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, building… still building and ending urgently with a climactic… 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 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.

So if you’re writing jokes all day every day, it’s not really work is it? Especially if you have a process, like the listing technique. (Get a free tutorial of the listing technique here.)

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.

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 (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!

If you’re really super interested in learning more about writing for the exploding Late Night TV industry, Sign Up for my Late Night TV Writing industry updates and stay in the loop.

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