Blog: NYTVF 2012 - Long Day's Journey into Late Night
They get up early in the morning and head to work just like you and I. But after that it’s a completely different world. These are the men and women who put pen to paper- or more currently fingers to keyboard- in order to make us laugh. They are the writers of late night television working tirelessly to turn over hilarious and topical material on a neck breaking daily basis. And at the 8th annual “New York Television Festival,” these writers have once again gathered together for the completely sold out, “Long Day’s Journey Into Late Night” panel discussion at the 92Y Tribeca.
This no holds barred, hour long look inside the late night writing process was moderated by a man who lives and works on a completely opposite schedule. Willie Geist lives most of his TV life extremely early in the morning as the host of MSNBC’s “Way Too Early,” while also working as a contributor on “Morning Joe” and “The Today Show.” Before the panel began, Geist joked about the fact that he just flew up from Boca Raton after the final Presidential Debate and that he was basically running on fumes. His immediate mention of the current political scene brilliantly carried us into the evening’s discussion, which would revolve mostly around comedy writing in an election year. The major league writers panel included, Steve Bodow (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), A.D. Miles (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), Barry Julien (The Colbert Report), Eric and Justin Stangel (Late Show with David Letterman), and Colin Jost (Saturday Night Live). With such a serious list heavy hitters, we were in for both a revealing and highly diverse conversation.
As previously stated, much of the panel topics were kept to the current political landscape focused on how each respective show is written and produced. Geist kicked off the discussion by going down the line to each writer to see how their work days begin and it became quickly apparent that the heavy lifting begins way before the day of production. Beginning with the pair of Comedy Central writers, the ongoing Presidential debates keep them working at the office way into the evening as they pick apart what each candidate says, allowing them to throw jokes around the room and seeing what sticks to the wall. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will even call into and write alongside of said writers and go over each nuanced piece late into the evening. The next morning is filled with early emails trying to nail down each highly time sensitive bit. Even with all this work, these teams are still hours away from taping and so much needs to be written, scrapped, and written again.
“Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” head writer A.D. Miles was prompted by Geist to talk about what makes a good writer for late night television. His response encapsulated a no “B.S.” approach to selecting new staff members who need to instantly gel and truly get the funny out. Miles stated they they receive packets from writers all the time and they must weed through the folks who are submitting jokes that took them months to cultivate. To be a solid late night writer is to think on the spot and produce well crafted jokes in a very short period of time. He made it very clear that this goes double for monologue writers. They are always on the hunt for someone who can quickly write hundreds of short, too the point, and most important funny material for Fallon to deliver at the start of every show. Miles humorously drove the point home that these monologue writers are kept in high regard for the amazing turnover they produce. He stressed that each writer must keep the host’s “voice” in mind when developing jokes as they need to instantly resonate for how they speak and deliver on a regular basis.
Perhaps no host’s “voice” is more important to keep in mind when writing than with 30 year late night veteran David Letterman. The Stangel brothers boldly and hilariously discussed the manner in which their show comes together on a daily basis. The writing team and the brothers collaborate on several time consuming comedy pieces to fill the hour long program, which are routinely rewritten and scrutinized throughout the day. But it is ultimately up to Letterman as to what makes it to air, as he’s been known to cut something on the spot, and that’s just how it is. In turn this makes for a stronger writing staff having to always be thinking of ways to bring the show forward, and not to rely on previously successful bits from the Late Show’s rich history.
As a child, I have memories of sneaking down to the living room to flip on Saturday Night Live or The Late Show, shows that helped me to learn about what was funny and to mold my comedic mind. Each of the shows represented on the panel seem to now rebel from the tired writing seen on various sitcoms or other vanilla programs. They work a nearly inhumane amount of days and hours to create a product that stands out to keep you glued to the show, inform you, and most importantly keep you laughing enough to tune in tomorrow.
- Jay Rubin