Published on July 30th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


JFL Comedy Conference, Day 3, the finale: Late Night Writers panel


Moderator: Bill Carter (New York Times)

Panelists: Steve Bodow (Head Writer, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Tim Carvell (Writer, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Mike Gibbons (Executive Producer, The George Lopez Late Night Talk Show; Co-Creator/Writer/Executive Producer, Tosh.0), Barry Julien (Head Writer, The Colbert Report), Tom Ruprecht (Writer, Late Show with David Letterman), Meredith Scardino (Writer, The Colbert Report)

conferencelogoThis is it! Saturday afternoon, the final panel of the 3-day Just For Laughs Comedy Conference.

There was an awful lot of general information culled from this group. What a typical day is like, how big the writing staffs are, what their professional backgrounds are, etc.

And of course, the requisite acknowledgment that Meredith Scardino was the only female on the panel. Mike Gibbons joked that even having it as good as 1 in 6 was “disproportionate, really.”

The consensus – which I’ve heard often – is that women simply don’t submit to the late-night shows that often. Scardino offered a theory that “men, when they’re standing around joking with each other, make fun of each other, which is a skill that you need [in satire].”

Overall, though, she feels the writers’ room is “an asexual environment.”

The subject of stress and nerves upon joining a writing staff was a big topic of conversation. “When I first got to Colbert, I was pretty scared,” Barry Julien admitted. Tom Ruprecht says it takes a few months for a new Letterman writer to settle in. And Tim Carvell remembered witnessing a co-worker harshly criticizing everyone’s work and thinking “oh man, J.R. hates our boss”. [J.R. Havlan has written for TDS since the beginning, and having had my own material judged by him, I laughed alarmingly loud at this.]

Gibbons shared a jaw-dropping tale of producing Talkshow With Spike Feresten. They would tape two shows on Thursday, one of which would air that Saturday and the other to air 5-6 months later. So they wrote a full season of shows within half a season, with half the episodes being topical and the other half not. Geez.

Does material always translate perfectly into a host’s performance? Can a host make material better? Bodow answered with a tentative yes. “Nobody can make something better all the time,” he said.

Julien was more definitive, saying that he’s seen jokes that aren’t strong on the page, but Stephen frequently makes them significantly better through his performance.

In a conversation about writing for a performer’s specific voice came the quote of the day: “Imagine writing for Leno, who’s a smart guy who aims low,” said Mike Gibbons. [Trust me, huge laugh on this — perhaps a case of a joke not working on paper as well as it was delivered.]

Another big laugh came when discussing the packets submitted, and Bodow characterized many of the Daily Show submissions he reads as “clinically crazy garbage”.

This is another panel that I would have liked to see delve deeper for the benefit of those who are already familiar with the process at shows like these. Keep in mind, this is an industry conference, not a public event.

There was, though, a fascinating point when moderator Bill Carter (who happened to write the book The Late Shift) grilled Ruprecht on David Letterman’s reputation for being difficult to work for. Ruprecht is no idiot — he kept his comments diplomatic (save for a few we had to collectively pinky-swear would “never leave this country”). But doing the math and reading between the lines painted a very intimidating picture of what it’s like to really write under pressure.

It was during the q&a of this final panel that I finally acted like the journalist I am and asked a question.

A few months ago, the LA times ran a story about freelance joke writers who submit to Leno, Letterman, SNL, etc. These writers are often referred to as “faxers” because – yep – this practice has been around since people actually used fax machines for things other than collecting ads for $299 Mexican cruises. And while it’s against union rules, it’s absolutely common knowledge. It seemed a little silly that this suddenly became an issue worth devoting ink to, complete with a Writers Guild rep promising an investigation.

So what’s the end result going to be? Are freelancers going to go the way of the Dodo due to union rules, or is the idea of a freelancer controversy just a tad contrived? I posed the question to Ruprecht , as he was the only panelist to represent a show that uses freelancers.

He noted that there seemed to be a wrong impression that freelance writers are essentially treated like slave labour. Which didn’t answer my question. He also downplayed the show’s use of non-union non-staff writers, reiterating his earlier point that only 10% of the jokes staffers write make it to air so there isn’t much need for extra material. Which didn’t really answer my question either.

“They should be union jobs,” he said. Which still didn’t answer my question. But that’s ok – I probably shouldn’t have expected one in the first place.

While I absolutely support union writers, I think freelancing is an opportunity that a lot of young writers have benefited from — and technically it’s one of the few high-profile credits a non-American could score if they don’t qualify for entry into the US to become a staffer (which is a whole other story). If any freelancers out there noticing fewer checks coming in from Letterman in the last few months? I’d be interested to hear about it, purely for my own curiosity.

[In writing this recap, I realize how brutal Ruprecht’s questioning was. Sorry, brother!]

I should offer the disclaimer that I’m probably the least qualified person to be scribbling down notable quotes during a late night writers’ panel. I’ve sat through a lot of these things (I love ’em). Plus there’s that minor detail of me taking writing classes from TDS and TCR writers, which were essentially 6 weeks of discussion about each show’s writing processes. Needless to say, I may have mistaken some interesting points for “common knowledge”.

As supplemental reading, I humbly suggest the following reports from yours truly, on recent panels I’ve attended:

Conan writers at the Paley Centre, Nov. 2008:

Daily Show writers at the Paley Centre, Nov. 2008:

Political Humor at the New Yorker Festival, Oct. 2008:

Stephen Colbert at the New Yorker Festival, Oct. 2008:

(I may at some point even do a little retro-writeup on the 2005 Daily Show panel at Just For Laughs that I went to, as it is woefully underdocumented online).

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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