A booker contacts you and wants you to do a show. Then they say something like,
“Oh and I want a clean comedy show…”
What does a booker mean when they say they want a ‘clean’ comedy show?
It really depends. I’ve heard things from bookers that were like, “You’ve got to be able to do it in front of your grandmother…”
You don’t know my grandmother! What if my grandmother was like this:
Esther Hersh as Gangster Granny on The Ben Show from Jerry Corley on Vimeo.
If my grandmother was like “Gangsta Granny,” then I could probably get away with anything and my act wouldn’t be clean at all.
The important thing to remember is that the responsibility falls on you to clarify what that individual booker means by “clean.” Because in the end, if you fail to reach that booker’s definition of clean, he/she is probably not going to have you back or worse, won’t pay you for the show you did (read till the end).
So ask them specifically what they mean by clean. You might say, “Do you mean PG clean or G-rated clean?”
Ask who the audience is.
In some audience’s you can do jokes about sex other audiences you can’t. And there’s a way to do sex jokes clean and not so clean.
The general guideline with doing sex jokes in a clean (network TV) environment is that the jokes can’t be graphic. You can say “we were having sex,” but the moment you mention anything that brings to mind a specific image of genitalia or bodily fluids, positions, etc., then the material is no longer clean.
When doing comedy for network TV, the network will has a department called ‘Standards & Practices.’ It’s a bunch of lawyers who work for a network who decide whether or not the content is suitable for the network’s viewer. They will determine what’s ‘clean.’
Here are a couple of examples from Brian Kiley, the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien who has done more than a dozen spots on late night TV. Many of his jokes are about sex. But they are considered clean enough for network.
“My brother is not the brightest guy in the world. He had heart surgery recently and he said to the doctor, “Doc, when can I have sex?” And the doctor said, “When you can walk up a flight of stairs, you can have sex.” And my brother said, “Why? Who’s up there?”
“When my wife and I were first married, she would yell out the name of her old boyfriend. The Weird thing is, his name was also brian… so she would yell out, “Brian. Not you… the OTHER Brian.”
So you could see that in these jokes, Kiley gets away with doing these on The Late Show with David Letterman. Even the one about his father needing to turn in sperm sample. But in the context of the joke the sperm sample was a medical procedure, not a sexual situation, so it passes the test.
But here’s where the definition of ‘clean’ gets tricky. What if you were doing an event at a high school in front of students, parents and administrators? Could you do the sperm joke or the sex jokes? I guess it depends on what school right?
So when it comes to doing clean, context has a lot to do with it.
There is no absolute definition for clean. Here’s something you should never do…
I was on the road with this comedian from Salt Lake City and we got a call from a booker in the middle of the week to do a corporate show for a bunch of gold miners. It was a dinner and everyone was well dressed. The pay was $1000 for the headliner and $500 for the feature act.
When we got to the event this huge dude in a tuxedo comes up to us–There’s something scary about a huge dude in a tuxedo. Like, first of all, what tuxedo company rents shirts with a 22-inch neck?
Anyway, he says to us, “We need this show to be clean because the wives are here.”
The comedian I was working with was told by some other comedian that when they want it clean all you have to do is ask the audience, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?”
So He got up onstage and said, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?” And one guy yelled out “Dirty!” So he said, “How do you make Martha Stewart scream? You f*ck her in the ass and wipe your dick on her drapes.”
That was his opening joke. Yeesh!
I looked over and the huge dude in the tuxedo popped a vein and said to me, “get him off the goddam stage.” So I had to go up on the stage and tell him he was done. Then spent the next 5 minutes making fun of him to recover, and then had to honor the contract and fulfill the 90-minute obligation.
Needless to say, that comedian didn’t get paid.
Whether you decide to work clean or not is up to you. You don’t have to pick one over the other. You can work clean for certain events and work blue for others.
From George Carlin to Louis C.K. to Amy Schumer, even though they are known for being blue, they each clean it up when they do network TV.
But if you know how to work clean and still get laughs then the simple truth is that you’re going to work more.
But if you’re going to work clean, find out exactly what they mean by it.
‘Clean’ might mean different things to different bookers, but there’s one thing that is for sure: When the booker says “Your show needs to be clean,” you don’t make it “dirty.”
It was only a matter of time before Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central got the axe.
Following that brutal appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner where Wilmore looked like a new comedian trying to get one laugh before he got the light, it seemed like it was just a countdown to Wilmore’s show being struck from the programming board.
Quite frankly I don’t know what Comedy Central was thinking giving Wilmore his own show in the first place. Yes, he’s smart and funny and a great writer, but that doesn’t convert to that on-camera gusto that is needed to develop, let alone compel and retain an audience. Especially an audience of 18-34 males. (Comedy Central’s main demographic).
Sure, Wilmore’s great. But he lacks pizazz and on-camera comes across as dull.
It seems like Comedy Central has been struggling to grab an audience in the variety talk show space since Jon Stewart took his exit.
According to Deadline Hollywood, now that Wilmore is gone, Comedy Central plans to fill the slot with @Midnight until they find a replacement.
That’s a Bad News–Great News Scenario
That’s great news, creatives! Think about it: what’s been missing since Jon Stewart left the Daily Show? The energy, the edge, the razor sharp and laser-quick wit and instincts of Stewart.
Sure Trevor Noah is funny and smart. But he doesn’t have that contemporary, modern high-five-me-at-bar type of gusto. Neither did Wilmore.
I think Comedy Central made a huge mistake allowing John Oliver and Samantha Bee to flee to HBO and TBS. Have you seen either of those shows? They have the edge and the energy that is totally missing at the Daily Show.
And I mean really? TBS? That’s like the ‘witness protection program’ of television; nobody knows they’re there!
Isn’t that right Conan?
If you haven’t seen these two shows, watch ’em. They’re filled with that attack-the-status-quo-energy that the Daily Show currently is missing since Stewart left. In my view the secret sauce comes from the contemporary and relatable analogies the hosts draw to the misgivings of the targets of their ridicule.
They’re not only entertaining us, they are informing us and increasing awareness.
That’s exactly the pattern that was used when Jon Stewart was at the helm.
I’ve got to tell you, that when stuff like this is happening in our industry, I get all charged up!
I mean sure, a show got canceled, but you gotta look at the bright side. The show wasn’t sustaining any numbers.
Where some people see failure, I see amazing opportunity!
I mean what a perfect time to self-produce a show that has that edge.
If I was new writer trying to break in, not only would I be writing and submitting packets every three to six months, I would be collaborating and self-producing a 5 min. edgy variety/talk show just like the Daily Show with the same type of enthusiasm and gusto that was ever-present at that show.
Why would you self-produce?
*Because with the technology we have today, it’s easy. You can download Wirecast (http://www.telestream.net/wirecast/) and produce a multi-cam show using your iPhones.
Want to do it cheaply get the FREE TRIAL of wirecast, then upgrade to eliminate the watermark for $9.99
Better yet, use Open Broadcast Software (http://obsproject.com/). It’s a little less user-friendly, but I’ve heard good things. One of the really good things I heard was that it is FREE! *
**(The asterisks indicate an update since the post was first published).**
The simpler, the better because you don’t want to get bogged down in the editing bay.
Better yet, rehearse a tight 5-minute, well written show and live stream it! Then develop an audience and a subscriber base, then you can create pressure on the the industry to the point where they have to take notice of you.
Think about it. If you develop a really strong following that’s watching you because you stream solid content on a daily or semi-daily basis, somebody in the industry will take notice.
You can put it up on Twitch.tv and build your fanbase. There are gamers on there right now with 30-thousand + subscribers. Subscribers who pay 5 bucks a month to be there.
Even if you have a rusty calculator in your head, it doesn’t take but a second to realize that that’s bank.
Who’s Gaming on That Platform?
Twitch.tv has over 100 million monthly users and they just added a comedy category on that platform. Can you say, “ground floor opportunity?”
Here’s the kicker… 75 percent of the users are male and 73 percent are ages 18-34; Hello? are you listening? That’s the exact demo Comedy Central is coveting!
That’s how you work outside the system to develop notoriety inside the system.
Besides, what an amazingly cool thing to do while you write and develop your Late Night TV packets for (in-system) submission.
You’re basically repurposing your writing, using it on your self-produced show while you’re still submitting it in your packet.
That’s just cool!
You want a quick show that’s well-written with cutting jokes and with a host that has a strong and dynamic identity; preferably with an edge of sarcasm or cynicism.
In other words, someone who’s not afraid to call ‘bullshit,’ and make it relatable and funny.
So if you don’t know how to write comedy in that fickle Late Night TV structure, then now’s the time to get those skills so you can begin to participate at a level that just 2 years ago was unheard of.
So get to work on your shows, creatives!
Comedy Central is dying to see it!
Watching for opportunity to write for Late Night TV is sort of like following the NASDAQ or NYSE.
In the market, every time there’s movement in a company’s management, the stock fluctuates.
Fluctuation means opportunity.
When you pay attention, it could be life changing. If you purchased 2000 shares of Apple stock at this time in 2005, at $5.60, it would’ve cost you $11,200.
Today, even as Apple stock is down from its highs, that same stock would be worth $197,320.00
[Chart courtesy of Google Finance]
That’s a huge profit on your money.
Which is why stock market investors watch the market and study a company’s maneuvers with an eagle’s eye; for that opportunity to turn $11k into $200k.
When a good brand is having some bad luck it’s a great time to move in.
So what does that have to do with writing for Late Night TV?
The same thing that happens at Apple happens in Late Night TV all the time!
A writer interested in writing for Late Night TV, should be paying close attention to the movements that happen behind the scenes just like a market investor eyes the NYSE or the NASDAQ.
Because turning $11k into $200k over a period of 11 years is a sweet investment, but a job writing in Late Night TV can turn $0 into $200k in a year, because that’s the minimum salary for a staff writer working in Late Night.
So a writer should be paying close attention to the Late Night TV market, because drama is happening big time over at CBS.
A new showrunner coming to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and rumors flying around that James Corden might be tapped to replace Colbert as host, add fuel to the fire that there is going to be huge movement in late night TV, especially at The Late Show.
Shows like this are always in flux. The average tenure of a Late Night writer is 2 years so the staffs are always somewhat fluid, but you know the network has real concerns when they bring aboard a new showrunner.
Those facts alone are something to pay attention to, but add to that the fact that Colbert’s ratings at The Late Show are less than promising and The Late Show not getting any Emmy nominations this year are a huge concern.
I mean, that hasn’t happened since 2003.
Consider that Colbert brought most of his writing staff from The Colbert Report to The Late Show. Some heads are bound to roll.
That means opportunity!
When the Audience Tunes in to Watch the Character
Interestingly enough, none of that surprises me. When CBS president, Les Moonves, gave the cold shoulder to Craig Ferguson and opted instead to offer the Late Show position to Colbert, I lambasted him.
I didn’t think that Colbert was a proper fit for the throne previously occupied by David Letterman.
He’s especially not a fit because the person that made The Colbert Report so successful was NOT Stephen Colbert, but his character; that buffoon conservative who was parodying a talk show host.
It was the character he played who was popular.
So when you move to The Late Show and decide that you’re not going bring the character with you, your fans probably won’t follow.
Because the audience is tuning in to see the character.
Imagine hearing this: Ladies and Gentleman, heeeere’s Dan Whitney! How would you respond? Probably not excited right?
But what if I said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, heeeere’s Larry the Cable Guy!” Those Larry the Cable Guy fans would go crazy… even though Larry the Cable Guy and Dan Whitney are the same person. Dan Whitney plays a character called Larry the Cable Guy. And it’s Larry the Cable Guy who we’ve tuned in to see.
But even if we choose a performer with a character that has the same name as the performer and that performer decides not to do the character we’ve grown to love, it usually ends up in failure or imminent career demise.
When Steve Martin took the podium at the New York Public library in front of a sold out audience, then lectured about his art collection, fans were bored to bits, to the point where the event goers were given refunds.
They did that because they paid to see Steve Martin, that “wild and crazy guy!,” not an art historian.
Usually known for his high energy, shirtless performances, glam rocker Billy Idol did a concert about a year ago where he sat on a stool and played acoustic guitar. The audience–his biggest fans–booed and heckled him.
I mean, come on, Billy, at least take your shirt off!
Or like when Jim Carrey decided he wanted to be taken as a serious dramatic actor–well, how many of you just furrowed your brows and said, “I’m sorry, who?”
The fact is, when you build a career based on a character and that character builds a frenzied fan base, then you decide that you don’t want to do that character anymore, chances are–or at least history shows–that your fans are not fans of you, they are fans of your character.
Moonves should’ve seen this coming, based on the trail of Hollywood road kill that lay before him.
Did I just go on a rant?
Late Night Writers Should See This as Opportunity
My point is this: Writers who want to get into Late Night TV should be paying close attention to what’s happening in behind the scenes in Late Night TV.
There’s amazing opportunities happening and right now anyone who’s interested should be preparing their writing packets and sending them into their favorite shows.
Why your “favorite” show and not just Colbert?
Because, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is going to probably fire some writers and replace them with other writers; some will no doubt, be from the staffs of existing shows.
Those shows will now also have openings that will need to be filled.
This creates opportunities all over the the Late Night landscape.
So, writers, get your packets written and take advantage of these incredible opportunities.
You never know, it could turn out to be your Apple.
Sign Me Up for Late Night TV Writing Industry Updates!
It is the most exciting time in history to try to get a job writing on a show in Late Night TV!
So when I get emails from people asking if they should pursue an opportunity to write for Late Night TV.
I always answer with a resounding “Yes!” and I have solid reasoning to back it up.
In fact I have 200,005 reasons you should pursue a job to write for Late Night TV.
But before we go there, let’s back up for a moment and look at the traditional method people use to prepare for a career.
The Career Path of the College Grad
Most people go to college for 4-5 years, get the skill set they need to work in the career of their choice.
If it’s a specialty like doctor or lawyer, they put in an extra few years of law school or med school followed by internship and/or residency.
Now I wholeheartedly believe that education is by far the best investment one can make in one’s future.
Every single time I invested in learning a new skill set, my resulting revenue skyrocketed.
Some people tell me that paying to learn comedy writing is too expensive.
I don’t get it.
My sons are in college, just finishing up. One university costs $30,000 annually. The other one $12,000 annually.
That’s quite an investment!
According to Forbes, when they graduate they are looking at an average starting salary of $42,000 a year.
And that’s IF they land a job in their specialty.
It doesn’t take an MIT graduate to realize it’s gonna take a while to make a profit on that investment.
To make matters worse, you’re already 4-5 years in on your investment.
Which leads me to…
200,005 reasons to write for Late Night TV:
REASON 1 thru 200,000
According to the Writer’s Guild of America, the starting salary for a writer in Late Night is $4,198 per week. Most of these shows are yearly. And even if you took 10-12 weeks off per year, that’s over $200,000 a year!
That’s base starting pay!
If you write a 2-minute sketch and that gets on the air, you earn another 3,875.00 for that sketch…
… and if you write a song parody, you get ASCAP fees on top of that!
Not bad, but that’s not all…
Writing for Late Night TV is still one of the only jobs in the industry where you can get hired without experience and without a resume! You just have to show that you can write funny.
That’s how I got my job writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and how a lot of guys I know got their jobs. In fact, most recently, an IT guy from Peoria named Bryan Donaldson got hired on Late Night with Seth Meyers because of his funny tweets!
Other writers I know simply submitted fresh writing sample packets consistently, then they were called in for a meeting and booked the job!
Frida Deguise, one of my Skype students in Australia works with me on her joke writing. Her career is now taking off–both as a comedian and a writer. She just sold out two shows in Melbourne, Australia and was just hired as a writer on “Gruen,” Australia’s hottest variety/talk show (similar to our Daily Show). Frida, previously had zero experience and no resume in the business. She made such an impression that she got a joke greenlit her first day on the job. (nearly unheard of).
Get the Free Video: “How to get a job writing for Late Night TV”
The cost of the investment in the education (in both time and money) to get the skills for Late Night TV writing is microscopic compared to traditional career preparation. When I decided I wanted to write for Late Night TV, I dropped out of college and dedicated swapped the time I was going to spend in classes at school with time deliberately learning the craft to write for Late Night. I hired a comedy comedy writer from the Dean Martin Roasts to coach me and keep me accountable.
Every day 4-5 hours a day, I wrote Late Night-style comedy. Within 18 months I was hired at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. 18 months. Compare that with the time and money it takes to get a degree in college!
The amazing part is that–despite the fact that it was hard work–I could actually measure my progress. Once I figured out the structures and developed a process I was cranking out 80-120 jokes a day.
You saw the costs of college above, but get this; Emerson College is now offering an accredited BFA in Comedic Arts. You can graduate with a Bachelor’s in comedy! But if you go to Emerson it will cost you $42,000 a year. That’s 168,000 for that 4-year degree.
Besides, name one job that you can get right out of college that earns you a starting salary of 200k a year?
Once you’re a writer you become a member of the WGA, (the Writer’s Guild of America) where your salary is protected and you get great health benefits.
If you like to write jokes, there’s no better job in the world!
Writing for a late show like The Tonight Show gives you enormous credibility and leverage. If you’re also a comedian, it opens so many more doors. You can get booked at almost any club because the title “writer” on a well known show is a credit that can be promoted in any comedy club in any city in the U.S. and Canada. After writing for the Tonight Show, I booked audience warm-up gigs, stand-up spots on multiple TV shows, etc. Every show increased my personal appearance value.
Not only that, once you’re a writer for Late Night, you can get booked for high-paying speaking engagements due to your affiliation with the show. Years after I was writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, I’m still being booked to speak all over the World.
Supply & Demand
The Late Night TV industry has totally exploded. When I was first writing for Late Night, there were 2 shows. Now there’s 9 Late Night style shows and that’s not even including Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS and Chelsea Handler on “Chelsea” on Netflix. With Hulu, Amazon and YouTube whispering about producing new streaming shows. Plus if you include the daytime talk shows like “Ellen, “Wendy Williams,” and Harry Connick’s new show “Harry,” you can see that Talk-Variety shows are experiencing amazing growth.
Consider the additional fact that since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert departed Comedy Central, they’ve been scrambling to find an effective replacement. Look for 1 or 2 new shows from C.C.
Good comedy content is in high demand and continuing to grow. Problem is, the talent pool of good comedy writers is seriously thin. The next 5 years is going to be a boom period for good comedy writers. If you’ve thought about writing for Late Night TV, what you do in the next 6 months can have a huge impact on the rest of your life!
Ratings are down for Late Night Shows. Of course they are. We don’t have 3 networks like we did back in the day. There are hundreds of channels to choose from so Late Night Talk Shows are competing for an audience harder than a new product competing for shelf space in a supermarket.
It’s a super competitive market out there which is why I came up with 3 Reasons Late Night TV Needs Fresh Writers.
New Hosts Almost Across the Board
Not sure if you’ve been watching, but it’s an interesting time in Late Night TV. We have new hosts across the the networks with Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Seth Meyers.
Who would’ve thought the day would come when Jimmy Kimmel is the veteran host. He debuted in January, 2003.
As far as the ratings are concerned, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is far in the lead in that regard, but it’s not the ratings that are getting my attention. It’s not the hosts. I think the hosts are capable and talented.
It’s what’s happening behind the scenes, in the staff rooms that bothers me. So indulge me as a jump into reason number one:
I’m usually not guy who armchair-quarterback’s late shows, but lazy writing is something that bothers me to my core. I think it’s one reason why Late Night TV needs fresh writers.
There are writers on those staffs who are making a lot of money. The basic salary for a staff writer on a Late Night show is $4000 per week. That’s the base. You’d figure that if you were making that kind of money, you would bust your ass to keep that job.
The laziness first hit me when I was watching Seth Meyers over at ‘Late Night.’ I like Seth Meyers. Never saw him do stand-up, but loved him on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and when I saw him host the ESPY awards in 2010, I was totally sold that he would be a solid Late Night host. I was also aware that he was bringing over a bunch of seasoned writers from Saturday Night Live to write on ‘Late Night’ so I was excited for some rockstar material.
Retreading Old Sketches
When I first tuned in, they had Meyers doing a sketch where he looks in the mirror doing “Affirmations.” “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!”
Ring a bell?
I’m like, What?! That’s Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s character!
What’s so significant about that? That character first hit the air on Saturday Night Live in 1991 from a sketch of the same name.
#Lazy Writing. You would figure that the writers coming over to Late Night from SNL would bring experience, not recycled sketches.
As a Late Night TV writer, it’s your job to make your host look amazing and funny, not like he’s a retread from last century.
And “Late Night” airs in the 12:30 time slot in much of the country so what a great opportunity to be cutting edge and do something completely unique, right?
I mean where’s the lightning strikes? Where’s the ‘WTF’ moments? I just don’t see it.
Some of these writers are treating their comedy material like I treat my cough syrup with codeine; they use it way after its expiration date.
Severely Dated References
The most recent disappointment was over at the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He did a joke about Donald Trump taking the Nevada primaries and dropped in a reference to Siegfried and Roy.
Those guys haven’t been on a Vegas stage for 16 years.
Sixteen years! I mean while you’re at it, why don’t you just drop in a Y2K reference!
I mean, think about it this way: of the networks’ coveted demo of 18-34 males, none of them would have been old enough to even go to Vegas when Siegfried and Roy were actually relevant!
The youngest would’ve been two and the oldest would’ve been eighteen. How the hell are they even supposed to know who Siegfried and Roy are?
C’mon writers! Get out of your cubicles and tap celebrity culture of today, not last generation!
I would’ve let that go, but then I saw this:
James Corden at the Late Late Show did the same joke that they did over at Late Night with Stephen Colbert. I know that happens and all and I can hear some of you saying it’s ‘parallel thought’ and I get it, but not only was the joke done on the same network, but it was done the following night; a full show cycle later.
Is nobody doing their homework?
The good news is that it IS a ‘WTF’ moment. The bad news is that it’s NOT the type ‘WTF’ moment that makes your host look like a rockstar. It’s the type of ‘WTF’ that will take your ratings in the direction the stock market goes everytime China farts.
I’m not writing about this simply to trash talk the shows. Those of you who know me, know that I’m a big supporter of people succeeding.
When Conan first hit the air he sucked and I celebrated when he found his groove, but I can tell you, with Conan, it was never about lazy writing, it was about his comfort as a host.
But in Late Night today it’s about the writers. When I was writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno I remember a veteran writer telling me that the burnout rate in late night writing is about 2 years.
Maybe some of these writers are experiencing burnout.
The reason I write this is there are a ton of fresh writers out there who would kill for the opportunity to be a late night writer.
Some email me from all over asking about how to get into the biz.
I got in because I found myself in college spending my days writing jokes on celebrity culture and current events rather than going to class.
So instead of fighting it I just came back to L.A. and wrote every day until I landed a job writing for the Tonight Show.
Are you like me? Do you do the same thing? Well then start setting goals to start writing 30-40 jokes a day.
Compare them with what’s on the Late Night shows and see if you’re better.
Because Late Night TV needs rockstars. Late Night TV need YOU!
Maybe YOU could be the one to help these hosts finally bring the ‘WTF’ moment.
Go get ’em!