'Tonight Show' Writers Dish on the "Jimmy Fallon" Filter, How to Recover When a Joke Bombs (Guest Column)
Scribes for the late-night juggernaut reveal how they crank out the top-rated hour day after day ("We throw out a lot more than we use") and the solace of anonymity for monologue writers ("If you write a joke and it bombs, no one knows it’s yours. It’s just a secret between you and God").
Five nights a week we have to fill an hour of TV, so you'd think we'd be pretty indiscriminate about what we pick to write about. Not so. The world is extremely generous about giving us comedic material, and it's gotten ridiculously generous during this election cycle. We have so many options right now. We don't feel like kids in a candy store — we feel like kids in a candy factory.
But we also need to leave room for conversation, music, games … everything else that's a part of the show. It's a balancing act, and that's tough for us because, well, if we were well-balanced people, we probably wouldn't be writers.
The most important filter we use to pick what topics to cover is called the "Jimmy Fallon." We have the only live one in captivity. If Jimmy is interested in something, then we're halfway to getting it on the air. The problem is that Jimmy is interested in a lot of stuff. You might have noticed some of that enthusiasm on the show — it's very real. He's a voracious reader and consumer of culture, and he's always turning up something new to joke about. If he weren't the host, he'd be our research department.
Once we know what topics to address, we'll start grinding out jokes. The monologue is, of course, the easiest place to address current events. Like most other late-night shows, our staff is divided between monologue writers and sketch writers (though the membrane is very permeable). The monologue writers churn out a ton of jokes every day, and they are not paid enough. Head writer A.D. Miles and supervising monologue writer Jon Rineman cull them to a manageable mass, then Jimmy tries out the best 30 or so in front of a test audience in the afternoon. He'll pick around 15 jokes that he likes for that night's show — with length varying depending on how good the material is and how much (or little) time we have to fill.
If there is one great solace in a monologue writer's life, it is anonymity. Whereas sketch writers are generally attached to a bit from conception to production, monologue writers just throw their jokes into a bucket and wait to see how they turn out. As monologue writer Caroline Eppright puts it, "If you write a joke and it bombs, no one really knows it's yours. It's just a secret between you and God."
Sketch writers don't have that kind of anonymity. They also are underpaid. Sketch writers pitch a bunch of ideas every morning. The best are picked by Miles and supervising writers Gerard Bradford and Mike DiCenzo, then put in front of Jimmy every day at noon. Jimmy picks the ones he wants to see in rehearsal. The writer of the piece is there, and it's his or her job to shepherd the sketch to completion. Usually if a sketch kills, the writer responsible will quietly return to their desk to begin thinking about the next day's show, content that they've contributed to a successful show. If it bombs, they'll make sure everyone knows it was theirs and apologize profusely to the rest of the team.
Some sketches are written weeks in advance, some are written day-of. Because there are so many moving parts involved in putting on the show, we try to give the rest of the staff and crew as much advance warning as possible. So if there's going to be a Democratic debate on a Wednesday night, we'll make sure that the crew is ready to stage a debate sketch on Thursday night — even if we don't know what the jokes will be until we write them Thursday afternoon.
We poke fun at everyone, of every political persuasion, which is by no means hard to do. We try to be fair to every political guest we have on, and we've had them all — Clinton, Trump, Sanders, Cruz, Rubio, Bush and the rest (including President Obama, who slow-jammed the news with Jimmy on June 9). If you want to see policy parsed, there are whole cable channels devoted to that. The Tonight Show always has served as the place where politicians could show their human side, and the American people could judge them by that.
While we'll never be as timely as Twitter, we know that our comedy has to be part of the general national conversation. So even if we've worked on something for a while, or even if it's funny — if it starts to feel stale, we'll throw it out. We throw out a lot more material than we ever use. It often feels like we're dumping gallons of water into a thimble.
Writing comedy has to have some sense of joy to it, especially on our show, with our host, or it doesn't work. At the end of the day, we want Jimmy to have fun out there. He's going to be funny no matter what, but you can tell when the material inspires him. That's when we've done our job. And while it might not be as obvious at home, we can tell when our jokes just don't land, and he has to work harder for the laughs. That's a bad feeling. Fortunately, we're able to keep those bad days to a minimum. We've figured out how to do this over the years. A lot of the core team has been together since we started Late Night in 2009. Back then we were really figuring it out on the fly, and there were some genuine moments of panic. But we've learned to push through those moments. Over the years, we've learned that we always get the show done, no matter what. And if we don't quite hit the mark one night … well, tomorrow is another day.
A show like this doesn't work without commitment. It can't just be a job — it has to be your life. Again, we're not very well-balanced people. Which means that all of us agree on two things: We are extremely lucky to work at this show, at this time in history, and we don't get paid enough.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.