Published on May 14th, 2010 | by Sharilyn Johnson0
Women & Late Night TV: A Paley Panel Pointform
Successful late-night comedy writers with vaginas
Ann Cohen (Best Week Ever)
Jill Goodwin (The Late Show with David Letterman)
Hallie Haglund (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart)
Morgan Murphy (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon)
Meredith Scardino (The Colbert Report)
Moderated by Allison Silverman (The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Late Night With Conan O’Brien)
Paley Center for Media, New York
May 13, 2010
Rest assured, I don’t call my Paley Centre panel recaps “pointforms” because of some adorable alliteration addiction (well, not just that). When I’m in New York I really am running my ass off from event to event – and in the case of this particular day, totally unable to get a cab from point A to point B and having to WALK across town after to catch the final 25 minutes of Ricky Gervais at MSG.
Transcribing my messy paraphrase-riddled notes is literally the best I can do before passing out in the hotel. (Yes, I’m apologizing for my shitty work before even laying it out… which turns out is totally a girl thing.)
-Allison Silverman took the stage after her reel played, featuring her work from Conan, Colbert, and some very early Daily Show. She welcomed us all to the event dedicated to “the question we’re all here to answer: how did Jon Stewart get so old?”
-She followed that up with the observation that “a lot of being a woman comedy writer is being asked what it’s like being a woman comedy writer”. Bingo. End of panel, goodnight everybody!
-She brought onstage a book she has called Spare Ribs: Women in the Humor Biz, written in 1980. Many of the quotes from women then are what we still hear 30 years later (“it’s getting better for women”) but also contains some oddities like complaints about men pitching segments at Saturday Night Live by jumping up on desks yelling. It was suggested that perhaps that was less an issue of gender, and more an issue of drug use.
-A significant amount of time was devoted to introductions/background. Meredith started out as an animator and painter. She wanted to be a comedy writer but didn’t know how. She and a friend pitched high-concept reality shows for a while – which never got made. Ann eventually hired her for Best Week Ever.
-Ann started as a real journalist before joining forces with Michael Moore.
-Jill wanted to be a comedy writer growing up, but didn’t think she could do it. She dropped out of architecture school and got a business degree. For her internship, she landed in the production finance department at Letterman, and moved up from there. She did time as the assistant to the executive producers, which she said gave her valuable insight into how the whole show worked.
-Hallie had a similar experience at the Daily Show, working her way up and being in a position (writers’ assistant) where she gained an appreciation for the needs of other departments.
-Allison cited an article Hallie wrote for the New York Press about her early affections for Conan (“Sure I was awkward, but I couldn’t have been more awkward than the gangly spaz snapping his fingers and adjusting his collar across my fuzzy TV screen.”) and they discussed how being an outsider is common feeling amongst comedians. And seriously, that article is pretty great and you all should read it.
-Morgan always wanted to write, and started doing standup as a means to that end (“it’s as much fun for me to hear someone else say my joke as it is for me to perform it”). She said she spent her first 7 years doing one-liners, and now talks ore about her life which is “more gratifying and less funny”.
-Allison said that when you read submissions you can tell who has a performing background and who doesn’t.
-Ann said that comedy writing requires “a particular skill and desire that limits the pool for women AND men.”
-Morgan worked for Jimmy Kimmel before working for Fallon. Both are very different experiences, she says. Fallon is a nice guy (onscreen and off) and won’t do stuff that’s too mean. Kimmel doesn’t do traditional setup/punch monologue jokes, so it’s more conversational and uses a lot of clips.
-Morgan noted that she’s no longer the only woman on Fallon’s staff. Former Conan writer Janine Ditullio joined the show this week.
-Morgan said everyone at Fallon writes differently. One writer might submit 10 pages of jokes a day with six versions of each one – and she might only submit one page. At Fallon, there are some writers who do mainly monologue (herself included) and others who do the sketches.
-Jill says Letterman has staff writers who do mostly sketches, and there are freelancers who only do monologue.
Allison: “When are you most aware of being a woman?”
Morgan: “In the showers.”
Meredith: “There’s not a lot of testosterone on our staff [at Colbert].” Allison nodded in agreement. Meredith said that as she was leaving to come to the panel, the guys on staff tried to sexually harass her but they really sucked at it.
-When asked whether it’s hard to write jokes about women, Hallie said that when she was still a writers’ assistant during the ’08 election, she had a difficult time hearing a lot of the Hillary jokes and took those rather personally. She also felt empathy for Hillary being a woman going up against a bunch of men, because she was the only woman dealing with a room full of male writers every day.
-Jill noted that men and woman pitch with different levels of confidence. Women say “this isn’t going to be good, but…”
-The best answer to why there aren’t many female writers seems to be the lack of women submitting. The general consensus among those on the panel who hired writers was that the staff was pretty much proportionate to the submissions. Allison also read a quote from Lizz Winstead about hiring the initial Daily Show staff, and getting only 3 or 4 woman-submitted packets out of 150.
-Jill said women tend to think the odds are against them, even when that isn’t the case. “When a spot opens up, you want it to go to the right PERSON.”
-Meredith has a theory that while growing up, part of the game with guys is to make fun of each other when they’re hanging out. It’s “comedy practice.”
-Many shows don’t require packets to be submitted through agents. Letterman is one of those shows. Jill says it’s as easy as calling up the writers’ assistant and getting the information on how to send in your packet. The format for Letterman is 3 Top 10 Lists about current events, and a few pages of pitches for sketch ideas that reflect the sensibility of the show.
-Meredith wrote packets for other late-night shows and showed them to anyone who’d look at them. That’s what got her an agent.
-When Meredith submitted for Colbert, the packet format was a Threatdown, a Word, and a suggestion for a guest and some questions to ask them. When she submitted, I Am America (And So Can You) had just come out, and she found it very helpful.
-Morgan said she tried to write a Colbert packet, and found it incredibly challenging. She commented that the show is “so densely written”.
-Allison recalled reading submissions for Colbert that sounded like they were written for a totally different show.
-Allison said it’s valuable to get out and perform, because you’ll make connections with people who can help you.
-Meredith noted that improvisers seem to be better at pitching than standups.
-Hallie said the flipside of that is how improvisers often don’t develop the discipline to write.
-The q&a portion of the panel contained a few lovely awkward moments (which is par for the course at these things).
-Awkward moment #1 came from a woman in the front row asking about Saturday Night Live. She said she hasn’t laughed at the show in 20 years, but gosh she remembers just howling at it when she was younger. So is it the writing? Does the writing just suck now? Allison had a great response: “I don’t think we can answer that question.” Next.
-Awkward moment #2 came from a presumably well-meaning person who proclaimed “you all write like men!”. Probably meant as a compliment.
-One smug feminist brought up earlier discussion about Hallie and Jill starting out as receptionists and assistants. “How many of the MALE writers started as receptionists?” Jill took the wind out of her sails by replying that a few of the Letterman writers did. Hallie said on the Daily Show staff, Rory Albanese started as a PA, and Elliot Kalen was an intern.
-And finally, because you’ve been waiting for it, the Christopher Hitchens article was brought up, and quickly dismissed as being miles away from reality.
So what’s it like being a woman comedy writer? It seems pretty good, by all accounts. I have to say, I couldn’t be happier with how this panel turned out. I’m grateful for the choice of Allison as the moderator. If anyone outside the comedy world had taken on the task – like a journalist – there could have been attempts to create an issue where there really isn’t one. As I’ve written here previously, I have little patience for the media’s portrayal of rampant sexism in late night television.
Not that anyone is asking, but I’ll add my own (admittedly limited) experience into the mix. I don’t talk about my day job publicly, so I’ll just say that I write for a daily talkshow-style program. They wanted to bring someone in to write in a specific comedic style and I was the fortunate candidate. I’m the only female staff writer. I was hired based on my experience and my writing samples. If anything, my gender may have been an asset purely for representative purposes but I doubt even that was much of a consideration. I think the whole “it’s hard for women” argument is ridiculous. It’s hard for EVERYONE. I have plenty of very funny male friends working hard to get noticed.
Also, the advice about writing samples for other shows and shopping them around is good advice. My current bosses saw my late night comedy spec samples, liked ‘em, and I started the following Monday.