Faxing the Cracks
Here's a nifty little article -- from the November 1998 issue of Men's Fitness -- about writing jokes for late-night television. It was written by Lee Frank.
Think writing jokes for a living is easy? Not on your life, Skippy.
Night after night, David Letterman does eight monologue jokes. No more, no less. And every night, I watch and wait for something familiar. One night, he surprises me by doing a ninth joke - and, yes, it's one I wrote. I say the lines right along with him:
"The Hong Kong flu, it's killing people, and as a result, the government has to slaughter over a million chickens. Ooh! What are you going to do with a million dead chickens? Did somebody say McDonald's?"
Some guys sell shirts, some guys sell backhoes. As it happens, I sell jokes. Each day, I craft witticisms concerning current events and peddle them to the TV-comedy crowd: David Letterman, Dennis Miller, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Colin Quinn, Rosie O'Donnell.
These people are busy knocking out their TV shows. You think they have time to stay up reading newspapers till dawn? Think they have the drive to stare at a blank computer screen and try to be funny until blood dribbles from their ears? That's where gag writers like me fit in.
Maybe you thought TV stars came up with their own material. Well, forget about it; the sheer volume of jokes they demand requires teamwork. (Jay Leno, for instance, will look at 100 jokes before deciding on the 14 he uses in his monologue.) So when you hear your favorite late-night host say something hilarious, chances are it was scribbled by someone else.
How do I feel when my work is attributed to a star - when, for instance, jokes I wrote for Dennis Miller are quoted in Entertainment Weekly as examples of how brilliant he is? Hey, pal, this is show business. Wear a cup. Get up and walk it off! I don't care if I never become famous from my own jokes, as long as they supply me with little luxuries like food and rent.
So, you think it's funny being a professional joke writer? Let me tell you about it, sweetheart.
Late night ... with me
First, I have to thank the fax machine, without which none of this would be possible. There have always been writers for monologue jokes. But with the advent of technology, shows can now tap a larger pool of talent. Freelance writers like me can work at home and instantly send jokes to programs' head writers. These shows want the best material they can get their hands on, and each has a stable of freelancers who're made it onto their "approved" fax list. (It took me two years before the Letterman staff would look at my stuff.) The big difference is that while the staff writers make the big TV dough, fleelancers get paid between 75 and 100 bucks a pop, and then only if a joke is used.
No, it's not much money. So I'm ever vigilant in my search for comedic fodder. I pore through five newspapers each night. I stay up until 4 in the morning, browsing the Net for breaking events. A former news junkie, I can't read a newspaper now without looking for jokes. Famine in the Sudan? Nothing funny there. Cyclone in India? Keep going. Airline crash in China? I think not.