quicker. They start their work a little earlier. They know when to take a break a little sooner.
The Better You knows, just as you know, that doing what you love is difficult but worthwhile. They know, just as you know, that the difficulty is what makes it worthwhile in the first place. They know, as you know, that if everything was easy, nothing would have significance, and you wouldn’t need to adopt new metaphors or read new books about how to do the work you should be doing.
The Better You is your believable possible. Your believable possible is your potential in any given moment, the person you know at your very core that you are capable of being at this instant. Your believable possible exists at the edge of your perceived ability. Your believable possible is frightening and uncomfortable, but not to the point of paralysis. Your believable possible is just uncomfortable enough.
We all have different believable possibles. Bruce Lee’s believable possible was being the most dangerous man in the world. Muhammad Al’s was being the greatest boxer of all time. Your own believable possible maybe slightly less ambitious. But only you know what your own believable possible is.
The Better You is not a fixed, singular being. The Better You springs new from each moment, is born and dies with each action you take. Each action creates a new set of possibilities. The Better You is an alternate dynamic present, rather than a fixed, static past.
Measuring yourself against the Better You is no mere matter of racing to beat the person you were the day before. Instead, you’re racing to keep up with the person you could be right now.
The Better You wants you to meet them where they are. The Better You is the ant that has strayed from the colony and discovered a source of food.
The Better You knows the way. It says: follow me. And even when there is no food in sight, you know where the trail will take you in the end. The Better You will never lead you astray. So you follow the trail. You sit at the desk and place your hands on your tools—on your keyboard and mouse, your notebook and pen, your palette and brush—and you start on your way.
There are the rare moments of alignment, moments when you reunite with the Better You, when you match the Better You move for move. They are sitting at the desk and working and writing and sketching, and you are sitting at the same desk and working and writing and sketching.
You and the Better You are occupying the same physical space and the same mental space. You are completely engaged in the work before you. And when you are doing the work you should be doing, the work the Better You is doing, you become whole, fully there.
The joy of alignment makes alignment more frequent, and as alignment becomes more frequent, something interesting happens: you begin to see a different person, a better Better You. The new Better You is slightly out of reach, just as the old one was, because there is no limit to Better.
Better is the mechanized rabbit on the rail at a greyhound race. Better is propelled by motors and microprocessors and magic and things our dog-brains cannot comprehend, our dog-bodies cannot outrun.But the Better You knows, just as you know, that the thrill is in the chase, that happiness is motion, and that fulfillment is the constant striving for that which is just beyond our reach.
The Better You knows this is the way it has always been, and the way it always will be. And you know it, too.
JACK CHENG is writer, designer, and entrepreneur based in Brooklyn. He is the author of These Days, o novel about the human side of technology, published in spring 2013.
The dream is to stand on stage, hold that mic and tell your jokes, do your bits, get some laughs.
Then you usually want to do it again… and again. But after doing the mics around town and getting in more than your fair share of ‘bringer’ shows, something gnaws at you to move beyond that. You want to do it in front of a ‘real’ audience.
Some of you might even have the desire to take your act on the road for a spell.
And get paid.
So how do you do get to go on the road and get paid? In a word, the answer is ‘work.’
Getting the Gigs is About Work and Relationships
Usually in order to hit the road these days you need to have about thirty minutes of material. Being able to get up in front of an audience and do thirty minutes, a solid thirty, qualifies you to work as a ‘feature act.’ A feature act is usually the comedian who goes on after the emcee and before the headliner.
So Byron writes and he writes and he writes. He’s got all his jokes organized in his Evernote app. Every class he brings in the new material he’s working on along with some of his older stuff.
We tweak the new material, tighten the structure, clarify the associations that sometimes keep the joke from tracking clearly, we add act-outs, tags, toppers, etc.
Taking the notes from the feedback in class and adding it to the material helps the material develop faster and helps you reach your laugh-point goals. The class also gives Byron a weekly writing goal.
The second thing that Byron does well is he goes out to the mics. He mingles. He meets people. That’s how he got this gig.
In my classes, I also hook up comedians (who are ready) with some of the bookers I have relationships with, who book these gigs.
Sometimes, just a word to the booker can help that booker feel like they are making a more informed decision to book a new comedian.
Getting the gig is only one step. Now you gotta hit the road, shake off the nerves and get up on stage in a strange place with a new kind of pressure.
A Comedian Must Learn to Take Some ‘Bullets’
On the road, the feature act has to take some bullets.
In an ‘A’ comedy club, there is usually a house emcee who does about ten minutes and warms up the audience.
But in a one-niter club, it’s a little different. You’re usually in a converted bar, or showroom of some sort and the emcee is a bartender or a local guy who gets up and tells a joke or two (if you’re lucky), then introduces the feature act; sometimes in a way that barely resembles and introduction.
Most of these guys haven’t had any training, they haven’t really warmed up the audience… they just bring you up to a cold room and a cold stage. As a result, the feature comedian is now responsible for warming up the audience, getting some laughs and keeping their attention.
Sometimes it takes a few minutes; in some cases, thirty minutes.
That’s why we call it ‘taking bullets.’
But if you’ve done your work, if you’ve put in your time and you display your showmanship; never letting them see you sweat, following through with your professionalism and your ‘A’ material, then you could do really well…
… and if you’re smart, you’ll learn a thing or two.
Or a million things.
Byron Hits The Road
Mill Casino Coos Bay, Oregon
That’s what Comedy Clinic student, Bryon Valino did last week. He hit the road, went up to Oregon and performed at the Mill Casino in North Bend. His first ‘road’ gig.
The feedback was solid. He got good laughs in the early show, with the older crowd and didn’t get as many laughs in the later show, with the younger crowd.
Byron’s worked other show situations in town and out to get him prepared for the road gig. He did some college shows for Cal State Northridge and he booked a local comedy club with comedian and friend Tony Ming and they put butts in the seats and did 20-30 minutes each to get prepared.
Byron’s got some solid material. His delivery is somewhere between a version of Steven Wright and Anthony Jeselnik. It’s not fast, it’s not super edgy or tremendously energetic. But he is funny.
It’s one of those acts that needs the audience to pay attention. He’ll do great in ‘A’ clubs where the audience is there to do one thing; watch comedy, but in some of the road rooms, the comedy show is just a way to kill time, maybe get drunk before going dancing or to a party or to ‘hook up.’ In those rooms, you learn to work a lot harder.
Why Do Those Gigs?
Some people ask if those gigs aren’t as great, why do them? For that answer we might ask the mountain climber why he climbs Kilimanjaro; ‘Because it’s there.’
Those gigs give you chops. They give you a great place to practice doing your thirty. They build you stronger and faster and sharpen your instincts like nothing else. And like climbing Kilimanjaro, you could die.
In a nutshell, when you learn to play the road, you can play anywhere.
It Helps to Work with a Good Headlining Comedian
When you play the road, you come back a better performer. Instantly more seasoned and with a fire to do more, work harder and get back out there. Especially if you were lucky enough to work with a good and helpful headliner.
Bryon worked with Tommy Savitt. Tommy is an award-winning comedian who’s been on the road almost as long as I have. Tommy has done T.V. and toured all over the world. Tommy’s got chops. He’s also got compassion and he chatted with Byron both before and after his sets.
So Byron did the work, developed his set, hit the road and did his thirty minutes.
Can’t wait to see him again in class. He’ll be sharper, stronger, fearless and ready to develop more material. Because something tells me he’s got a new goal; to get to sixty minutes.
You Rock, Byron! Keep up the solid work, soon it will be your name on the Marquis!
Take a moment to leave a comment below and send a shout out to Byron!
I’ve been comedian for nearly thirty years. I have been coaching comedians, (formally), for about six years. During that time I’ve had a lot of thrills, but nothing can replace the feeling you get when you receive a text like this:
“You changed my life.”
About two years ago, I was sitting at home writing and the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line was a woman’s. There was an accent. I couldn’t figure it out where it was from.
You know when you can’t quite figure out the accent right away?
The woman’s voice said, “Hello. I’m so glad you answered. My name is Eugenia Kuzmina. I am a model and I want to be a stand-up comedian.”
“Tell me about yourself,” I said. She said she was Russian and that she had always been interested by stand-up comedy and that I came highly recommended. (I’ll take flattery anywhere I can get it so, listened further).
I was on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to take her on as a student. I believe you can teach anyone the craft of comedy. I’ve taught people who I was told were the “most unfunny person I’ve ever met,” and I’ve taught people with brain damage and I’ve learned long ago not to prejudge anyone’s ability.
I got beyond that a long time ago. There have been too many young comedians, athletes and musicians have proved me wrong.
But I was busy and I didn’t want someone who was going to be a headache. So I said to this model: “I’m going to send you an email with an introduction. Let’s pretend that I am an emcee introducing you on the stage. I want you to answer the email and come up with a response that you think is funny.”
In the email said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, our next performer comes to us from the world of high fashion. In fact she must be really hungry because I just saw her in the green room devouring an entire Tic-Tac. Please help me welcome, Eugenia Kuzmina!”
About twenty minutes later, I received an email from Eugenia. Her response was: “Devouring an entire Tic-Tac. That is funny, but not true. I am a model, I would never eat an entire meal at one sitting…”
We booked our first meeting.
Since then, Eugenia has appeared the World Famous Comedy Store a number of times, she has signed with several new agents (because of stand-up), and recently booked her first appearance as a comedian in Las Vegas in the Paul Scally Show at the Grand Hotel.
Now Eugenia has been doing some impromptu sketch comedy, pulling pranks with the public, including a prank she pulled in France at the Cannes Film Festival that has studios requesting meetings… to do comedy.
So can you turn a supermodel into a comedian? Time will tell, but I think the answer is leaning toward a resounding “YES.”
Now, I know some people are going to get upset about this post. Some might suggest that I’m focusing on what society might consider as “pretty.”
The point of this post is not to create an argument about who or what is ‘pretty’ in this business. The point of the post is to direct attention to the fact that the face of comedy is changing.
Traditionally, women who were considered “pretty” weren’t looked at as serious comedians. But as a comedian, part of what I do is to shatter the status quo.
I’m a firm believer in the fact that females can be funny. I believe that the precedent that was set by Johnny Carson set nearly thirty years ago when he said that pretty women don’t belong in comedy was flawed.
Not only that, I believe that they don’t have to play down their femininity to get a laugh. Amy Schumer has been proving that and I’ve had several female comedians in my classes who are beautiful AND funny who’ve gone on to have success.
I’ve coached the lovely actress Sascha Knopf, to help her reach the finals of California’s Funniest Female,
I worked with Andi Wagner-Barton (bottom-left) who went on to get an agent, book several commercials and her first role in a film.
And I’m fortunate enough to work with the lovely and feisty Laura Lee Botsacos. Who just booked her first paid gig at Aces Comedy Club in Murrieta, CA.
It’s fun and heart-warming to be a part of a movement that has (pardon the pun) dug its heels into the comedy scene around the globe and is changing the perception of what has been traditionally recognized as funny.
So ladies, whether you’re a supermodel or an athlete; a mom or a nerd, if you’ve thought about doing stand-up, (or taking a class)–just like these ladies–success on the comedy stage could be just around the corner.
Drop by the Comedy Clinic to say “hi,” or sit in a class. Our comedy community is amazing and supportive. And in our green room, we even have Tic-Tacs.