I recently read “Comedy Writing For Late-Night TV: How to Write Monologue Jokes, Desk Pieces, Sketches, Parodies, Audience Pieces, Remotes, and Other Short-Form Comedy” by Joe Toplyn. Below are the quotes I found most interesting. If you like the quotes, buy the book here.
“Because all late-night hosts are expected to have this same broad appeal, they all have basically the same persona. It’s a time-tested persona that has proven very popular in all sorts of media, that of a likeable, playfully irreverent everyman.” (11)
“Head writers are looking for writers who can turn out comedy material that requires very little editing to get it to the point where the host is happy with it.” (14)
“On any television show the amount of time that a writer is expected to spend at the office is inversely correlated with how well-run the show is.” (38)
“A former writer for Johnny Carson said this about writing a topical Monologue: “Doing this every day is like taking a dump when you don’t have to.”” (51)
“If a mass audience hears a joke about one of those traditionally taboo topics the subtleties of the Surprise Theory of Laughter come into play. The audience might want to be surprised by the incongruity in the punch line but they won’t laugh because the incongruity isn’t harmless. The incongruity harms them because it makes them think, “If I laugh at that punch line I’m a horrible person.”” (61)
“A good topic for a Monologue joke has to meet six conditions. It must be:
not intentionally funny
only one sentence long
a news item that will capture most people’s interest
something that your audience will let you joke about
something that your host is willing to joke about” (67)
“Yes, a comedian should be outspoken, puncturing hypocrisy and taking shots at emperors, venerable institutions, and celebrities. But if the comedian tries to educate his audience they won’t laugh.” (72)
“The job of a comedy/talk show host isn’t to get his audience to discuss his jokes. His job is to make his audience laugh, immediately and loudly, and to do that he can’t say the emperor’s not wearing any clothes. Instead, he has to tell the audience something they already know.” (72)
“To make your jokes as funny as possible…
Shorten as much as possible.
End on the laugh trigger.
Backload the topic.
Make everything clear.
Don’t telegraph the punch line.
Make the punch line parallel.
Use stop consonants, alliteration, and assonance.
Use the Rule of Three.
Don’t be too on-the-nose.
Consider an act-out.” (115)
“Your parody and the original video should be very similar in at least these nine ways:
pace of the editing
“The best packet to submit to a comedy/talk show that’s currently being broadcast is one you’ve written specifically for that show.” (342)
“What types of comedy pieces does the show do? Desk Pieces? Story Sketches? Audience Pieces? Does the host perform characters? Does the show do Semi-Scripted Field Pieces? If so, who goes out on location, the host or a correspondent? Not very show does all the types of comedy pieces covered in this book.
What is the host’s persona? …
How big a budget does the show seem to have? …
Are celebrities enlisted to participate in the show’s comedy? If so, are they A-listers or C-listers? If you pitch an idea that requires a celebrity, you want to suggest someone who’s gettable.
What audience does the show seem to be aimed at?” (346-347)
“‘The same, but different’ is a paradoxical principle that governs the production of most forms of American mass entertainment. What it means is that a new television show, say, has to be in many ways the same as other, successful television shows. That’s because that sameness reassures the television executives who approve the production of the expensive new show that it will be successful, too. But a new television show also has to be different in some significant ways from every other television show because those differences will make the show seem somewhat fresh and therefore more attractive to viewers.” (348)
“Remember that your overall goal is to submit material that’s as close as possible to being immediately useable on your Target Show.” (352)
“Submit each idea for a new comedy piece in the format recommended by every head writer I’ve ever talked with. This is the same format that staff writers on comedy/talk shows use to submit their own new ideas to their head writers. The format consists of these three elements for each idea you submit:
Title: Give the comedy piece a good title, one that the host could use when introducing the piece on the show. A good title is descriptive, punchy, and short.
Premise: State the basic concept of the piece in, at most, a couple of short paragraphs, briefly describing the participants and what they do. Also include any key production details. Your goal here is to get your readers to quickly visualize how the piece would play out on the show and to convince them that it’s producible. Keep your description straightforward. Don’t embellish your description with little quips, which will just distract and annoy the reader. Save your comedy for the sample jokes.
Sample jokes: Provide your best three or four sample jokes for the piece, with each joke comprising at most a few sentences. The reason to include these jokes is to convince your readers that the piece would get laughs. In the case of a sketch idea, the sample jokes should be funny things that happen (“beats”) in the sketch, including how the sketch ends.” (355)
“The best way [to write monologue jokes] – Write all your Monologue jokes within a week of when you submit your packet to the show… even if your submission packet is read months after you submit it, the fact that all the Monologue jokes were written during the same week will be apparent to your readers because of the topics you’ve used. You’ll still have shown your writing speed and your dedication to your craft and, even though your jokes may seem dated, your readers will still be able to judge the skill that went into creating them.” (356)
“If your Target Show doesn’t specify a length for submission packets, keep yours to eight to ten pages.” (358)
“The piece you think is funniest should go first… The piece you think is second-funniest should go second. You want to convince your readers that your first piece wasn’t a fluke and to hook them into reading even more of your material.
The piece you think is third-funniest should go last, so your readers will read something strong right before they have to decide what to do with your submission.” (358)
“Type it in regular 12-point Courier.” (359)
“If seeing a particular photo or graphic is necessary to understand a joke, show the actual photo or graphic on the page.” (360)
“Lay out each page so that it’s easy-to-read and inviting. Don’t fill your pages with long, intimidating blocks of text; build in plenty of white space.” (360)
“Don’t put a cover on your submission, just a title page laid out like the one in the sample packet.” (360)
“Your script should parody a TV show promo, a commercial, a movie trailer, or a PSA.” (366)
“Write a generic packet almost exactly the same way you’d write a customized packet but include these comedy pieces:
one page of Monologue jokes
two pages of new ideas for Desk Pieces
one page of new ideas for Audience Pieces
one fully-scripted Parody Sketch (two pages maximum)
one page of new ideas for Semi-Scripted Field Pieces
one page of new ideas for other live pieces like Liev Joke Basket Sketches” (371)
“The ideal person to read your packet is the host of the show. If the host wants to hire you, you’ll have a job. But getting your submission packet to the host without first going through somebody else on the show’s staff is almost impossible. So instead your goal should be to have the head writer read your submission.” (376)
“The best way to have your packet read by a head writer is to convince someone the head writer knows to give it to him.” (377)
“The most useful spec scripts are probably an original pilot and an episode of a well-regarded show that’s currently on the air and will probably stay on the air for another season or two.” (388)
“agents are highly accustomed to dealing with people on the phone, which is why written queries are likely to be less effective with them.” (388)
“Most hiring of writers for prime-time TV shows – sitcoms and son on- tends to take place in the spring.” (390)
“Just be casually witty, good-natured, and enthusiastic. Say some nice things about the writing on the show, maybe about a particular comedy piece that you liked recently. Tell your interviewer that you’d love to work on the show. You don’t have to prove you’re talented; your submission has already done that. You just have to demonstrate that you’d fit comfortably into the staff and not drive everybody nuts.” (392)
“Men can’t go wrong with jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved, collared shirt… The idea is to look as though you already work there.” (392)
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