Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Day in the Life of a Late-Night Writer

A former writing intern for The Tonight Show takes us behind the blue curtain for a peek into the show's writing process.  ♦ 
What’s short, cheeky, and destined to be talked about tomorrow?
   Ah, yes: the late-night monologue.
  The brief line-up of jokes kicking off most late-night talk shows has earned a vast amount of public attention (and sometimes controversy) in recent years, skyrocketing the monologues themselves to stardom and must-watch status. Forget the hosts and celebrity guests—the joke about the President’s dinner last night is what people are now tuning in to see. A number of young people nowadays (one in five, according to a 2016 Pew Research poll) even turn to late-night shows as a primary news source, to find out what’s going on around the country and in Washington. Don’t believe me? Look to Twitter each night around 11:45 to see the impact the monologue can have on the public conversation (or find out at 6 the next morning, when the executive tweetstorm begins).
   A dozen or so jokes a night—which is what the average monologue contains—might not sound like a full day’s work, but these are only a few handpicked jokes from an ever-growing list a team of writers constantly works on and tweaks in an average day. In fact, the late-night monologue is a beast that continually takes new forms as the day goes on and the news of the day changes, and it’s a beast that needs some serious tending to before airtime.
  I encountered this beast head-on last summer at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where I interned with the show’s writers, and I gained some pretty good insight into the show’s writing process along the way.
   It all starts with keeping up the news cycle itself. Designated monologue writers arrive to The Tonight Show office early in the morning and begin typing away, drafting up dozens of jokes built from recent headlines. These typically involve big names and are either political in nature or “interest stories,” which consist of things like the newest Starbucks Frappuccino. The monologue writers have a deadline around noon to have a list of jokes ready, at which time they meet with the head writer and shave down the combined list to a mere twenty or thirty jokes and from there assemble the shape of the monologue.
   Meanwhile, another team of writers is hard at work writing the show’s sketches, preparing the various skits and games set to appear that night. Quite literally separated from the monologue writers (they’re on a different floor of the building), sketch writers follow a process that isn’t so immediate as the monologue writers’—sketch writers may have even pitched their ideas to the head writer and producers weeks before—but this doesn’t mean they’re not working as frantically. If they’ve gotten the go-ahead, they usually begin writing the segment the morning of, with a similar noon deadline.
   Sketch writer Becky Krause sums up a typical day for her:
  “For a sketch, I write the sketch [and] send it to the supervising writer and head writer for revisions,” Krause says. “We bring that revised sketch to Jimmy. He brainstorms with us and makes his own revisions. I update the script with his revisions. If we rehearse the sketch on the studio floor before the show, there may be more revisions made. Every time there are revisions, I update the script with the script supervisor, who sends out the changes to the studio control room and cue cards.”
   That’s four revisions to one short sketch in one day, and that’s a minimum. Often, revisions come in continuously as another pair of eyes spots something that needs work, and this can happen right up to showtime, just minutes before the sketch is to be taped. Despite the number of hands the sketch passes through, however, the writers are still the ones making the revisions on their own sketches.
   “My own revisions come mostly when I'm writing the script in the beginning, and after that, they're usually my revisions based off other people's notes,” Krause says. “I can propose any revisions at any time.”
Ross Tague sabotages the monologue by stealing a cue card.
  Occasionally, a sketch writer is also called upon to write a “feature,” a sort of short skit placed in the middle of the monologue. This typically includes screen graphics or Fallon talking to someone in character who is on a different camera. Nicole Schram, an associate producer for The Tonight Show, is responsible for overseeing the complex revision process and keeping the tight schedule throughout the day.
   “My job is to act as a liaison between the creative side (the writers) and the technical side (the director and the control room),” Schram says. “I keep the monologue on track with time, and ensure things are submitted in ample time before the rehearsal and air show. I also keep track of the technical elements within a sketch and make sure that the control room has them and that they are written out in correct form in the script.”
   Since scripts move so much throughout the office (and through so many different hands), it’s important that everyone has identical scripts in the same format; whenever a revision is made, all producers, writers, and performers must receive a new copy.
    In other words, The Tonight Show goes through a lot of paper.
  After being trimmed down through various meetings, the monologue finally makes it to rehearsal, where Fallon tries out the jokes on a test audience. Here, he makes any revisions he deems necessary and takes out the jokes that got the least reaction from the audience. Following rehearsal, the writing team has roughly an hour to update the script with Fallon’s revisions, and the cue card team must copy the revisions down on the cards for Fallon to read during taping. Frequently, a last-minute joke comes in from the monologue writers, especially when the number of approved jokes is lacking. Sometimes this happens only seconds to showtime, and the backstage area becomes a chaotic frenzy as the cards are updated and the new script is run out to the producers and control room.
   Once the show starts, the writers and producers are finally able to catch their breath, peace falls over The Tonight Show office, and everyone is able to kick back and enjoy the taping.
   That is, if they’re not already writing jokes for the next day.
   It takes an impressive number of people, and a whole lot of hard work, to deliver the late-night goods for each new show, every weeknight, five times a week. But it’s also important work, connecting us with the news of the day and checking in with the public sentiment, all the while making us laugh.
    Sounds like a fair trade-off to me.
  • About the Author
    Rosston (Ross) Tague is currently a junior Media & Culture and Creative Writing double major at Miami University. From Indianapolis, IN, he seeks adventure in the exciting world of the entertainment industry, but until then, you can catch him drinking too much coffee and offering up Harry Potter conspiracy theories.

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