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!
Got a call from a young comedian today. Didn’t recognize the number, but I took the call anyway.
He said, “Thanks for taking my call. I really need some advice…”
I sighed to myself and thought… I knew I shouldn’t have answered the phone…
Then I heard his voice crack a little.
Dude was hurting. He went on to tell me what was up. He said, “I have a show tonight. My girlfriend just broke up with me and I’m fu**ing crushed. She won’t even talk to me. What do I do?”
I thought to myself, Did you call the right number? I’m a joke writer!
Then he said, “How do I go on stage and be funny when everything hurts?”
I like to help people. I thrive in it, but when he said that, I could feel myself like, I don’t know–jump–to the occasion.
I didn’t know whether the comedian in me was feeling heroic or schadenfreude; some kind of sadistic enjoyment that someone else was suffering.
So I took a breath and just let words come out of my mouth. I’m sure it was rambling–like these blog posts the three of you endure from me!
I said, “I’m sorry you’re going through such pain. Don’t fight it. You’re human. Embrace it.
“Allow yourself to wallow in it and experience it, but when that spotlight turns on and they call your name… it’s showtime… got it?!
“Because feeling overwhelmed by emotion is only one part of being human. Another part being able to turn on your own light, shift your emotion and give them a show, even if it’s on a fucking dime.
Because being a performer is not what we do, it’s who we are.”
I know that might sound cliche or trite to the point of sounding ingenuous, but nothing could be truer.
When I first started in this business, one of my life changing moments occurred when I heard a joke by Rodney Dangerfield (now, you have to imagine his voice saying this joke for the best effect).
He said, “Comedy is in my blood; too bad it’s not in my material!”
And though I laughed at the punchline, it was the set up that I really felt to my bones. I thought comedy is in my blood. And that was the moment I decided to do it for the rest of my life.
And in the rest of your life, you are going to experience ups and downs, breakups and deaths, but that doesn’t change who you are.
That light still goes on at eight o’clock and that audience has paid good money to laugh. So for that five minutes, thirty minutes or an hour, you have to bring it and bring it hard.
My talk seemed to help this young man on the phone, because his voice changed. He became animated.
“You’re right!” He said. His voice cracked again, but this time for a different reason; he was excited.
“Thank you for taking my call and thank you for the advice, man. Really!”
We hung up the phone. (Okay, didn’t really ‘hang up’ the phone. I pressed a button…)
But, if I didn’t say it on the phone, I’ll say it here: ‘Thank YOU, young comedian!’
After that call, I felt I was supposed to feel proud of myself and, I don’t know–maybe heroic?
But in that precise moment, my eyes filled with tears and I realized, that call was as much for him as it was for me.
In short, we’re human. Allow yourself to feel, to go through the ups and downs of life. But when that light goes on, give them a show and be unstoppable!
After all, being a comedian or a performer is not what you do; it’s who you are.
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!
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:
- Make note of the Talent Coordinator at Conan, (Put him into your contact database)
- Read attentively and look at the suggestions of what they look for at Conan
- Run over to TeamCoco’s page on YouTube and study the comedians and their Late Night sets.
- Notice their structure and their pacing. (Late Night pacing is a lot slower than you might imagine; bigger pauses)
- Start putting together your own idea of what your 4.5 minutes will look like.
- Be sure to keep in mind that on Late Night, that first joke is crucial. Gotta be tight.
- 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.