Talking to Molly McNearney, the Co-Head Writer of Jimmy Kimmel Live
One of the most hot button issues in comedy right now is the lack of women writing for late night. Molly McNearney is the only woman who currently writes for Jimmy Kimmel Live, but she is also the co-head writer. Molly chatted with me about how she got her start in comedy, her favorite bits that she’s contributed to the show and what it’s like being a woman behind the scenes. She also revealed what a day backstage at Jimmy Kimmel Live looks like and inspired me to declare that my new dream job is to be a “Clip Researcher.”
How did you first become interested in comedy and what led you to want to write for late night?
As a kid I loved watching Johnny Carson. In fact, I remember his last show. It was on May 22, 1992, and I went to my friend Katie Pine’s house and watched it. It was the same night of my eighth grade graduation and I went home as quickly as possible afterwards to watch his last show. And I loved it and I remember crying my eyes out. I was sad that he was gone, but I had no idea that show was written. I honestly thought this was just a very funny person coming out and talking, and that wasn’t a team of people behind him writing it for him. Then I went on to Second City in Chicago after college and I loved it. I loved performing and writing sketches.
I guess the first time I thought I wanted to write was actually in the fourth grade. I won an essay contest for my terrible haunted house story. Mrs. Cooper, my fourth grade teacher, told me I was a really good writer. So then I just believed that and I’ve been doing it ever since. And who knows if I am, but Mrs. Cooper thinks I am. So, it really just took someone telling me I was good at it, and I kept doing it.
Then when I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago I was working in advertising sales. In college, I really wanted to go into broadcast journalism and then I didn’t want to do that anymore. And so, I started working here at the show about eight years ago as the assistant to the executive producer and I didn’t really even know then what I wanted to do here. I really just took that experience to watch everybody else do their jobs and try to figure out which one I liked. As I worked here more and more I knew I wanted to be in the writing department. I produced for a while and then I became a writers’ assistant about six or seven years ago. I would pitch ideas as a writer’s assistant and I really got to watch and learn from the guys here and really got to understand how they write jokes and how they crafted their scripts. It was an incredible experience for me to watch them. And then I got promoted from writer’s assistant to writer and then I was a writer for about two years and then I got promoted to Co-Head Writer with another co-worker of mine, Gary Greenberg. Gary and I are the two Head Writers of the show and we’ve been Head Writers for a little over three years now. And I love it.
What’s a normal day at Jimmy Kimmel Live like for you?
Well, I wake up around 7:30 or 8:00 am every day and then I immediately open up my laptop. The first thing I do — it’s kind of sad — I reach over, grab my phone, look at it, and see if I missed any emails. Then I open up my laptop and I go to websites to find out what the big news stories are of the day. I go to Huffington Post, CNN, I’m embarrassed to say I go to Perez Hilton, and then I start looking at topics. We have a writer’s assistant who emails all of the writers around 9:00 am with links to the big stories that day. And so I start looking at those news stories and coming up with angles. Some days are a lot easier than others. You know, when Lindsay Lohan’s going back to jail or Tiger Woods has screwed another Hooters waitress or Hermain Cain has opened his mouth, it makes it a lot easier. Other days are tough. You know, if it’s just war in the news or, you know, no one’s getting drunk and driving their Mercedes into other celebrities.
All of our pitches are due by 11:00 am and then Jimmy reads through all of those pitches and he determines what he likes and what he wants to use on the show. Around 12:00 pm we have an outline for our monologue. If one of your bits is in the show, you go back to your desk and you script it. Then you work with a director and a producer and casting and then you shoot it. And on top of that, every writer is responsible for writing monologue jokes. Those are usually due around 2:00pm every day and then after that, we have a team of guys here — there are four of them, and their official title is “Clip Researcher” — and their whole responsibility is to watch TV. They each sit in front of the TV all day and they’re responsible for different shows. They pull clips and then Jimmy picks the clips he likes. Then we sit in the writers’ room. We watch the clips and we write jokes for the clips. And then after that, we’re still working on that night’s show.
We shoot the whole show at 7:00 pm, so sometimes you’re editing a bit in the edit bay at ten to 7:00 pm, and you’re racing to Jimmy’s office getting approval, and then it goes on the air at 7:00 pm. The show’s over at 8:00 pm and then we start all over again.
Most nights, each writer usually has an assignment for a celebrity guest coming on the show who wants to do a comedy bit. This week, for example, we shot a bit with Ben Stiller. We did one with Ellen DeGeneres. So, then each night we are usually writing bit ideas for celebrities. I would say Jimmy Kimmel Live is known in the industry for putting together really smart, funny pieces for their guests. So we’ve had a lot of success, which is great. It also has added a lot more work because most guests who come onto the show would like to do comedy in some way, which is a great opportunity for us, and we’ve had a lot of great viral videos out there with our guests. So, yeah, that’s kind of the full day.
It’s nice because it’s intense. It is a real grind, but every day is a new day. You know, your successes are short lived, but then so are your failures. So you can have a great bit on the show and you can really enjoy it for about an hour and then you have to start thinking about tomorrow’s show. But if you didn’t do that well, that’s also short lived and you have the next day to prove yourself.
What are some of your favorite bits that you wrote or contributed to?
I did the Josh Groban sings Kanye West tweets, which I really liked. He was a great sport. I like when you’re surprised that someone has such a great sense of humor. I mean, my mom loves Josh Groban’s music and I also love his music, but now I’m even more appreciative of his comedy and his sense of humor. I also shot a little bit with Lady Gaga this year. It was called Gaga Goo Goo, where it’s a Lady Gaga-inspired clothing line for babies. And she was a great sport. I really loved being part of Handsome Men’s Club that we shot last year. That was a big undertaking and I think we did a really good job with it. I think we had like twelve guys in that and it was over the course of twelve different days shooting it. No one was in the same room. A couple of them were, but we shot most of those guys individually.
Going back to the Josh Groban sketch — you were the primary contributor to that. How did you come up with something like that? Do you remember the inspiration?
Well, we heard from Josh Groban’s rep that he wanted to do a comedy bit with us. So we all pitched a bunch of ideas, and Jimmy picked five ideas to go to Josh. One of them was mine and then Josh picked that. So then I went through Kanye West’s twitter page and picked his most ridiculous tweets. Then I sat with Josh and our director, Andy. We gave him the tweets and then he would sit at his piano and just bust out these great songs using Kanye’s tweets. And then I put the ad around it. I worked with graphics and I worked with our director to package it to look like an infomercial.
It was announced this past week that Jimmy is going to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year. Are you going to be working on the staff for that this year?
Yes. I believe I will be writing jokes for that. We have not discussed it yet internally who will be responsible, but his whole staff will be helping him. We’re all very excited. It’s an incredible opportunity for him and for the writers to take stabs at some of these politicians.
You mentioned earlier that you started out in advertising and then as an assistant at Jimmy Kimmel. What advice do you have for people who want to break into the world of late night writing? What do you look at when you hire people?
The best piece of advice I have, and it’s the simplest, is just to write. I think a lot of people say they want to be a writer, but you actually look at their day, and they’re not writing. If you want to be a late night writer, my advice would be to watch the late night shows religiously. Understand the voices of the shows. For example, if you want to be writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, you should watch Jimmy Kimmel Live regularly and understand his voice. Every host has a very different voice, different sensibility, different tone. You need to prove that you can write in that host’s voice. A lot of people can write jokes, but some of them are not appropriate. You know, Leno’s jokes are not going to be the same as Kimmel’s jokes or Colbert’s jokes.
Then, put together a joke packet. Make it topical. Don’t give us your best Monica Lewinsky jokes. Give us topical jokes. Watch the news. Understand pop culture and find your angles on those things. I think Twitter is an incredible tool for joke writers. If I were to be hiring a writer, one of the first things I would do is to go and see if they have a Twitter page because I think it’s the easiest way to see if someone can write a joke. You know, you have 140 characters. It’s easy to read. It’s easy to see if someone understands how to craft a joke.
A typical late night packet contains a couple of pages of monologue jokes and a couple of pages of bit ideas. You know, for example, that Josh Groban/Kanye West thing, that would be a good pitch. Bit ideas — some of them include the host being in them, some of them include celebrities being involved, some of them are more evergreen bit ideas you can put into a monologue. You know, live ideas, game ideas. Just watch the shows and see what they do.
Do you think there’s any more pressure on you because you are one of the only women who works on your staff? Is it difficult internally or is it more difficult because of the outside pressure?
I think being the only woman writing at this show, I have both an advantage and a disadvantage. I think women naturally come in with a disadvantage because I do think there are some “old school” ways of thinking that women are not as funny. I think funny people are funny regardless of their gender. I think a really talented, funny woman will instantly prove she’s funny and that will dismiss that old way of thinking. And it is our responsibility [as funny women] to do that. Sometimes I believe I’m at an advantage because as the only woman I think I can have angles on things or a different sensibility or way of looking at things that is to the benefit of the show.
I mean, for me, as one of the head writers, when we last hired we got about 200 submission packets and less than 30 were from women. So, it’s not that we’re not hiring women, it’s that not as many women are submitting for the jobs. And I would love to hire a woman, but first I would just like to hire someone really talented and funny. If they’re a woman, that’s great. But I think that today it’s almost like a non-topic because women have obviously proven they’re funny and anyone would suggest otherwise is an idiot.
When you started at Jimmy Kimmel Live, moving up the ranks from writer’s assistant to writer, did you ever encounter any attitudes about your own funniness as a woman? Is that an issue for you personally?
No. I really didn’t. I never encountered that. People here are much more critical of people who aren’t funny. They’re not critical of you based on your gender. The only pressure that I’ve ever felt is on a day when I’m off or when my jokes suck or my bit bombed, but it has never had anything to do with my gender. The only thing I’ve ever felt in regards to my gender is just a sense of sometimes a bit of loneliness when you’re the only woman in the room. I hope that that changes, but no one here has ever treated me in a different way because I’m a woman.
Going forward, do you want to stay a late night writer or do you want to perform more? Or perhaps move on to producing?
I love, love my job, but I will not have this job forever. I’d love to write a feature. I would love to write on sitcoms. I think it’s important to kind of change things up. I don’t like when people consider late night as a stepping stone. I don’t think that it is. There are a lot of great film and sitcom writers who could not write for late night and vice versa. I think when people call it a “stepping stone” it’s kind of undermining it and I think it’s a very specific craft and people who do it are really good at it. I would like to try other things. I’d like to write something that’s longer than five minutes. I have a lot of ideas. I keep notebooks all over of things I’d eventually like to write. It’s very hard for me to try to write those things because I’m working twelve hours a day and when I get home, I really don’t want to write anymore. I want to watch TV or read, so it can be challenging to get to that next step.
What would be your favorite thing about working at Jimmy Kimmel Live?
I love that every day is a blank page here. That every day you start over. And there’s such an energy in kind of looking at what’s going on in the world that day and finding the comedy in it. It’s exciting to have that kind of responsibility: to look at the things everyone is looking at, read the stories that people are reading, to find out what’s going to make people laugh. And I really love writing scripted things with celebrities. I love writing short sketches for them. And I love the people here. We have such a great staff. I mean, sometimes we want to kill each other. There’s a lot of stress sometimes and we’re piled up on top of each other, but in the end we all really love each other.
Meghan O’Keefe is a writer and comedian who lives in Queens.