Stella's Fellas
Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain. Together, they do a half-hour Comedy Central show called Stella. I've seen only the first episode, which is on a free DVD that comes with the June/July issue of Index magazine. That first episode is hilarious.

Here is an old, outdated Yale Herald interview with the three Stellians.


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.


Satire Plier

Jon Stewart was on Fresh Air Friday. You can listen to the interview here.


Popular Science

The following is from The Harvard Lampoon Big Book of College Life, which was co-edited by George Meyer (and Steven G. Crist), and which contains the writing of such top-flight comedy writers as Jim Downey, Ian Frazier, Tom Gammill, Max Pross, Henry Beard, Mark O'Donnell, and, of course, Meyer himself. The book was published in 1978.

[The following copy
appears below a photo
of a smiling college girl
sitting at an outdoor lunch table
with several boys.]

Do You Want to Be

She's smart, she's confident, she radiates energy and cheer. She's turned on by exciting people, places and ideas -- the kind only a top-notch school can provide. Most of all, she has something to say -- and when she says it, people listen.

How does Kristi do it? Ask friends who surround her -- if you can pull them away! They'll tell you that she does drugs. Hard drugs. The rugged, durable, we-mean-business drugs that only the folks at Benzene Labs can give you. Because we care.

You see, we're the only people who deal strictly with students. That means if you want "red devils," "blue demons," "yellow sunshine" or any other showy pill -- head straight to our competitors. They're good people too. But if you're looking for honest amphetamines at a modest cost -- from crosses to crystal -- then come to us. That's why we're here.

Since 1927


Auteur Talk

No doubt some Faustian deal was made, but nonetheless, when Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda was released earlier this year, the Suicide Girls website scored an interview with the legendary filmmaker.


Daniel Robert Epstein: Do you prefer to write the dramas or the comedies?

Woody Allen: It's always fun to write the heavy stuff for me because over the years I've done a lot of movies and almost all of them have been comedies. So it's occasionally fun to do something heavy just for the change. But then when I realized I was going to be working with Will [Ferrell] I went back over the script and started to customize it for him and that became fun.

DRE: How did you customize it for him?

WA: First of all, he's so physically different. He's a big silly person and everyone including me has laughed at him in these broad ridiculous comedies. The question was, could he act and be believable. It turned out; I guess because of his size, his face or whatever talent he has, he's vulnerable. There's something sweet about him so your heart goes out to him. There were things in the script, the actual dialogue, that he couldn't do. Since I'm writing the dialogue, my tendency is to write it for myself even though I knew I'd never be playing it. But I write it instinctively for myself and I had to cut some lines and dialogue out of the thing because he couldn't do it. It never sounded funny when he did it. But there were things he did do that I could never imagine when I was writing it. Before I met him, I never could have imagined it for the script or the contributions he would make sort of built in to his ridiculous persona. The way he moved, there's something in the look of his face, it's intangible, but it's silly and sweet.

DRE: Is there a good example of something you cut?

WA: I can't give you an example of exact lines I cut, but they were one-liner jokes that I do that are easy for me but they don't sound like a joke when he does it. Rather it sounds like dialogue rather than a joke. It comes naturally to me, but it's not so natural to him. I've had that problem before with Diane Keaton. She's someone I used to write these sharp remarks for and she could never do them. She's the funniest person I ever met and always used to steal the picture from me. I always wrote the movie for me and wrote her a secondary role and when the movie came out she was always the funny star and I was always the secondary part. But she couldn't do those kinds of one-liners either for some reason. There are some people who just can do them and Will is not one of them. Will has a different comic gift and it's hard to quantify it but it's working great for him, not just on my picture but in general.


DRE: Do you ever miss doing standup?

WA: I miss doing standup but I'm too lazy to do it again. To write an act and be funny for 45 minutes on stage is a huge amount of work. Much more work than a movie. In order to get an hour's worth of really funny, potent material, it's a huge amount of work that I don't have the energy or patience to do it. But I do miss it because it's a wonderful medium to work in. I also love watching it so the fact that you can turn on your television set at any time of the day or night and see two or three comics working in perpetuity around the clock is wonderful.

DRE: Would you ever direct something someone else has written?

WA: I've never done that. I've really only directed because I'm a writer and I like to write but I wouldn't rule it out now that I'm getting older. It would be an interesting experience to see what it's like to direct someone else's script. But I've only directed in the past because I wrote the script.

DRE: What is your writing process?

WA: I still lay down on the bed with a yellow pad and write. Invariably I have to type it myself and that takes three days. I was taught to write on a typewriter and I think it would be healthier for me to do it because if you write on your typewriter, you act out the scene and you type it down and you sort of know it works. When you write on a pad, you're hearing it in your head and you don't know that it works when it becomes audible, but it goes so much faster that I've gotten into the bad habit and I've been doing it for years.

DRE: I've heard so many stories about actors getting fired from your movie sets. What is a fireable offense on your set?

WA: Fireable is only when it turns out to be my casting mistake because the person does no wrong. I hire them and I'm convinced they can do it and then they come in and they don't do it. I try every conceivable way to get them to do it. I talk to them, I explain it, I try and be as lucid as I can and then if that doesn't work sometimes I try and trick them transparently. Sometimes they do it and sometimes they don't. I'm not a skilled director like Elia Kazan or Mike Nichols who can get a performance out of someone who can't act. So after three days of trying to get the person to do the scene, I fire them because I don't know what else to do. I feel we're doomed if we use them and I can't think of what else to do. It's possible that someone will come in and read and they'll be very good at the reading and then for some inexplicable reason they can't do it when the time comes. It doesn't happen a lot but it does happen occasionally. It's a terrible thing.

The Consecrated Host

Two years ago, to mark Conan O'Brien's 10th anniversary as host of Late Night, The Hollywood Reporter conducted this interview with the freckled Irish wag.

An excerpt:


Conan O'Brien: The hardest thing for me was that I knew I had a funny persona and that I had a point of view. I knew it was there. I didn't become this person over the last 10 years; I was this person. But I didn't have the chops to be this person on TV every night for an hour... It was just very tricky for me to learn how to be Conan O'Brien on TV for nine-minute periods of time and then throw it to commercial seamlessly... For the first year and a half of the show, you know, you could almost see me thinking, you could see me trying to be a good talk show host. It wasn't fun to watch.


O'Brien: What happened over time is that all the things you have to know -- which camera to look at, how to begin a segment, how to end a segment, how to stand -- all those things, eventually, they become second nature, and that allowed my personality to come out. I don't have to think about it anymore. If you wake me up in the middle of the night, I'll say, "And my next guest is Fabio" ... then I'll have questions for him... So now 10 years later, you're not watching Conan trying to be a good talk show host; you're watching me in the moment, having a good time trying to be myself, having fun, you know, letting my mind go... That's always what I was doing with my friends in high school and college. For years when I was a writer, I was the guy in the room performing for the other writers.


O'Brien: Comedians are naturally competitive -- it started with us trying to be funniest person at our dining room table when we were growing up... There's definitely a competitive side to me, but I don't think these late-night talk shows work as a competitive sport. I don't get more creative and funnier when I watch other people's shows. It doesn't get my creative juices going. If you're obsessing and watching other people's shows, you're gonna consciously or unconsciously imitate them... The other thing is, ratings can be misleading. When they're figuring out ratings at 12:30 at night, the data's coming from like 80 people in the Nielsen sample. If two of those people get head colds and go to bed early, suddenly you don't have as good a night as you might have.


O'Brien: I usually work out in the morning because you don't just get a body like mine, you have to work it. I get into work in the morning, but things don't heat up until about 11 o'clock. I tend to walk from office to office on our floor. I sort of peek my head into offices, and a lot of times I have a guitar on, and I'm singing. That's how I relax. I learn a song a week to annoy people. I make up songs to tease people... The first formal meeting of the day is at 11:30. That's where we run down what the show is that day, what potential problems there are. Then I'm usually with the head writer for a bit, talking down the show, or I'm talking to Jeff Ross. That usually gets us to around 1 in the afternoon. Then I sit with the segment producers and talk about who are the guests today, what stories do they want to tell. We talk about the guests, and a lot of it is just trying to figure out what are good ways to start those conversations, what are the potential things I could be funny about. Half of the time you end up coming up in the meeting with potential ways I could be funny in an interview, then other times they are improvised. Those are the best. The audience tends to sense when it's improvised. Then maybe there's a pretape (segment) or something I have to shoot for that day's show. We try to do our rehearsal at about 2:30, but that doesn't usually happen right on time. Some rehearsals last a long time, sometimes they're very tense, and sometimes they're very easy. There are definitely not enough easy rehearsals... That takes me to around 4:30, and I go in for makeup and hair. Then just before I go out to warm up the audience, around 5:15, we pick the jokes for the monologue. And we fight over them.


O'Brien: For me, it's usually measured by the size of my pompadour. When it inflates, when I have a 6-inch shelf of red hair sticking over my forehead, that's a good show. When it's lying down flat like Moe on the Three Stooges, it's time to check out an infomercial... I think a good show is when the writers and producers build a jungle gym, and I go out, and the show is me jumping around and playing with it, having a good time. That to me is a good episode of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." It doesn't happen every night -- otherwise, a really good show wouldn't feel like an event. There are too many variables. The crowd, the guests, the mood I'm in, and then it's also like, what's the weather like outside? When all those things line up, that's a great show. And that's a powerful drug that just keeps you coming back over and over and over again. You'll walk over hot coals to get to another one. You'll drag your ass through four bad crowds to get to another good crowd. It feels so good.


Poster Boy

The magician/historian/actor/collector Ricky Jay has published a beautiful book of bizarre broadsides that date back hundreds of years. The broadsides come from Jay's own collection, which he recently put on display in a gallery in San Francisco. Here is a San Francisco Chronicle article about the show.

An excerpt:

He started his collection more than 25 years ago during leaner times. Jay and his magic opened for Cheech and Chong, Emmylou Harris and the B-52's during the night, while he searched for learned pigs, flea circuses and an elusive armless dulcimer player by day.

"Most of them came from being on the road, visiting bookshops and print galleries while I was performing," Jay says.

He wrote about many of his greatest finds in the 1990s publication "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," which was released in book form three years ago and has been revisited on Jay's weekly radio show on KCRW in Los Angeles. The broadsides have also been made into a book, which is being sold at the museum now and will be available in bookstores soon.

With relatively few collectors of this kind of art, Jay says the broadsides often find their way to him these days, instead of the other way around. That includes an 1816 broadside for Giuseppe De Rossi, an Italian magician who boasted he could sever the head of a steer and then make the animal whole again. When a trader presented Jay with the weathered document a couple of months ago, he wasn't aware De Rossi existed.

To understand the magician's joy, imagine a collector of 20th century baseball cards in the 24th century, who discovers there was a player named Roberto Clemente by unearthing his rookie card.

"I've been researching this piece, and I've found literally no record of De Rossi at all," Jay says. "Tomorrow or 10 years from now you may run across a newspaper account describing him. Or maybe he's absolutely lost to history except for this one sheet."

While there are a few performers mainstream audiences may have heard of in the exhibition -- conjoined twins Chang and Eng come to mind -- Jay's favorites seem to be the broadsides that present more questions than answers. He's particularly fond of the prose on the advertisements, most of which seems to come before the advent of irony.

"Wonderful Remains of an ENORMOUS HEAD," one broadside reads, without giving details of whose head is on display or its current condition. "18 Feet in Length, 7 Feet in Breadth and Weighing 1,700 Pounds."


Twins 'n' Grins
One of the online-only features over at the Believer website is this conversation between comedy-writing twins Mark and Steve O'Donnell. Steve was the head writer at Late Night with David Letterman from 1983 to 1992. Mark's written many funny things, including Vertigo Park and Other Tall Tales and this essay, which was originally published in The New Yorker. Mark teaches comedy writing at Yale.

An excerpt:

MARK: Well, what we share is a Midwestern sense both of dubiousness and good nature. That may be what leads to a lot of comedy writers' becoming comedy writers. Good nature and skepticism.

STEVE: I agree with that, and of course we have way much more in common than distinctions. But the fact that I had a couple micro-ounces on you meant that I was born first, the larger of the two babies, and have remained the larger of the two. Then there's the sociological element, the pecking order of the family, that you were the tail end of the line, I think you have a term for it—

MARK: Low man on the scrotum pole. Yes, and though people say, "Ooh, you're both comedy writers!" and even though I wrote for Saturday Night Live, I gravitated toward books and theater, and you toward TV, even though you write beautiful prose and draw really well.

STEVE: I still think the significant question is why two different paths were taken by two people with similar upbringings.

MARK: Yeah, but in our day-to-day life we're not so wildly different. When I visit friends and make jokes about their bric-a-brac, they say, That's just what Steve said.

STEVE: Yes, I acknowledge that, but why are we conducting this interview? What insights are we supposed to be offering here?

MARK: Well, we're talking about what it's like to be writers, as well as to be brothers.

STEVE: I don't think anyone cares about that.

MARK: I assume the people who read this are likely to be writers themselves. Well. I aspired from early on to write a novel, to be in the New Yorker, to be on Broadway, and at least in a fleeting way, I got all those things. Is there anything you’re burning to do that you haven't yet done?

STEVE: Hmm. To write any complete work, be it a book or play or movie, that is most purely oneself, with as few compromises and outside interferences as possible ...

MARK: You and Letterman were a good match. Those Top-Ten books were on the best-seller list—

STEVE: Well, they weren't technically books. Even the Times listed them under "Advice, Miscellaneous and How-To."

MARK: But they were continuously funny, and as comedy goes, they had a kind of poetry to them.

STEVE: Well, that's nice to say, and I appreciate your mentioning the "Top-Ten List" as my little asterisked entry in the record books of comedy, even though it was a perfectly ordinary idea that has certainly gotten its use and re-use and re-use—

MARK: You couldn't have dreamed of being a Letterman writer as a kid, but it was a perfect realization for your sensibility.

STEVE: I felt giddy and exalted when I got the job. Our high-school guidance counselors—who, we might as well say now, in semi-print, were scandalously incompetent—did have that one chestnut about "Find that thing you do well and go out and do it." I felt that with Letterman.


The Hitchin' Post
In last September's issue of The Believer, Simpsons writer George Meyer shared his views on marriage:

THE BELIEVER: I assume that you're still not married, right?


BLVR: You're probably the most effective anti-marriage spokesman out there. I can still vividly recall Edna Krabappel's argument against marriage: "Most of you will only marry out of fear of dying alone." That line really shook me when I first heard it. It kept me away from marriage for years. I desperately didn't want to become the punchline to that joke. And you see it all too often. We all know people who've slipped into safety marriages.

GM: My parents are still married and I guess they're relatively happy. For me, marriage is a grotesque, unforgiving, clunky contrivance. Yet society pushes it as a shimmering ideal. It's as if medicine came up with the iron lung, then stood back and said, "At last! Our work is done." Men often struggle with their attraction to other women. They don't quite understand why they have to be with the same woman forever. Marriage has a compassionate answer for them: "Oh, shut up, you selfish crybaby." Is it any wonder men have to be pressured into this nasty, lopsided arrangement?

In Woman: An Intimate Geography, Natalie Angier writes:

Women are said to need an investing male. We think we know the reason. Human babies are difficult and time-consuming to raise. Stone Age mothers needed husbands to bring home the bison. Yet the age-old assumption that male parental investment lies at the heart of human evolution is now open to serious question. Men in traditional foraging cultures do not necessarily invest resources in their offspring. Among the Hadza of Africa, for example, the men hunt, but they share the bounty of that hunting widely, politically, strategically. They don't deliver it straight to the mouths of their progeny. Women rely on their senior female kin to help feed their children. The women and their children in a gathering-hunting society clearly benefit from the meat that hunters bring back to the group. But they benefit as a group, not as a collection of nuclear family units, each beholden to the father's personal pound of wildeburger.

This is a startling revelation, which upends many of our presumptions about the origins of marriage and what women want from men and men from women. If the environment of evolutionary adaptation is not defined primarily by male parental investment, the bedrock of so much of evolutionary psychology's theories, then we can throw the door wide open and ask new questions, rather than endlessly repeating ditties and calling the female coy long after she has run her petticoats through the presidential paper shredder.

For example: Nicholas Blurton Jones, of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others have proposed that marriage developed as an extension of men's efforts at mate guarding. If the cost of philandering becomes ludicrously high, the man might be better off trying to claim rights to one woman at a time. Regular sex with a fertile female is at least likely to yield offspring at comparatively little risk to his life, particularly if sexual access to the woman is formalized through a public ceremony -- a wedding. Looked at from this perspective, one must wonder why an ancestral woman bothered to get married, particularly if she and her female relatives did most of the work of keeping the family fed from year to year. Perhaps, Blurton Jones suggests, to limit the degree to which she was harassed. The cost of chronic male harassment may be too high to bear. Better to agree to a ritualized bond with a male, and to benefit from whatever hands-off policy that marriage may bring, than to spend all of her time locked in one sexual dialectic or another.

Thus marriage may have arisen as a multifaceted social pact: between man and woman, between male and male, and between the couple and the tribe. It is a reasonable solution to a series of cultural challenges that arose in concert with the expansion of the human neocortex. But its roots may not be what we think they are, nor may our contemporary mating behaviors stem from the pressures of an ancestral environment as it is commonly portrayed, in which a woman needed a mate to help feed and clothe her young. Instead, our "deep" feelings about marriage may be more pragmatic, more contextual, and, dare I say it, more egalitarian than we give them credit for being.