What It’s Like to Get Hired as a Late Night TV Writer

late-night-audienceIf you’re reading this website, there’s a high likelihood that you think it’d be pretty tight to land a job as a writer on a late night talk show. Where else can one collect a steady paycheck for churning out jokes that actually wind up on TV, all while enjoying fringe benefits like catered meals and celeb rendezvous?

Unfortunately, how one might go about landing one of these plum gigs is as enigmatic a riddle as any pertaining to “making it” in Hollywood. Some slave over packets for decades, fruitlessly chasing that dragon. Others seem to just trip and fall into the writers room from out of nowhere. We asked some current late night writers about the path that led them to their prized position and got as varied a group of responses as you might imagine.

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Ariel Dumas, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: I was an actor who didn’t start doing comedy until I was 26. I moved to Chicago to take improv classes after two years of failing the auditions for MFA acting schools. And thank God, because I saved thousands of dollars’ worth of rolling on the floor in a unitard.

Improv and writing and comedy in general was so much fun, I wanted to do it all the time. And while I wasn’t banking on it, I thought maybe if I worked really hard and got good and was a nice person, someone on some coast would offer me a job by the time I was 40.

Five years and one cruise ship gig later, I saw that The Colbert Report was soliciting packets. I was very intimidated and sad, somehow. Like a lot of comedy people, I was a depressed person who thought I was a hot piece of garbage and definitely not good enough to write for a TV show I loved. But then my therapist was like “Who cares! Write the packet! You’ve got nothing to lose!”

He was right, as therapists tend to be. I locked myself indoors for a long weekend and wrote, subjecting many patient friends to living room performances of my drafts (thanks, Katie and Neil and Jennifer!). I cried several times and ate a lot of stress-pizza.

A few days after I turned in the packet, I got an email saying the producers wanted to talk to me. After reading that email, I rolled off the couch onto the rug. On all fours, I let out a guttural wail like a beast who had finally killed, I don’t know, some sort of rival beast.

After a fun and nerve-wracking Skype interview (“Cool talking with you! Let’s see your apartment!”), a second packet, and an in-person interview in New York, they hired me. It was a friggin’ dream come true, and it’s been a blast ever since.

Moral of the story: hustle, be kind, be patient, eat pizza, and listen to your therapist.

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Ian Morgan, Late Night with Seth Meyers: My TV career started with an internship out of college at Letterman, which led to a part-time job as an audience page at the show, and then to a full-time position in their mail room. Around the same time, a friend of mine who was working in the cue card department at SNL invited me to check out the studio during a Friday rehearsal. During the tour, I learned that someone had just quit that day and Wally, the head cue card guy, needed someone to start right away. It was probably the most serendipitous moment of my life. I started the next week and for about a year I worked at Letterman during the week and at SNL on the weekends. When Seth got Late Night, Wally offered me a full-time job doing cue cards for the new show. I agreed, but on one condition: that I’d be able to submit monologue jokes on the side. Wally cleared it with our head writer and that was that. After about a year of submitting as a freelancer, I got enough jokes on that they offered me a staff position. And the rest is definitely not history. 

Jesse Joyce, @midnight: I had absolutely no intention whatsoever of getting into writing. My path to working in late night can be traced exclusively through standup. Starting around the mid 2000s I started regularly opening on the road for Greg Giraldo. Then in 2007 Greg was booked for Comedy Central’s Roast of Flavor Flav and he asked me to kick him a few jokes if I was interested. I’d always loved the roasts and thought it’d be a really fun thing to try, so I took it really seriously and wrote about 15 pages of stuff for it. To my surprise, Greg used a lot of them, and he called me that night to fill me in on how hard a lot of those jokes hit. After that it became an established thing that he and I would write together on the roasts. When the Bob Saget roast rolled around, again he used a lot of my stuff and we kind of officially became writing partners. From then on I was mostly just doing standup, but anytime Greg had a TV thing, he and I would hole up and smash out a bunch of jokes for it together. I still had no intentions of getting into writing — to me it was just fun to bang out jokes with my buddy who happened to be a comedy genius.

So, when Giraldo tragically died in 2010, I was kind of a part of the roast family, having worked on and hung out at the last five of them, so naturally they kind of grandfathered me into stuff. Jeff Ross was kind enough to hire me for his show, The Burn, and I officially then got staffed in the writers room for the Trump roast. They kind of paired me up with Seth MacFarlane, who was the only one who had the balls and style to do the kind of jokes Greg used to do. Seth and I hit it off and he took a liking to a lot of my stuff. So for the Charlie Sheen roast I wrote exclusively for Seth, and thusly became one of his joke guys. Similarly to Greg, whenever Seth had a TV hosting gig (presenting at the Emmys or some other award show thing) he’d have me write jokes for it, so then when he got asked to do the Oscars, I was on the writing staff. Now, here’s the thing… Once you’ve written for the Academy Awards, people think you’re a writer.  And I’ve gotten pretty steady writing work since then. 

I’ve always kept pretty busy with standup, so I keep one foot in both worlds, and that’s why I actively avoided staffing on a late night show. The reality is that the only writing gigs I take are ones that I can see a clear and direct benefit to my standup. I’ve been offered writers room gigs on other shows, but most of those would take me out of the standup game entirely. So that’s why I pretty much avoided full-time staffing on anything until @midnight came along. I feel like it’s the best vehicle for consistently showcasing standup comics on TV today. Four nights a week you can turn on Comedy Central and see three working comics performing on a show that’s just a giant joke machine. It was a perfect meeting of both of those worlds for me. Hardwick is a great comic who has the same attitude about standup, which is one of the reasons we only tape three days a week — so he can do standup — and that’s why it’s such a great fit for what I do, because they throw me on the show a lot which lets me plug the standup dates I can still then go out and do on the weekends.

Lauren Greenberg, The Late Late Show with James Corden: I had finished a pilot and the person I’d worked with on it ended up going to CBS and working on James Corden’s show. He was like “They’re taking packets — you should submit!”

I called my rep—I won’t say who—and he’s like, “They already have their people. Corden just hired all his guys.” So, basically, my rep told me not to submit. Obviously, I really wanted to work here, though. I was a big fan of Corden from Gavin & Stacey. So, I submitted a packet anyway and got a very nice email asking me to meet at the show. In the meeting, they asked me to prepare 10 pitches, and I wound up being the fourth writer hired for the show.

I moved to LA wanting to write scripted, but I just love joke writing so much, and so much of what I did before this job was in the talk show format or for award shows. It’s just so fun.

I’m still with that rep, believe it or not. I just give him a lot of shit for it.

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Travon Free, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: In college I was playing Division 1 basketball. I hurt my knee and had surgery my sophomore year. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play much longer. One of my academic advisors who knew I was into writing and pretty good at it suggested that I meet up with one of the professors from the writing department who had just started teaching a standup class. I enrolled in that.

The final for the class was to perform at The Ice House in Pasadena. I was probably the best person that night, so a producer from another show there asked me to be in a competition at Flappers. I entered the competition, having only performed standup once in my life, and made it to the finals of that competition. I kept doing standup because basketball was pretty much over. Once I graduated, I made it my mission to get some sort of writing job and keep doing standup.

About five years later, I’d met a Daily Show writer through the Improv in Hollywood. He put me on the show’s writer submission list. When they look for new writers they always ask for in-house first. They hit me up to submit around summer 2012. At the time I was just doing standup and not working any sort of regular or steady job. I submitted and made it to the second round and couldn’t believe that had happened. I ended up coming in second for the one spot they had open. The head writer, Tim Carvell, who now runs Last Week Tonight, emailed me praising my packet and telling me how much Jon loved it.

About a month later, I had a meeting with Lori Silverberg, the showrunner, where she expressed how much they wished they could hire me and that they were looking around for other shows for me. Later that week, I got a text saying “Hey we want you to come have a meeting with Jon.”

I knew what that meant so I fly to New York, have my meeting with Jon, and it ends with nothing really being said. In my mind, it was cool just because I got to meet one of my comedy heroes. They tell me to come by to watch the taping that night.

After the taping they take me back into one of the rooms where Jon and all the producers are all sitting there. I still have no idea what’s going on so I’m just thinking this is the lamest 2nd prize where they rub the thing you could’ve had in your face.

Jon’s sitting in the corner flipping through a pitch packet for the next week. I tell him “Great show, really funny.” He then says, without ever looking up at me and dragging the bit out as excruciatingly long as possible,  “Actually, I was wondering if you’d, uh, maybe, wanna come here and write for me.”

My heart jumped out of my chest and I said “Fuck yeah!” He welcomed me to the team and everyone started clapping and I was trying not to cry. From that moment on life has been amazing.

I’m fortunate enough to now be at a point where people are actively pursuing me and I don’t have to look for jobs ever anymore. From there I went to writing for Trevor Noah. Then I went to HBO in 2016 for the opportunity to work on Any Given Wednesday. When that show ended, I was asked to work on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and I’ve been here in New York doing that since March.

Chris Carmona, @midnight: I’d previously sold a pitch to HBO and worked on scripted pilots, but not worked on staff anywhere, and certainly nothing for variety. But I’d long been interested in comedy and practicing it became something of a new sport while I worked in the scripted arena. I soon after met an ambitious young lit agent/coordinator who wasn’t very involved in the comedy world but was cognizant of my affection for (and cursory participation in) it. She would subsequently pass along submission requests for late night/variety shows, which felt more like a cross between pub trivia and charades than a futile job application, so I was happy to burn some extra calories making my packets slightly less mediocre. My packet was chosen to audition for dry runs held before the room was selected — live shows at NerdMelt — and we were once again tasked with having to write a new packet for that weekend’s show. Though I was in the minority for never having been a performer or seasoned in sketch comedy, I seemed to excel at the content creation side, and had the chance to interview one last time and ultimately be selected for one of the writing positions.

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Laurie Kilmartin, Conan: This was 2010. I’d been fired from The Bonnie Hunt Show and voted off of Last Comic Standing. It felt like the industry was telling me to go away. I was so depressed I started posting topical jokes on Facebook just for the likes. One of Conan’s monologue writers, Brian Kiley, told me they were hiring for the TBS show. (Earlier, I’d done Conan packets for Late Night and The Tonight Show — neither was good enough apparently.) I had a library of about 50 topical jokes to sift through, so the monologue part of my packet (16-20 jokes) was pretty strong.

I was hip pocketed by an agent who submitted it for me. She signed me after I got hired. They all do.

Ashley Nicole Black, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: I majored in theatre in high school and college and always wanted to be a performer. But after college, I took a detour and went into a PhD program at Northwestern. That was… not fun. So, I started taking sketch writing/performance classes at The Second City for fun. Eventually I dropped out of the PhD program to focus on comedy full time. My parents were so excited!!!! 

The Second City is known for using improv to generate sketch material, and for training people to be both writers and performers. If you want to get onstage, you have to write something for yourself to perform. So, I started taking sketch and writing classes, and realized that I loved writing and was no longer doing it just to get myself on stage. I started writing more for other people, and putting up shows around Chicago.

Eventually I moved to LA to focus on getting a TV writing gig. My goal was to put together an epic packet of writing samples to have in the unlikely event that anyone ever asked me for it. In the middle of that project, a friend of mine was invited to submit to Samantha Bee’s new show through his manager. He passed the submission packet on to me, and I applied. I only had three days to write the (25-page) submission, but because I had been focused on writing everyday, I was in the writing groove and able to pull it off. I was pretty sure that no one would even read my non-requested packet so I just tried to make it as “me” as possible, and almost dare them not to hire this crazy person. 

When people ask me how to get a late night writing job… I have no idea. I really lucked into mine. Or you know, worked really hard for several years and then lucked into mine. But I can say this: Act like you already have one. If you’re writing everyday (like you would if you had the job), and making sure someone actually sees your writing in some form (not just podcasts or Twitter, but live performance!), you’re on the right track. 

Mitra Jouhari, The President Show: When I was in college I realized that I wanted to do comedy, so I dropped out of school to do it (not necessarily advisable but very worth it – I am very grateful that my family has forgiven me for being heathen drop-out scum). Prior to dropping out I spent three summers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, taught at a women’s prison, did a lot of college improv, and interned at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Late Night with Seth Meyers. I moved to NYC in the beginning of 2015 and went through improv classes at UCB. I was also watching/doing shows every night, mostly at the Annoyance. Shortly after moving here, I started writing/performing with Sandy Honig and Alyssa Stonoha, and we formed the group Three Busy Debras. They are the BEST. I was also performing on my own and as part of The Holy Fuck Comedy Hour, writing for Reductress, and hosting various comedy shows with my friends.  

In November of 2015, Miles Kahn, who I knew from The Daily Show, asked me if I wanted to come in for an interview at a new show, and shortly after, I started working as the writers’ assistant at Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Getting to work there felt like winning the lottery – the staff is so smart, funny, and talented, and Sam is a wonderful person who works insanely hard and radiates warmth while doing so. I look up to her so much. I worked there until March 2017, and NOW I work at The President Show! This is my first TV writing job and it’s so fun. Anthony Atamanuik was my Improv 301 teacher at UCB two years ago, and Pete Grosz was one of the writers at Late Night when I was interning there, so it’s nuts to be doing this show with them now. I feel very, very lucky and excited to be here. I’ve already learned so much and it is a total dream come true to get to do this. It’s also a super diverse room, which is THE BEST! 

So far, I have managed to work on shows where the focus is on making comedy with a social/political point, and that’s really important to me. I’m Iranian-American, which obviously informs my identity in a lot of ways and left me with a healthy skepticism towards the media/government. Shows that focus on telling the truth in a lighthearted way appeal to me. I’m a goofy lil gremlin but I also want to write things that are full of heart and perspective.

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Jessie Gaskell, Conan: Whenever someone asks how I got my job writing for Conan O’Brien (which I almost always hear as, “How did YOU get this job?” because I am a comedy writer, and therefore inherently insecure) my short, semi-dickish answer is “I applied.” Which is true — I applied, I got an interview, I didn’t shit my pants in the interview despite a strong urge to, and I got hired. But applying to comedy jobs isn’t the same as uploading your resume to Monster.com (or insert a more relevant URL reference). “Applying” means you put together a packet of written material, both sketches and jokes. It means you studied the show’s unique voice, wrote all new stuff specifically for that show, and wrote enough so that you could cut 80% of it, because 80% is always crap.

But the short answer is bullshit, because it ignores the almost ten years I spent preparing for the gig. I did a ton of writing, both paid and unpaid. I started as a production assistant and worked my way up to become a writer for some cable TV shows — The Soup, Pop-Up Video, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, to name a few (What do these shows have in common? That’s right: Katy Perry’s boobs). I also wrote tweets, sketches for UCB, and a web series that was sold to Hulu. I wrote HuffPo articles and a parody of Cathy comics (I’m bringing sexy Ack!). I wrote countless online dating profiles in hopes of finding love, which it turns out is harder than getting a TV writing job.

But the writing alone wasn’t enough — through all these gigs I also made contacts, got representation, and developed a reputation as someone who could reliably not shit their pants. Eventually, I got a job writing on a show that was produced by Conaco, Conan’s production company, and there I met people who would later vouch for me when I submitted a packet for the open sketch-writing spot on Conan.

So, in sum, if I were to give a PowerPoint presentation on what it took to get this job, I’d say I employed a multi-pronged strategy (lights dim, screen comes down):

  • Wrote and performed a lot for approximately a decade
  • Submitted a packet every time I heard about an open writing job
  • Made contacts in the industry and earned a reputation for being a dependable, nice person 
  • Didn’t shit my pants in front of people, not even once
  • Got very, very lucky (this last slide I might have some fun with, maybe include a horseshoe stock photo, or a four-leaf clover)

Thank you for coming! Please pick up your Chipotle gift card on the way out.

Top photo by Damon Winter/NYT

Justin Caffier has a Twitter.

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