How Do You Get Into Late Night TV Comedy Writing?

Late Night TV Comedy is Booming!

There are more stories in the news and the internet about Late Night TV than ever before. There was even a cover on Vanity Fair featuring the ten Late Night Hosts that are now on the air in the most recent programming schedule on cable and network.

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 with urgency to a climactic… pathetic-sound-effect of a fart )…

“Hard work!”

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 it’s not really work.

There’s an old saying. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. So if you’re writing jokes, it’s not really work is it?

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 leave at the designated time?

If you answered ‘yes’ to that question, now ask yourself if you do the same for your writing career? Or do you just write by 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 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.

late night tv comedy writing

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 (shut up! :-)) and I would write down all the jokes that David Letterman did, then try to make them funnier.

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.

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.

Conan O’Brien Just Could be a Stand-up’s Best Friend


Doing your stand up on Late Night T.V. can be your big break as a comedian. Well, unless you’re Madonna doing stand-up on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

I won’t get into that face-plant into a steamy pile of dog food by-product. I think that gimmick–at least for me–dropped my opinion of Fallon’s show; certainly with regard to it’s appeal for comedians.

When Johnny Carson was still on the air. The Tonight Show was the pinnacle. If a comedian could get on the Tonight Show and get that nod from Johnny to sit on the couch, then you could almost write your own ticket.

Currently, for comedians and their futures, it seems that Late Night has lost that sizzle…

Or has it?

Here’s a great article over at Paste Magazine that gives you a glimpse, from the inside, of how Conan OBrien’s show has now become a “stand-up’s best friend.”

This little post is not to imply that none of the other shows give a comedian that extra boost on their resume, because they do, but Conan seems to be the only one of the Late Night hosts who has followed Carson in his avid support of stand-ups.

Letterman doesn’t have that many on, Fallon would rather have famous people on the show than give a new comedian a shot, James Cordon hasn’t been on the air enough to gauge his propensity and Kimmel–well, Kimmel does support stand-ups, in my view, and seems to give them the freedom to bring  a little more bite to Late Night, a little more edge than some of the others, but still doesn’t have as many stand-ups on his show as Conan.

But Conan, hands down, takes it win it comes to the real showcasing of new stand-ups. He’s even booked two stand-ups on one episode, more than once. Not as a double-booking, but as part of the production.

Who does that?

I think every comedian should groom their four-and-a-half minutes to get it prepared for Late Night. That should be a target goal.

Getting a set on T.V. is a game-changer.

When you get into the article you’ll discover how many comedians got other breaks in the business once they got their set on Conan.

But before you run over there to Paste to check out the article consider these suggestions:

  1. Make note of the Talent Coordinator at Conan, (Put him into your contact database)
  2. Read attentively and look at the suggestions of what they look for at Conan
  3. Run over to TeamCoco’s page on YouTube and study the comedians and their Late Night sets.
  4. Notice their structure and their pacing. (Late Night pacing is a lot slower than you might imagine; bigger pauses)
  5. Start putting together your own idea of what your 4.5 minutes will look like.
  6. Be sure to keep in mind that on Late Night, that first joke is crucial. Gotta be tight.
  7. Finally, realize that the sets use tight structure.

So set your goals and your target for Conan (or any Late Night show), and get to  work.

In the meantime, give a shout-out to comedian, Grant Pardee, (the article’s author), and follow him on Twitter @grantpardee.

Nobody Has the Credentials to Tell You “You Can’t”


It Starts with Rejection.

Rejection. We’ve all had our fair share, right?

Being in the business of entertainment; being a comedian a writer, an actor, exposes you to more than your fair share, I believe.

Some of us are more affected by rejection than others. We take rejection as ostracism and we can do damage to ourselves and our careers if we take it too deeply to heart. I don’t know about you but I know some people who have given up after too much rejection.

The problem is sometimes too much is only once.

But the good news is I think we can learn to smash through rejection and overcome it.

In order to help overcome rejection, it would first help to have a handle on what it is so that it doesn’t seem so ominous and out of our ability to control it.

Understanding the Science of Rejection

Psychologists say that the fear of rejection is hard-wired into our brains and was established as some sort of survival mechanism.

Not to dwell too much on the primaeval science of rejection and the fear of it but for the sake of understanding and overcoming it, here it goes:

Back in the day when we were hunter-gatherers, we relied on tribes to survive. If you were rejected by the tribe it meant ostracism, which meant you would lose access to the fire, the food, etc. Which would lead to your ultimate demise.

Therefore the rejection mechanism is sort of an “early warning system” according to Psychologist and author, Guy Winch, Ph.D. When our behavior might get us ostracised we feel rejection and that feeling is supposed to trigger us to change our behavior so we stop being rejected.

To top it all off we humans are social animals, so the rejection can really be harmful. So much so Winch has actually labeled rejection as a psychological “injury.”

He’s not too far off considering that rejection affects the same brain regions and neurotransmitters as does physical pain. Which explains why during a break up you can actually feel physically ill, get a headache, collapse.

Also during rejection, our brain produces natural painkillers; Opioids, that can help us cope with the pain and continue on… or like me, make me sleep.

How Not to Let Rejection Get the Best of You

I was fortunate to have very supportive parents. They encouraged me to get up and face the day, despite rejection. I grew up in an actors’ family and got to see my Dad go to auditions, not get the part and not let it affect his tenacity, and belief in himself. I was able to witness him bounce back the very next day and book two out of three auditions.

So when it came time for me to audition, I didn’t allow the rejection part of it to knock my self-worth. And without conjuring up visuals of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley and “Affirmations,” the popular sketch on Saturday Night Live back in the day, I would tell myself that I’m good enough and that the reason I didn’t get the part is not that I couldn’t act, but because I just wasn’t the right match.

Psychologists have a similar approach. They say you can prepare for rejection better by identifying the qualities you believe you bring into this world. Write them down.

Hell, write them down several times! Own them and know them. That way when you do receive some rejection, you can walk away from it a little stung, but with your head held high, ready to tackle the next challenge.

You should really take a moment–right now– and write down five to ten values you bring to this world! No really. Right now!

When it comes to rejection, I like to simply say to myself, “No is not an answer and it’s unacceptable.” Of course this is when dealing with the industry of show business, (getting a script approved or getting an audition), and not when I’m with a woman trying to get to third base!  And why am I still trying to get to third base with my wife? When you’re married, isn’t third base where you start?

But wait, we were being serious in this blog post, Dude!

You are ‘Perfect’

I think psychologists have a point when they say you should write down your valuable traits. I believe it’s something that will help you deal with rejection.

I tell my students and myself that they are ‘perfect.’ I’ve said it so much to myself that I inherently believe it.

Now before you get weird on me on that, let me explain…

What I say is, you must believe you are perfect in all your flaws. I encourage my students to own that of themselves.

I honestly believe that about myself and I have a ton of baggage. There are stores in the mall that wish they had as much Samsonite as I do. I have skeletons and massive failures. But I believe that has made me who I am and I’m pretty freakin’ happy with that because I am constantly trying to learn from my mistakes, sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.

But that’s okay, because if I take the time to assess and evaluate, I can probably learn.

Your biggest mistakes are your greatest lessons. So when you do screw up and you do fail and you are rejected, you learn valuable lessons and if you walk away from that rejection focusing on what you learned rather than focusing on the rejection and self-talking yourself into depression, you’ll do much better with rejection and succeed more often.

Yes, focus on what you learned, move on, continue believing in yourself. Psychologist have determined that rejection is real. It exists, but how deeply we let it affect us is up to us.

We Can Cower or We Can Conquer.

The reason I wrote this blog post is that I’ve seen people–friends of mine–give up their dreams because they were rejected… even once. Then when they hit middle age, they shoulder this huge burden of regret.

When I first auditioned for the Improv, I was rejected three times by co-owner Mark Lonow. If I let that rejection get me down I might never have continued. But on my third rejection from Lonow, I looked him in the eye and said, “You’re not the only way into the Improv, Mark.”

I don’t recommend ever saying that, by the way! I did it because I was hurt (one of the side effects of rejection) and I stupidly lashed out.

But the very next day, I went into the Improv, waited three and a half hours to see Bud Friedman. When I finally saw him, I introduced myself and begged him to let me audition for him.

He said, “Come down tonight and do twelve minutes.”

I thanked him and came back that night with my twelve.

When I was up on stage, after six minutes, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Bud Friedman walk out of the showroom.

My heart sank.

When I finished my act, audience members high-fived me. I heard compliments. I was confused. Why did Bud walk out of the room?

I went up to the bar and waited for Bud. When he finally showed up, these are his exact words: “Very nice set, Mr. Corley. I tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to start you in Vegas and go from there… Oh, and I want you to do the show.”

“What show is that, Bud?”
“A&E’s ‘An Evening at the Improv,’ of course.”
“Of course.”

On the night of the taping of the show, I was in makeup sitting in a chair right next to Bud… as I looked into the mirror, creeping up to me was Mark Lonow, the co-owner, who rejected me three times before.

He leaned into my ear and said in this disdain-filled voice, “How’d you slip through the cracks?”

Bud Friedman looked at him in the mirror and said, “Mark, the last time I checked, my name is first on the Marquis.”

I did the show that night and had a really solid set and after that set, my first T.V. set, my career changed. I haven’t stopped working since.

I share this with you because rejection is a part of this business. We must learn to cope with it and not let it get us down.

And just like the picture way up at the beginning of this post, when we encounter the obstacle of rejection when can either give up, go around or break right through.

There are few things I love more than this business. One of those things is the artists who journey through it. If this blog post gave you some inspiration, drop me a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts and your obstacles and how you overcame them.

I would also like to share with you the article that inspired this post. It is a post that shows original rejection letters to famous people. The post is very appropriately titled:

“10 Painful Rejection Letters To Famous People Proving You Should NEVER Give Up Your Dreams”

it’s by Averi Clements at

I hope it inspires. Go get ’em!

What These Two Weiners Can Teach Us About Comedy

What these two wieners can teach us about comedy

What in the world of funny?!

I can’t believe this hack just did a joke on the name Weiner being so much like the hot dog wiener. Oh my God what a hack!

I can just hear it now all the super clever comedians out there skewering me for having the nerve to post such a ridiculously sophomoric statement.

But I have a point to this whole thing… I think.

There’s a trend out there in stand-up comedy land, kids. And the trend is for comics to be Bill Burr or Louis C.K.

The trend is to be clever just like them. You know, tell stories, make a profound statement. After all, wasn’t it George Carlin who said, “Don’t just make them laugh, make them think!”

I get it and I’m with you. I love to do think humor. I love to speak out with profundity and make a daring, yet good socio-political statement. I love to have the balls to “walk” a room.

T.V. Comedy is About Simplicity

But this post is about simplicity and its place in comedy; especially in television.

That’s right Simplicity. There’s a place for it and there’s big money in it.

What? Money you say?

We all want to be the clever Bill Burr or Louis C.K. but realize they started a long time ago and they didn’t start doing the stories you hear them do when they step on stage now .

They started with jokes. Writing jokes and telling jokes. (At least Burr did).

But you’re missing an element in your total game if you just stick to the clever story-teller comedy. There’s an angle you all should be working and that’s the angle of being able to write your one and two liner jokes.

Every comedian out there should be spending some time each day cranking out some solid one and two-liners. Honing that craft and getting good at it. Because one of the ways to be sure that you can survive in this business is to build multiple revenue streams.

One of those revenue streams could be writing for Late Night T.V.

The key to writing for Late Night T.V. is not the deep-meaning, clever, iconoclastic comedy. It is the simple association, simple surprise, short-form comedy concept that can play not only in New York and L.A. but in Middle America too.

One of those simple comedy structures is Double Entendre or wordplay comedy.

I took the pulse of my readers recently (all three of you) regarding wordplay humor and I got back some interesting feedback regarding the state of wordplay in comedy.

Most of it was like, “Dude Wordplay ain’t dead but it’s certainly on life support.”

I respect people’s opinions, even when the opinions are retarded. (See I can say “retarded” because I’m referring to an opinion–a thing, not a person… besides I know a lot of retarded things).

I jest, of course and I wouldn’t blame you for unsubscribing for that “retarded” comment, (but if you did you’d be retarded), because I’m about to show you why wordplay is alive and well–even a crucial skill you should refine, if not as a comedian, then as a writer.

Wordplay is Alive in the T.V. Comedy Writing Scene

Wordplay and double entendre is used in comedy writing on television like it’s nobody’s business. Late Night is chewing it up. It’s in commercials. It’s in Sitcoms.

Most of the successful shows on T.V. are using the Double-Entendre or wordplay comedy technique to get audiences to laugh and with great success.

You might not think that it works, but there’s an old saying in comedy and it’s “know your audience,” and I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Late Night isn’t playing to you.

If you’re reading this blog then you probably have at least a passing interesting in stand-up comedy or comedy writing and YOU are Late Night’s last target audience.

The audience that Late Night T.V. targets is the middle America audience. Mostly the male demo between eighteen and thirty-four.

They are targeting people who are tired after a long day of work and feeding the kids and dealing with the day’s errands, tasks and chores.

Late Night, for the most part is about simple humor. Don’t believe me? Check out this little bit from “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”

Steve Higgins and Jimmy do Scat. (As in scatological humor).

In the middle of the Pros and Cons desk piece, they go on a “fart and shart” riff that lasts an entire two minutes. Now two minutes is nothing in real time but in T.V. time is a good chunk.

Listen to the wordplay and tell me that it’s not funny. But remember. It’s not up to you and me. It’s up to the audience. And the audience is loving this stuff!

You’ll also find a ton of wordplay in “Arrested Development” and “How I Met Your Mother” two rather successful television shows.

And not only that, also in commercials. If you look at some of the funny commercials you’ll find that wordplay is used and used often.

Like in this ad for Discover Card.

Frog Protection – Discover Card

Consider the silliness of both. Consider how “hacky” either could appear if you did an amalgamation of either on stage in your stand-up at the Comedy Store.

But remember television writing is not necessarily about being clever, it is about being silly and getting the laugh.

Also consider that a Late Night Writer makes a minimum of $4000 per week and a copywriter for a huge marketing firm could be making upwards of $700k per year.

So while I dig doing clever, solid story-telling, stand-up, it might be wise for me financially to also hone my simple comedy skills like Double-Entendre and Wordplay. Because that kind of money doesn’t sound like it’s on life support.

Testing Your Jokes Against Late Night


Tonight Show-Jimmy Fallon


“How do I know when my jokes are working?”

If you’ve been following my blog, by now you know that writing one and two liners is key to really making your story-telling pop.

If you aren’t aware of this, I’ll remind you.

Stories are great. I do stories, but with the clubs and television expecting a laugh every 18-20 seconds, you must be sure you include laugh-points all along the arc of that story. The best way to do this is to get really good at your one and two-liners, giving your story an opportunity to create a laugh after almost every one to three sentences.

If you don’t have laugh points in your stories, then you’re not doing comedy.

Keep in mind, there are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, if we’re in a comedy club, we want to laugh.

So How Do You Get Good at This?

You have to start to recognize opportunities for comedy ‘plays’ along your story’s journey. There are a vast array of techniques and structures to help you hit your laugh points, and if you’ve read and worked through my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,” you’d know almost every one of those.

It’s amazing when you have the knowledge to trigger laugh in your story almost at will. That’s right “at will!”

Every logical grouping of words can be turned into something funny.

That being said, one of the best way to develop and laser sharpen  your ability to do this is by working your one and two-liners.

And the best way of doing that is through current event, trivia and factoid humor.

Why? Because the first part of the joke is already written for you!

That’s right. Think about it; when you read a headline, a factoid or a piece of trivia, the headline is already written. All you have to do is come up with an ending!

Then you re-tool, tinker and tighten, add some misdirection, surprise or incongruity and ‘BAM!’ you have a joke.

  • They are reopening the Washington Monument. The thing has been shut down for the last two years – just like Congress.
  • Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. He has to learn that NFL players are not supposed to be in gay relationships until after they’re in prison!

Both of these jokes utilize the ‘listing technique;’ the most powerful technique used in comedy today. One definition of a joke is ‘the convergence of two dissimilar ideas.’

In the Washington monument joke, all I did is take the first part of the joke: “They are reopening the Washington monument, which has been shut down for the last two years…” and I listed everything about Washington in one column, then everything about the Washington monument in another column. When I found similarities between the two (even in my imagination, because comedy is heightened reality), I finessed a joke from that idea.

I did the same thing with the Michael Sam joke. Here we have more than two dissimilar ideas converging.

Can you tell what those ideas are? NFL, PRISON, GAY RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, ETC. *(See a more thorough example of this comedy writing tool here)* 

In this case I would list everything I could think of utilizing all four ideas. Notice how I also used ‘relationships,’ not just ‘gay relationships?’

When we open up the idea of ‘gay relationships’ to relationships, I now have a possible idea for a slam on the NFL and all the cases of sexual assault. So that joke could be something like:

  • Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. See, Michael Sam doesn’t get it, in order to be accepted in the NFL you can’t do something gross like kiss another man, you gotta rape a chick.

Now you have an edgy joke. This joke might not be my voice. It certainly won’t fit on Late Night, but it could be suitable for ‘The Daily Show’ or Bill Maher. If not, I’m sure I could sell it to Chris Rock.

In essence, before I finish this blog post, I’ve already made 50 bucks!

How do you know it’s funny?

If you set a goal to write at least 10 of these jokes a day, then all you have to do is compare it against the Late Night shows jokes and see whose his funnier.

Sometimes it will be theirs. Sometimes Yours.

The more you do it, the better you get. Then you’ll more readily recognize the opportunities for these ‘plays’ in your stories and your stories will be funnier, more compelling and more worthy of the definition of comedy.