One of the most controversial topics of the last few months has been the issue of writers writing for talk shows. After all, it’s no newsflash that most of the big talk shows came back on the air last month… in the middle of the strike… without their writers. But what was a newsflash (to many people) was that talk shows had writers at all. I mean, they’re “talk shows,” right? People sit around and… well… talk. So what could writers possibly do?
I’ve gotten a bunch of emails and questions about this over the past couple weeks, so I decided to talk to someone who knows this world better than I do: my friend Brad Wollack, a writer/producer for Chelsea Lately, E!’s hit late night talk show hosted by Chelsea Handler. Brad’s also written for The Wayne Brady Show, as well as reality shows like Parental Control and Celebrity Duets. He’s also written for Joan Rivers and Melissa Rivers when they host the red carpets at the Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globes. (You can also catch Brad as his alter ego, film critic Woody Wittman, on The Hollywoody Show.)
So here to talk about the craft of talk show writing and how to break in… Brad Wollack.
Brad, I’m confused. We keep hearing that talk shows like The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live are back on the air without their writers. But talk shows are mostly jokes and interviews. What do talk show writers actually write?
Jokes and the interview questions. Leno’s monologue on a typical night is 10 minutes long. Leno’s a great comic, but he doesn’t come up with 10 minutes of topical jokes every day. It takes a staff to produce volume. You have to produce X amount of jokes just to get stuff that will actually make air. It’s not like you write ten jokes and they’re all good jokes. You need volume… which means you need bodies and minds.
[Also,] Leno, Letterman, Conan—especially Jon Stewart, if you consider that a talk show—do a lot of sketches and bits, and someone’s writing those. And often times writers end up having to direct those little sketches. So writing influences a lot.
I always say when shit hits the fan—this is true on any series—the first person they turn to is the writer. “How do we fix this?” “How do we do that?” “How do we ask this person this question?”
A lot of times they ask you to help producers craft good questions or think of bits to do. I remember when Martha Stewart was on Conan, years ago, and they had her chugging a 40. I wouldn’t be surprised if that idea came out of the writers room that morning. Writers help craft the whole show, guide the whole show, and are a support to the host.
If you can’t tell that stuff has been written, if it seems natural for the host, the writing staff is doing a good job.
What makes writing for a talk show different than writing for a sitcom or drama? Are the processes different? Do talk show writers need different kinds of skills and writing chops?
They’re very different. First of all, the schedules are different. We work on a daily schedule; every day is a new [show]. We don’t work on the same episode for multiple days, we start fresh every single morning. As hard as that is, it’s also nice because you can just be done with it. When you go home at night, you [can say], “Well, we get to try again tomorrow.” …which is exciting, because the volume of material you’re producing in any given week is [enormous].
Talk shows are also very topical, so you’re always creating topical stuff that doesn’t get stale. With sitcoms, there’s a writers room, and they spend weeks working on scripts.
Plus, to do a talk show, especially a Leno or a Letterman, the writers have to be really good at writing jokes. They have to be great joke-writers more than strong structural writers. Can you take any story and list off ten jokes about it… under a time pressure?
We start at 9:45 every morning, and by 1:00 or 1:30, we have the whole show and all the jokes done. That’s a lot. We don’t succeed every day, but I think we succeed more often than we don’t, and the material is sound… but the daily turnaround is definitely a pressure.
Another difference between talk shows and sitcoms: in sitcoms you’re writing for characters, whereas in talk shows you’re writing for a specific voice. [So] you really have to identify with the voice of the host. And [they’ll] argue with you. It’s not like Kramer (from Seinfeld) would come in and say, “I don’t do that! I don’t say that!” But Chelsea will come in and go, “No, I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to do that!” So you have to be specific in what you’re writing, and the voice you’re writing in.
Walk me through a typical day in the life of a talk show writer on Chelsea Lately.
9:25 – Arrive
9:35 – Get into the office (because I park in a faraway place)
9:36 – Walk down the hall, make a lot of noise, say good morning to everyone. Start talking, milling about. Slowly, casual conversation of “what did you do last night” turns into “what did you watch on TV last night? What can we make fun of?”
9:45 – We gather in the conference room and beat out the cold open. Then, we start working on our daily topics. We usually have five of those. Each daily topic is a big entertainment news story. We figure out our angle and five or six jokes that Chelsea can use. Chelsea is very involved in this, which is probably another big difference between a talk show and a sitcom or drama. [On those shows,] actors have no say. Or they might have a say, but they’re not in the writers room, whereas Chelsea is there every day bringing as many, if not more, jokes than everyone else.
11:30 – We break off and do our own thing. Write it up, put it in script form, put it on cards for Chelsea… and she goes to work, memorizing stuff, working on new material, [etc.]. Our job, as writers, is done by 1:30. Everything has to be in for her at 1:45 because we tape at 3:30.
1:45 – Rehearsal
3:30 – Tape
What about bits and sketches shot on location? How are writers involved with those?
A lot is done ahead of time, working out beats for the different jokes and stuff. But a lot [happens] in the field that you couldn’t even anticipate, so a lot of the writ
ing is on the fly: feeding Chelsea lines, working out an angle you didn’t think of previously. Our head writer goes, and we have a dedicated field writer who goes. [Plus,] the writer who wrote the bit goes. So you have three people making sure lines are delivered. It’s very writing intensive, even though it’s not literally sitting down and going, “and then she’ll say this, and this guy says this.”
You’ve also written for a daytime talk show, The Wayne Brady Show. How is writing for a daytime talk show different from writing for a night time talk show… or is it?
You’re going for different audiences. Daytime, historically, is a very female audience: stay-at-home moms, what have you. You can’t be as edgy. You have to be a lot more broad, not so hard-hitting. A lot of times, daytime shows tape the day before… or a couple days before… so they’re not as topical. They’re more generalized, and they don’t go for hard-hitting jokes.
[In] late night, you’re playing to a different audience. The people up at 11 a.m. watching Wayne Brady are very different from people who are up at 11:30 p.m. tuning into Chelsea. We can be a lot edgier, we’re going for a younger audience… an audience that’s typically tuning in to hear our host’s take on issues—especially with our show, since we’re establishing ourselves as the go-to source for cutting the bullshit on entertainment news. People want Chelsea’s harsh opinions.
You must do insane amounts of research—how much do you have to read newspapers, magazines, watch tv, etc?
Especially as a host, you have to be immersed in all of that… and as a writer, too. We follow the news in general, but we’re all assigned different magazines to look at every week, so we can bring that knowledge to the table. You have to be up on pop culture… and smart in general. You have to be able to reference stuff in the past.
Ultimately, we can write whatever we want, and we (the writers) can have a bad day… but Chelsea can never have a bad day. She constantly has to be delivering. So she reads US Weekly, In Touch, all that stuff, voraciously, as well as watching every single TV show… and not only reading all that, but then formulating an opinion. It doesn’t end when you walk out the door.
I’ve recently gotten a lot of emails from aspirants who want to write for talk shows. What’s the best way to become a talk show writer? If you’re an aspiring talk show writer living in Omaha, what’s the best path?
Unfortunately, there is no formula for it. I backed into it because my agents represented Wayne Brady. He was looking for a new writer, I’d been doing stand-up, so I did a submission. And I got the job. But obviously [a writer] in Omaha can’t do that.
If someone wants to put together a packet of material to impress a talk show producer, what do they need? I mean, in scripted TV, you write specs, sample scripts of 30 Rock or CSI or whatever… but in talk, how do you prove you’re a good writer?
If you want to be a talk show writer, pick a show: Conan, Letterman, Leno, [etc.] They’re all different in style and structure, so you have to figure out which to do a sample for.
Let’s say you did Conan. He typically does four topical jokes when he comes out at the top of the show, so you’d want to generate a list of 15-20 topical jokes based on that day or week’s news, to show you can write topically and write monologue jokes.
You also want to generate some sketch ideas, both that [the host] can be in and also ones featuring new characters. Also, do existing sketches they do. What’s your submission of “In the Year 2000?” Or your submission of when he drives his desk through the city? Any of those popular bits. You want to show that you know the show, and you can fit that style.
Then, in terms of what you do with that, you’re free to send it in blindly to the executive producers with a note saying, “Hey, I’m in Omaha, but I’d love to write. What do you think?”
[Of course,] you would probably have a better shot starting with a smaller show. You’re not going to get hired on Letterman if you’ve never had any experience, so you say, “Well, Spike Feresten has a talk show—late night on Saturdays and they’re probably much more available for staffing than Letterman or Leno.”
Hold on—that’s weird. In scripted shows, you would never send a show a spec of itself. I.e., you can’t usually get a producer at Dexter to read a Dexter spec. But it sounds like talk shows work differently… like you submit to Leno a packet of material designed specifically for Leno. Is that right?
Yeah—there’s a big difference. In talk shows, they want to see if you can write in their voice, style, and structure.
So, would you ever submit a packet of spec Leno jokes you wrote to Chelsea Lately? Would you submit Jimmy Kimmel Live sketches to Letterman?
I wouldn’t. Again, it’s a very specific voice you’re writing for. There may be ways to tweak the same joke so it fits each personality, but the way Letterman delivers a joke is very different from the way Leno delivers it, [which is different from] the way Chelsea Handler delivers it.
So your best bet, if you can, is to do various submissions to show you can speak to each of those shows.
It seems like a lot of talk show writers, such as yourself, were stand-ups before they became writers. Is stand-up a good way to hone your chops to become a talk show writer?
Not only does it help hone your chops, it helps you learn how to write jokes and deliver jokes… which is important because part of the writing process is pitching. When you’re in the room each morning, pitching your jokes, you pitch it like you’re on a stage in a comedy show. You have to be able to sell it.
[Stand-up] also introduces you to a lot of people. I know people who have gotten writing jobs based on the fact that they were in comedy clubs and knew this host or that host, or were friendly with one of the writers on Kimmel, who also did stand-up, and he knew of an opening on his staff. So it’s very useful for the networking aspect… and honing your writing and presentation skills.
Any last thoughts?
Make sure you really respect the comedy of the person you’re writing for. If you don’t know or respect the comedy, it’s not going to work out, regardless. When you’re on the same comedy wavelength as the host, it makes going to work every day really fun, because it’s just shooting the shit with your friends.
WOODY WITTMAN ON THE HOLLYWOODY SHOW