PRIMETIME: What Should I Write to Break Into Late-Night Talk Shows?

Today’s question comes from Thomas, who writes…

“Since it seems like everyone is getting a talk show now (e.g. Brian McKnight), I’m interested in the staffing process for late-night shows. What kind of material should I be writing? Would I write different material to get staffed on The Colbert Report than, say, George Lopez? Do people still fax jokes?”

Interesting question, Thomas.  In a broad, general sense, most of these shows use a similar submission process… meaning most of them want joke and/or sketch packets.  These usually consist of some combination of the following:

  • 2-3 pages of short, topical jokes (and these should be short and TIGHT, a sentence or two each usually does it)
  • Some fully written sketches (depending on the show and the writer, these could be elaborate SNL-type sketches, or they could be smaller bits like you might see on Conan or even The Soup or Chelsea Lately)
  • Some one-paragraph descriptions of bits, gags, or recurring pieces (for instance, if you had come up with The Tonight Show‘s segment, “Jaywalking,” you wouldn’t write a script for it, but you could write a brief description capturing the idea, its tone, why it’s funny, etc.
  • Some topical, fully written monologues or “rants”
  • Other “late-night-y” games or bits.  For instance, I worked on a late-night clip show a few months ago that used funny “bumpers,” games and bits leading into commercial and back into the show.  Ours were quizzes; as we headed into a commercial break, we’d ask a question, followed by 3 multiple choice answers… then, when we returned, we’d give the fourth, “correct” answer—which was a punchline to the question.  I sometimes include these, when appropriate, in my joke and sketch packet.

The nice thing about joke/sketch packets is you can—and should—update them constantly, even if you’re not working on a show.  Joke/sketch packets should ALWAYS be up-to-date with your best topical material… not only to prove you can write strong jokes about whatever’s happening right now, but because nothing feels more stale than jokes—even funny jokes—about last year’s news.  (E.g., no one today wants to read jokes, even hilarious jokes, about Lisa Nowack, the astronaut/stalker who drove cross-country in a diaper.)

Having said all this…

Chelsea Handler E! Lately talk show

E!'s "Cheslea Lately," starring Chelsea Handler

Most shows have their own requirements that are specific to the unique voice of their host… and these requirements almost always involve writing new material.  So while you might be able to use certain pieces of your “generic” joke/sketch packet, you probably would need to write different material to get staffed on Colbert versus George Lopez.

Also, while many talk shows used to accept faxed jokes, none does anymore.  I think the last show that did it was The Tonight Show, but unfortunately, they’ve stopped.

And one last piece of advice: if you’re truly passionate about breaking into the late-night/talk show scene, I would recommend doing stand-up comedy and hanging out at local comedy clubs. Even if you have no desire to be a performer, writing late-night jokes and monologues is essentially writing stand-up, and there’s no better way to learn the craft than by doing it.  You’ll not only learn to write better, stronger, tighter, faster jokes, but you’ll gain an immense appreciation for what stand-ups and talk show hosts do—and exactly how hard it is.

Plus, most of the writers on those shows are—or have been—working comics, so by hanging out at The Improv, The Laugh Factory, The Comedy Store, UCB, etc., you’ll begin to meet the writers, producers, agents, and executives that work in that world.  (And if you’re not in L.A. or New York, start hanging out, performing, and meeting people at whatever comedy club you can find!)  It’s actually a fairly small, close-knit community… and—like anywhere else in Hollywood—you need to be on the inside track, knowing the right people, in order to get in.

Anyway, here are a few shows’ actual recent submission guidelines, and you’ll see how different and/or similar they are (FYI—these guidelines are NOT necessarily current, and these shows aren’t necessarily accepting submissions; so don’t race off submitting stuff based on this)…

THE COLBERT REPORT

1.  One (1) example of “The Word”- An argumentative essay, state a problem, pose a solution, and a comedic extension of that solution, all punctuated by bullets.  Short & concise.

Colbert flaming sword shield

The Colbert Report

2.  One (1) “TIP OF THE HAT” – What Stephen approves of…

One (1)” WAG OF THE FINGER”  – What Stephen disapproves of…

3.  One (1) GUEST idea with five (5) questions – Someone who hasn’t been on the show yet.   Please indicate what Stephen’s attitude would be toward this guest, and include 5 questions Stephen might ask.

THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON

Submissions should be short and tight and funny. 1 page should be political, 1 page should be Hollywood-related, 1 page can be random (and many people are doing monologue stuff there but it’s whatever you feel like).

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O’BRIEN -

Tonight Show NBC Conan O'Brien logo

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien

1) Monologue jokes…prob. about 12.  I would also include in them about 4 or 5 jokes as if it’s the 1st night of the show and he’s talking about the move to 11:35pm and the move to Los Angeles or anything appropriate for the 1st night/week on the air.

2)  Short paragraphs of “one-shot” and possible “recurring” pieces…mainly in-studio, but also include any field piece ideas.

3) Two or 3 ideas of pieces using Andy Richter and Conan together and maybe one of Andy alone.

4) Miscellaneous ideas- anything that you feel would be a good fit for the show comedicly and knowing Conan’s sensibility.

THE WANDA SYKES SHOW

Wanda Sykes Show logo Fox

The Wanda Sykes Show

I worked on this show… and although it didn’t last, it was a BLAST to work on.  But before it aired, the show took a lot of heat for its lengthy, involved submission requirements.  Personally, I thought the hubbub around this was ridiculous.  But HERE is a link to a Deadline.com piece that spotlights the submission guidelines, just to give you another example of how shows might do it.

I hope this is helpful, Thomas, and good luck!

In the mean time, here’s a great clip from Wednesday night’s Jimmy Kimmel Live

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