iPads to Luxury Vacations: How TV Comedy Writers Get Paid to Punch Up Jokes
Gone are the salad days when studios paid comedy writers to sharpen jokes. Today, producers reward uncredited work with everything from massages to a free sandwich: "Why would an executive pay writers to do something they would do anyway?"
Punch-up, the process in which a group of comedy writers gets together to sharpen jokes that aren't quite landing in a script, has long been routine in Hollywood. For every new half-hour show that makes the grade this fall, there's a crack team of scribes behind the scenes making sure every punchline works. Not all of their names show up in the credits, though, which is where the question of informal compensation, aka the punch-up gift, comes in.
For film, veteran script doctors can command six-figure salaries for a week of work, but TV comedy writers who help friends funny things up on a freelance basis are thanked in a more creative — if less lucrative — fashion. In some cases, a punch-up gift can be as simple as a good meal Postmated to a showrunner's or new show creator's house to tide over hungry writers while they brainstorm; in others, producers show their appreciation with everything from iPads to luxury vacations.
The best gift Modern Family producer Abraham Higginbotham ever received in his career was for helping writer Gary Janetti with his 2007 NBC pilot, The Mastersons of Manhattan. "My own pilot had just been killed — I read it again recently, it wasn't great — so I spent the entire two weeks of production with Gary and he thanked me with a gift card to the Four Seasons in Punta Mita," Higginbotham says, adding, "It was stupid generous." The scribe has also done punch-up for feature films, admitting, "I don't remember what I got for The Devil Wears Prada, but any time I have an opportunity to mention that I got to pitch jokes that came out of Meryl Streep's mouth, I do."
There was a halcyon time in Hollywood when studios used to pay writers directly for punch- up, instead of letting producers foot the bill. Grounded for Life creator Mike Schiff recalls being brought in with writing partner Bill Martin and compensated by the studio for punch-up work on the 1996 sitcoms Men Behaving Badly and Townies.
These days, Schiff says, studios expect creators to buy their own gifts, and for recipients to be grateful for the opportunity to showcase their comedy craft and potentially get staffed on a show. "I'm sure if I were a studio executive, I would wonder why we would pay writers to do something they would do anyway in exchange for lukewarm takeout from Daily Grill," says Schiff. "I got an iPad from Lionsgate for working on ¡Ask a Mexican!," a script based on Gustavo Arellano's O.C. Weekly column that never made it to pilot. Schiff adds that it was once desirable to punch up Sony pilots because writers were rewarded with electronics, though not the newest models. "I got my first Blu-ray player that way, back when they were expensive," he says, laughing. "Now Sony doesn't even give outdated electronics."
Darlene Hunt, an executive producer on Apple's newly ordered series Dickinson and co-creator of The Big C, was gifted a pair of $100 massage certificates to Burke Williams spa in exchange for assisting Liz Feldman on her short-lived 2015 NBC series One Big Happy. "I helped Liz out during those scary few days of last-minute rewrites and she gave me these expensive certificates, which honestly, I felt a little guilty about, because I would have done it as a friend," says Hunt, adding, "One I used, and one got stolen out of my car."
Insecure co-executive producer Regina Hicks is a veteran of producer gifts, having received for her help on pilots everything from movie tickets to $100 in cash to a yoga class gift certificate to a personalized iPod. "This was early on, when the iPod was a thing," says Hicks. These days, when Hicks is picking her own punch-up gifts for funny friends, she tends to go the alcohol route: "Wine or champagne, or if you're a tequila person, I'll do that. I like to go for something high-end, something TV writers wouldn't necessarily get themselves."
Hallie Cantor, a writer for Arrested Development and Lady Dynamite, wasn't around for the days of studio-sponsored gratitude, but she has been a beneficiary of the humble punch-up meal. At an early table read of Amy Schumer's Trainwreck that she attended, she dined on catered sandwiches, the most common punch-up payment.
Somewhere between a free hoagie and a luxury trip to Mexico is the creative wrap gift. "The most interesting industry gift I've ever received was a season five wrap gift on BoJack Horseman from Raphael Bob-Waksberg," says the animated series' co-executive producer Kate Purdy. "He gave all of us writers a gift certificate to a sensory deprivation tank. I spent two dark hours naked, floating in salt water, hoping to have a mind- exploding experience that I could relate to Raphael. But I mostly huddled against a slightly warmish wall with all my muscles clenched."
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.