Chicks 'n' Chuckles
The following is an excerpt from this interview with Jill Davis, who wrote for Late Night with David Letterman:
When I asked how she became a writer for the David Letterman show, for example, she wisecracked, "I won a radio contest, so I packed up the Winnebago and moved to New York." The real story is that she was writing a humorous column for a paper in Lynn, Massachusetts, when she saw Letterman complaining about a writer's strike one night and mailed a bunch of her columns to the show. Her submission caught the attention of then–head writer Steve O'Donnell, she was invited to send in a more formal submission, and was eventually told she had a new career in TV comedy writing if she wanted it. Only then did she pack the Winnebago.
By her recollection, she was perhaps the second female staff writer for the show after Merrill Markoe; she was present for the last two years of Letterman's run on NBC and stayed with the team for approximately four years when they moved to CBS. Since leaving the Late Show, Davis has written television pilots and (as yet unproduced) screenplays, in addition to what looks like a promising career as a comic novelist.
What were your favorite bits from your time writing for Letterman?
First, let me say, it was the greatest job. I spent a lot of time working on remotes that took Dave out of the studio. I wrote the ideas involving Dave and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In the first one, Dave and Zsa Zsa went to a small neighborhood in New Jersey and started knocking on doors and asking if anyone had a question for Zsa Zsa. They didn't. And they were confused about who Dave was. But one thing they knew was that Zsa Zsa was the most beautiful and glamorous woman they'd ever seen, so the piece became "Everybody Loves Zsa Zsa." It featured lots of montages of very nice people from the Garden State letting Zsa Zsa try on their shoes and stuff.
We did remotes with her in London and L.A. too. In L.A., she and Dave spent the day driving through fast food drive-thrus eating fast food. Pounding french fries on camera—Zsa Zsa has to be the best sport in the world. In London, her sportsmanship was tested once again and she rose to the occasion by saying yes to eel pie and bangers and mash.
If you saw any remotes with psychics in them, I wrote those too. One of my favorites was a piece that featured a psychic and Dave going to various New York delis. They had a competition seeing who could most closely predict the expiration dates on dairy products. I think Dave won that one—I was also responsible for the first few "Dave Talks to Kids" remotes.
Below is an excerpt from this interview with Jennifer Crittenden, who has written for Late Night with David Letterman, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons.
In the middle of your college education, you took a summer off to work as an intern on Letterman. How did that turn into a yearlong gig?
While working as a gofer, I started submitting monologue jokes to head writer Steve O'Donnell, who liked them. He passed them on to Dave, who started to use them. I put off going back to college at summer's end because I was earning $100 a joke. In a good week, I would write one of the three nightly "opening remarks" that he used. I'd write 10-20 jokes a day and Dave would usually put a couple on cue cards, along with jokes from other writers. He'd pick six jokes from those, and then right before the show he would go through the six cards and pick three to do on the air. Just getting on the cards was great, but you didn't get paid until he used your jokes on the air.
What did you do after graduating from Wesleyan?
I moved to L.A., wrote lots of spec scripts and sent them to an agent I'd met at Letterman: Jeff Jacobs. He didn't sign me then, but he was nice enough to return my calls, and he later became my agent. At first I worked in a bookstore. I gave myself a year to get work as a writer, and in the twelfth month I got into 20th Century Fox's Young Writers Program. There I observed their two comedy shows, including The Simpsons. I found The Simpsons incredibly intimidating, because it had many great writers on the staff of 15--people I had long worshipped from watching their work on TV. Show runner David Mirkin allowed me to submit story ideas at their annual story conference, and they liked one, so I got hired on staff. I spent two seasons ('93-'95) writing for The Simpsons. That was a trial by fire. I was so intimidated that I had to force myself to speak in the writers' room. My work did get into scripts, however. The Simpsons is so dense, so intelligent and well written--with so many jokes, layers and meanings--that it was very challenging to write. Fortunately, the very slow animation process allows lots of time to put things in, add things and change things--so you get a lot of shots at it. After the script is written, you do a version with the storyboards and can add jokes there. Then there is the animatics stage--black and white stop-action film you watch. The next stage is color. Then, even at the last minute, if you really want to change a joke, you can do so, if it can fit into the character's mouth movement. We only did that if a reference got dated or had some sort of bad association. For instance, we once changed a reference to Mt. Hebron, because there had been recent violence there that would have killed the joke.
How did you get onto Seinfeld, and what was it like working there?
I submitted story ideas to Seinfeld and got assigned a freelance script. Then I was hired on staff. I started as executive story editor and rose to co-producer. I worked there during the last two seasons. The writing process was similar to that on Raymond, in that we would take things that happened to us and expand them into their exaggerated, silly form. I was the only woman among 10 writers. Seinfeld required the most writing per script of any show I've worked on, and scripts were very long. We always had to cut about eight minutes--versus one or two minutes on the average show. The reason the scripts were so long was that each of the four main characters had a story each week. On Raymond, there was one story per script, and other series have A and B stories. It was hard to find four stories each week, because a lot of stories had already been created for the show in the seven previous years. When I came aboard, Larry David had departed, and Jerry Seinfeld was the head writer.
What was he like as a head writer/executive-producer?
Jerry ran the room, approved the stories, oversaw the rewrites and performed; I don't know how he did it all. He was very generous to and supportive of the other writers. If the writers thought something would work and he didn't, he would still try it. He didn't have to always have the jokes; he was happy to set up other characters. One difference from Raymond was that there were no emotional moments or learning moments for the characters. I find that interesting, because on Raymond we would discover why something mattered to the characters and was emotionally important to them. We do that on Bram and Alice, too. It makes it more of a challenge and more fun to write. I find it rewarding to sneak in an emotional moment when people are laughing. On Seinfeld, we worked long hours, seven days a week. Because the show was so popular, the network and studio never said "no" to us. If we dreamed up a parade, they said, "OK" and we went out and shot it--so we were on a hellish schedule and never got ahead. Another reason we never got ahead was that Jerry had so many jobs that he could only do so much in a day.
How do you assess the situation of women writers in television?
Well, I haven't found it to be an exclusionary old-boys' network, but I haven't found a supportive old-girls' network either, possibly because there may not yet be enough of us. On the shows where I've worked, I haven't felt pigeonholed. They accept that a good writer can write for male or female characters. Although, on reflection, I did get more than my share of Marge stories on The Simpsons, but that may have been because I particularly liked her character.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Don't become creepy. Don't send a script to someone's home or include a picture or a cartoon. For your spec script, pick a show you like and spend the most time deciding what the story will be. If it is an inventive story, even if the reader doesn't like the writing they will recognize an original take. I got two good pieces of advice when I was starting out. One: Don't wait for inspiration. Just sit down and write, even if you don't feel like it. And two: Don't be afraid to cut things and start over.