Amid a bleak news cycle Ashley Nicole Black, Kat Radley, Amber Ruffin, Hallie Haglund, Jen Spyra and Marina Cockenberg dissect tackling what's off-limits, gender parity in writers rooms and why "making the host laugh is the ultimate goal."
"I feel like I have a purpose," jokes Kat Radley of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. The 33-year-old writer is seated now at a table of fellow late night scribes, discussing the role of humor amid the existential dread of the Trump news cycle. "Our job is to make fun of this," she says, "which is the only way to handle it."
For Jen Spyra, also 33, who writes for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, topical late night shows have become not simply a therapy session for the millions who tune in but also for those who produce them. "It's a luxury to be able to make a joke," Spyra says. "Otherwise I'd just walk around with this impotent rage. I would be a crazy lady at Zabar's screaming about Mitch McConnell."
On this snowy day in mid-November, Radley, Spyra and four other key female writers — Late Night With Seth Meyers' Amber Ruffin, 39; Full Frontal With Samantha Bee's Ashley Nicole Black, 33; Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas' Hallie Haglund (formerly of The Daily Show), 36; and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon's Marina Cockenberg, 31 — convened at a Chinatown restaurant for a spirited conversation (edited here for length and clarity) that touched on everything from gender parity to fart jokes.
For many, the Trump-dominated news cycle is terrifying and exhausting. For you, it goes with the job. How do you deal with it?
Amber Ruffin We're comedians, we filter everything through jokes. So our natural reaction is, "What a turd."
Ashley Nicole Black I had a therapist one time who was like, "You know, every time you get to something uncomfortable, you make a joke. We should really work on that." I was like, "Oh no, that's very useful. Leave me with that."
Jen Spyra This particular news cycle feels especially bad in terms of the relentless darkness. It's like you're handcuffed to a golem that's lumbering toward a fire. But there are flowers in the excrement. Like Trump's new AG, this guy Matt Whitaker. He used to be on the advisory board at a company that worked on a patent for extra-deep masculine toilets for big dicks.
Kat Radley He was like, "I toootally need this."
Ruffin Why do you need a deep toilet for your wiener? Are you washing it in there?
Hallie Haglund It's like a snorkel.
Black It's so when you have people over you can say, "Did you notice how deep my toilet is?"
Spyra That was the joke that we made!
Radley There's something about having a community you're processing the news cycle with. It's not like you're receiving all of this chaos in a vacuum. You're making something out of it with other people, so it feels less isolating.
Spyra It's therapy.
Radley Yeah, and we are forced to find the funny.
Are we allowed to say Trump is good for comedy?
Spyra My colleague, Daniel Kibblesmith, had a really good tweet about this: Trump's good for comedy like a bus crash is good for an emergency room. It's … you're busy.
Radley Sometimes it's bad, though, because he does the thing that would have been the joke we would've made.
Marina Cockenberg We point out the absurdity and then he goes and tops the absurdity and you're like, "Well, our move, I guess."
But isn't the Trump-fueled pace of the news cycle also wearing?
Ruffin Before, there was still a lot of work to do, still a lot of punchlines to write. It's just that what is newsworthy has shifted to encompass all the crazy.
Haglund On The Daily Show, in pre-Trump times, you used to be able to write the show the night before. By the time I left [in 2017], you couldn't write the show that morning. By 3 p.m., you're like, "OK, well, everything we did that morning we have to redo." I don't know if it still feels like that?
Radley It does. Trump seems to have this talent for doing something crazy at 5 p.m., which is right when we're about to lock in our scripts. Then we have to decide: Is this worth changing our whole show for, or do we go with what we have? Like, is this his normal, run-of-the-mill craziness or is it a new kind of crazy we have to talk about? He seems to have really good timing to screw over the late shows. Wonder if he does it on purpose?
Black It's not just the pace. Everything has such real consequences. It's like, "Oh, do I tell this story about these children who are in cages or about these people who are starving …?" It's devastating. Communities are hurting, and to have to choose what to make jokes about is insane.
Most of you are writing on shows that are led by men. When has your perspective as a woman writing for a man been helpful?
Ruffin Always! (Laughs.) Every single day. All men have blind spots, just like all white people have blind spots and all straight people have blind spots. The other day they needed a graphic about a woman going to get her (whistles) waxed. And for the options, someone wrote: Brazilian, bikini and shave. You don't go to a salon to get your sniz shaved! Oh my God, what is wrong with you?! So you always need to have a woman or a person of color having heard what you said so that you don't go into the world sounding like you've never seen one of us before.
Haglund It's been heartening, over my career in writers rooms, to see it change. When I got hired [on The Daily Show in 2006] there were two women on a staff of about 14. And that really was your role, to be the female referee for all the jokes that the dudes are writing. The more gender equity happened over time, it felt like, "Oh, now I'm just a funny person. I'm not a novelty." It stopped feeling like, "I'm here to be the female voice of this show."
How has the #MeToo reckoning changed the dynamic at work? Are you cast as the arbiter of appropriate jokes about sexual misconduct?
Spyra I think that might be more of a generational thing. The [male] writers who I work with are just as incensed and scandalized.
Ruffin Yeah, it's almost like you can guess what year someone was born based on their reaction to certain news.
Radley Although if it's a specific #MeToo or sexual assault story, Trevor does make sure a woman is on it or it's been run by a woman. He's very sensitive with that stuff but [he takes] that extra step of, "Hey, do you think this is OK, are we wording it right?"
Black There was a sports company [Barstool Sports] that a woman [declined to work for] because they were like, "Our job is just like a comedy room and in a comedy room you have to be able to make these offensive jokes." But I don't know anyone who actually works in a comedy room who would say that. Yeah, we rib each other, but it's never personal. There seems to be this perception that the only way to make comedy is to sexually harass women. Everyone is actually doing fine not doing that.
So where's the line? Amber, your show has the "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" segment. Are there jokes that you can't tell even in that segment?
Ruffin Yes, yes there are. That is a really crazy area to be. Jenny [Hagel] and I write most of it. But we ask for jokes and we send out setups and we're like: We understand that a lot of these jokes are going to feel bad to write, and when we receive these emails from you, we know that some of them are going to be over the line, and that is OK. We won't say them on television, just send them to me. I want your delicious jokes.
Radley We'll laugh in the bathroom together.
Ruffin We'll laugh in the bathroom together and then I'll pull you real close and be like, "Don't say that." (Laughs.)
Can you give me an example?
Ruffin No, I will not. (Laughs.)
Ashley, if you had a segment called "Jokes Sam Can't Tell," what would that look like?
Black Well, you know, I was on the show recently talking about blackface [stemming from the Megyn Kelly Halloween costume flap]. I actually wrote that for Sam because I do think some things are important for white people to talk about with each other — and it shouldn't always be me lecturing. But Sam came in the next morning and was like, "You're doing this. I don't know why you thought I was going to do this without you."
Radley At The Daily Show, we have correspondents of different genders and races and sexual orientation. We all write for them, so I'm writing jokes sometimes for a black woman, or when Hasan [Minhaj] was there, a Muslim man. As writers, we do have to be able to get into a different mind-set.
How do you mold your voices to come out of somebody else's mouth?
Haglund The most uncomfortable I ever was with this was after Trevor had started. It was during the [presidential] campaign and there was some news item about Ben Carson being criticized for not being black enough. And I had to write a whole headline about how Carson isn't black enough.
Radley You're like, "He looks pretty black to me." (Laughs.)
Haglund But Trevor was like, "No, you've got to do this." He wants to talk a lot about race. It was definitely a big shift to be like, "OK, this is what you're asking me to do so I guess it's OK?"
Radley Yeah, because every day, except for Ashley, we're all writing for men and none of us are men. Every day we're putting ourselves into other people's shoes. I think being women helps because women are used to trying to think about what other people are feeling and experiencing.
Has the line shifted in terms of what's off-limits in comedy now?
Spyra The things you can't talk about are kids, death, rape. But #MeToo was like one year of rape. So with those, you find the spokes of the story, the things that are sort of tangential and juicy and still germane. And you might not really touch that very hot center.
Cockenberg It's a balance of also understanding the intent of each show. We obviously want to acknowledge issues and address them in a meaningful way, but we're also trying to make people laugh. In terms of what's over the line, if you're going to dig yourself into the issue deeply enough, you'd better be able to bring people back and make it OK again.
Spyra There was a joke that I wrote that Stephen really liked, but it was too dark. We did it in rehearsal and he really enjoyed it. It was when Melania was visiting the Vatican and she was dressed all in black. And she had a widow sort of vibe. And the [punchline] was something like "Dress for the job you want." And Stephen thought it was funny. But he made the judicious, sensitive decision that it's not right for the show.
Because you're kind of wishing that Donald Trump is …
Haglund That the president is dead?
Ashley, can Sam talk about things that Seth and Stephen and Jimmy and Trevor can't?
Black Yes. But I also think you can talk about anything as long as your ridicule is pointed in the right place — as long as you're always punching up.
Radley There are some stories that are just so sad, you can't find the humor in it. And Trevor will be like, "We're not going to do that story because our goal is to make a comedy show." The California fires are a terrible tragedy, but we found a story about Kim and Kanye hiring private firefighters to protect their $60 million home. So, we can talk about that because now we're making fun of Kim and Kanye, which is very much punching up.
How does each of you use social media? Can you try stuff out on social media like you would in a comedy club, or is it too reactive?
Radley Five years ago people were getting hired off of their Twitter accounts. But now something someone tweeted six or seven years ago is being weaponized against them. Unless it's a safe joke, you can't tweet it. Because reading something, you don't get tone, you don't get sarcasm necessarily, or irony. Twitter is so different now; there is a higher risk of people misinterpreting it or using it against you.
Haglund But I also think it has raised the bar for actual shows. You can't make a joke that night when the news item is breaking that morning because everyone will have already made it on Twitter, so it really forces you to get creative. When Twitter got really big, I remember having sort of an identity crisis where I was like, "Is everyone funny and I just have this job?" (Laughs.)
Are there social media rules and standards at your programs?
Ruffin To varying degrees, yes, because you can't go on Twitter and be like, "I think the president should die," you know?
Cockenberg That's a United States rule, that's not a Seth Meyers rule. (Laughs.) But we've seen what happens. I'd like to keep this job and I'd like to keep my home address private.
Has the deep polarization in the country ratcheted up the outrage?
Haglund I can think of several late night writers who have been extremely scrutinized on their Twitter feed. And sometimes it's some person who has a lot of power who blows something totally out of proportion. But to your question, yes, there is much more scrutiny now, and people who work at late night shows that have a political bent are much more vulnerable. Not to say, "Oh poor us," but it's a dicey time.
Radley People are holding comedians to this weird standard right now. And it's like, "We're not running for office, we're not journalists — we're comedians. We're the only ones who should be saying any of this stuff."
Haglund But I don't think it's fair to say Twitter got worse because of Trump. Trump is a product of why Twitter is so awful. He's just a reflection of our society.
Black There are things Twitter could do. They are making a choice to give him a platform.
What is your relationship with your hosts like? How collaborative is it?
Cockenberg Jimmy loves when you're passionate about an idea. So if you come in with enthusiasm, he'll instill some trust in you. I loved the story about that raccoon that climbed the building. [Last summer, a raccoon became a viral sensation when it scaled a 27-story Minnesota skyscraper.] So I pitched a segment where I was playing that raccoon and talking about my story. It went to rehearsal and it was absolutely terrible and it never saw the light of day. (Laughs.)
Radley Did you dress as a raccoon?
Cockenberg Oh, I had full makeup.
Black It's a different kind of relationship than I've ever had. You're really watching them all the time and observing them and trying to be them. When I sit at my desk, I'm doing my Samantha Bee impression as I write for her.
Radley Trevor draws the line at following him into the bathroom.
Black Well, see, I can follow her … We do talk in the stall sometimes.
Cockenberg You're really trying to get in their head and play to their strengths. And the more that they see you thinking that way, the more they trust you and the more there is that mind meld.
Spyra As a performer, Stephen brings so much energy into a room. Everyone is on a different kind of A-game if he's in the room. We have a preliminary meeting where we pitch our stuff. Hopefully the stuff that bombs you edit out before you pitch to Stephen. And the whole thing is trying to make him laugh.
Radley Making the host laugh is the ultimate goal.
Black I don't feel bad if Sam doesn't laugh at me. But if I ever wrote something for Sam that the audience didn't laugh at … sending any performer out with something that doesn't get a laugh feels terrible. It feels so much worse than not getting a laugh yourself.
Haglund That's what I think is pretty special. Whether it was Jon [Stewart] or Trevor or Wyatt, you see why they are where they are when you watch them take your joke and put it in their own voice. Wyatt knows his own voice so well. I'm rushing scripts to him, and where I'm like, "I don't think that this writer got you," he's like, "Well, I wouldn't say it this way, but I would make it this way." You realize why they are famous — it's because they know how to be themselves.
What's the worst joke you ever wrote?
Radley I had a joke that I wanted to stay on the show but it ended up getting cut. Ben Carson did some interview where it sounds like he farts in the middle of it. It was an old interview and it resurfaced. It was the best day of all of our lives. We watched it eight times in a row.
Ruffin Oh my, how did I miss this?
Radley We play Ben Carson as always being sleepy and tired and slow, so I made the joke: Ben Carson, he doesn't fart, it's just his butt snoring. (Laughs.) I really liked it and people laughed in the room. But it didn't make it into the final script.
All That's great.
Radley It's the one joke I was willing to fight Trevor on.
Is he just generally opposed to fart jokes?
Radley It was a time issue. There are only 22 minutes in a show and you can't save 15 seconds of them for fart jokes all the time.
Best joke ever?
Radley I told the fart joke, so …
Spyra I love this Tina Fey joke from an awards show. She was welcoming Leonardo DiCaprio onstage, and she said: "And now, like a supermodel's vagina, let's all give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio."
Haglund It was never on the show, but it was when Jon was hosting and he was so out the door. So he always wanted to fuck around in rewrite. Everyone was like, "We've got to get on the air." And he was telling this story about how his dog ate his football: "He tore it up and ate the whole thing. Then he shit it out and I picked it up and threw the best spiral of my life."
Black There is an old Second City scene that remains my favorite discrete bit of comedy. It's [Steve] Carell and Colbert …
Ruffin Who? The black lady?
Black Yes! They go back to their hometown and they're old black women. And everyone just interacts with them, like, "Oh, Shirley, it's so good to see you." It's like 13 minutes long. And it just grows and grows and grows, like, what it means to just go home and be an old black woman. It's called "Maya," and it's the best thing that's ever been done.
Ruffin It's beautiful.
This story also appears in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.