Alums in late-night TV share secrets of comedy writing
Panelists write/direct/produce/perform for Colbert, Kimmel, Meyers, SNL and others
From Jimmy Kimmel to Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, late-night television has an increasingly purple tint — whether on camera or behind the scenes.
Four major players in late-night TV comedy, three of them Northwestern University alumni, shared their personal experiences in the industry and advised the mostly student audience on how to break in to the industry during a panel discussion Friday at a near-capacity Helmerich Auditorium in Annie May Swift Hall.
All four panelists said their shows help people process the day’s news, some of which may have troubled viewers during the day, in a cathartic way.
In a phrase, the Trump administration has been good for business.
“I love that we’re tackling the chaotic nature of your United States,” said panelist Rob Cohen, a Canadian who writes and directs for the “The Ben Stiller Show,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.” “How do you top the real stuff with satire?”
“I don’t know if there has ever been a hunger from the audience to get politics from late-night comedy like there is now,” added panelist Jen Spyra (MFA ‘12), writer/performer for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Panelists for the 12th annual Writer’s Panel, “Late Night Comedy and Beyond,” also included Jill Leiderman (Communication ’93), executive producer of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”, and Jenny Hagel (MFA ’09), writer/performer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Moderated by David Tolchinsky, director of the MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage, the discussion was broken up by humorous clips from the panelists’ shows, such as Hagel’s performance on “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” and a snippet of Cohen’s recent comedic documentary, “Being Canadian.”
Jen Spyra (MFA '12) answers a question.
Leiderman, the lone producer on the panel, suggested students interested in comedy writing for TV take the top five headlines every day and write five corresponding monologues. It’s the same concept as lifting weights regularly to build muscle, Leiderman said.
“Do it for two weeks straight, and keep asking yourself, ‘Would I find this funny?’” she said. “That’s what we look for because that’s essentially what writers do every day.”
Spyra and Hagel advanced their careers with the help of the School of Communication's Master in Fine Arts (MFA) in Writing for the Screen and Stage, eventually landing writing gigs with two of Northwestern’s more famous alumni, Colbert and Meyers. Tolchinsky, who said he dreamed for years of assembling a panel of this nature, taught Hagel and Spyra.
Hagel noted how breaking into the industry has changed since she started her career. She said there used to be a clear path to a job: train at a famous comedy club (like Second City, where Hagel was for five years) and climb your way up the ladder.
Now, Hagel said, there are any number of ways to land a job in comedy, and authenticity is key.
“Do what is a good fit for you,” she said. “Double down on yourself. People get hired for being themselves.”
For her part, Spyra said students should get on Twitter because hiring executives want to see an unfiltered example of your work.
“They’ll Google you,” said Spyra, the first female introduction announcer for Colbert. “They’ll want some examples of your comedic writing, and the great thing is you can do that whenever.”
Ultimately, comedy is about human connection. Tolchinsky played a clip from “Mean Tweets,” a popular segment on Jimmy Kimmel’s show in which celebrities read rude and sometimes vulgar tweets directed at them.
“Comedy is the ultimate equalizer,” Leiderman said. “You see these celebrities are able to make fun of themselves, but also how hurtful that sort of thing can be.
“It humanizes those celebrities, and it’s that humanity that tethers us all together.”