Comedy Writing: The Ridiculous, The Hilarious, The Entertaining… Road To The Top
Joe Strazzullo currently serves as staff writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live! If you follow Joe on Twitter, you’ll see why people like Jimmy Kimmel pay Joe to make their show not just funny, but consistently funny and entertaining in the fierce competitive landscape of late night television.
Joe is obviously doing something right…
But what you watch play out at 11:30pm actually begins very early in the morning for late night TV show writers like Joe.
His day starts when the rest of the country is tuning into Good Morning America. In just a few hours, the writer’s best jabs, sketch ideas, and onslaught of funny missives are in the hands of Jimmy Kimmel.
Somewhere in a forty-page pile (curated from Kimmel’s 14 writers) are Kimmel’s hand-selected picks.
Grammy Winner James Taylor performs “In My Pants” alongside Kimmel
“If I don’t like this, then I’m fucked, because this is exactly what I wanted to do.” –Joe Strazzullo
Comedy writing requires patience, skill, timing, and most of all, talent. In this Q&A, Joe shares how he broke into the writer’s room of late night television.
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Q&A: Joe Strazzullo on Comedy Writing in Late Night
NR: Having worked in this industry for a number of years, are you still as hungry as when you first started out?
JS: I’m still as hungry as I ever was to find the next funny thing. If somebody says, “You have to watch this…it’s so funny,” I need to watch it immediately, so I can be involved and be part of that conversation to see what is innovative and just to enjoy it myself. It’s just a fast-cycle now. There’s something that’s huge and it’s ‘this flash’ and everybody is talking about it, and then it’s onto the next thing. That’s a product of viral and Internet culture, and YouTube has really changed what we do a lot. I was working in late night before YouTube, so it’s changed everything.
NR: You just had your first child…has that changed things or provided more material for comedy writing?
JS: Yeah, I think so. It’s just one of the most relatable things because it’s still just this ridiculous experience that you’re immersed in that you would not put up with in any other scenario or situation. If you met a friend or something and they just kept shitting themselves, “yeah, I’m not going to be friends with you,” or you walk into a room and someone’s throwing shit everywhere…yeah, parenthood is this continually absurd situation. You don’t even really understand how you can tolerate it. You’re cleaning up after somebody all the time, and now that I’m in it, of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are times when he’s a nightmare and times when he’s amazing, but I can’t imagine life not being a parent now.
“You’re like, should I have a second one just for insurance…just in case one turns out bad?” –Joe Strazzullo
NR: And then you must think back to what you were like?
JS: Yeah, I definitely made the call to my parents just making a blanket apology. I’m sorry I did this to you. I didn’t fully understand [laughs].
NR: When did your passion for comedy writing or writing in general begin? We’re you a natural jokester?
JS: It was something that people considered I had a knack for that steers you in that direction. Like, “You’re a great football player,” is the last thing that anyone would ever say to me. As I started to get into my teens, I went crazy for Mel Brooks, and I got a little more into The Marx Brothers, which was just a revelation to me, even though that was stuff from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I sought out classic comedy and new comedy stuff, too. I knew that not only did I enjoy it, but it was something that I wanted to be a part of.
NR: I think people often forget that comedy writing entails a lot of work, skill, timing, etc.?
JS: Sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s a skill, because comedy is one of those things where a lot of people think they can do it and wanna do it. But then you see somebody who wants to do it that can’t do it, and you’re seeing them try, and it really doesn’t connect. So you think, “Okay, there must be some kind of skill to what I’m doing if not everyone can do it?” And there’s so much competition out there now. There are more shows in late night than there’s ever been. You have competition from YouTube, Vine…it’s not enough to just make stuff that’s “good enough.” You have to push yourself.
NR: What college did you attend and did you land any particular internship?
JS: I went to school at USC and was a Film and Television minor, Communications major. I didn’t leave high school knowing that I was going to work in the entertainment industry. I just didn’t have any perception of how possible that was and if that was what I really wanted to do. I took a Communications major because that seemed broad enough to where I could look into doing a few things. I worked for the high school newspaper, so I didn’t know if I wanted to be more on the journalistic side of things. But then re-locating to LA, after a couple years, I started trying to write movie scripts. Everything is there [in LA] at your fingertips to at least get a toenail in the door. My senior year of college was my first experience working in Entertainment. It was a movie production company on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. It was my first taste of it, and it was a very high-pressure work environment. I did that for a semester, and then I thought, “Okay, let’s try something a little different.” So I then moved over to Saturday Night Live, which had a movie production company on the Paramount lot. It was comedy, so I thought maybe I should give comedy a shot. I moved over to SNL Studios for an internship for a semester. Then, I saw that Craig Kilborn was getting his own talk show on CBS, and he was host of The Daily Show – the original Daily Show host.
I thought The Daily Show was really funny, and so toward the tail end of my Paramount internship, I was like, “I need to see about working at this new show.” I got an internship there, which was my last semester of school. It was my first experience in late night. It was this refreshing pace, where working on a movie, it’s just this really long process, and you don’t get to see what you’ve made for years sometimes; whereas in late night, you’re making something for that day. Then, you have another one to do the next day. And that’s where I’m at sixteen years later.
At The Late Late Show, I was a PA for like a year-and-a-half, and then became an assistant. The head writer knew I had an interest in comedy and kinda included me in what they do. It was myself and a couple of other people…we all were tutored by that head writer, and we got to see and try out joke-writing a little bit. And then I made the jump to being a writer when Craig Kilborn left the show. Craig Ferguson took over [The Late Late Show on CBS] in January of 2005, and he wound up letting go, I’d say, 75% of the writing staff. But he took a liking to me and a couple other people that he also kept. I was on that show as a writer during the entire run for ten years. In the entertainment industry, having a steady, creative ten-year job is almost unheard of.
NR: You mentioned how a head writer mentored you. But how often is a head writer willing to dedicate their time and take you under their wing? What did it take to break into the Writer’s Room?
JS: Mike Gibbons is this really generous, incredibly funny person, who recognized that me and a couple of other people were interested in comedy. It started out as a small thing. They were doing a comedy sketch and just needed some stupid little drawings for the background, and it would be a throw-away little nothing, where I took it as, “Wow, this is a huge assignment and a huge opportunity to learn.” We were interested and hungry, and he let us come in early with the writers and watch the footage that they watched to start writing jokes; and I just started seeing what that experience was like.
NR: You’ve also had the amazing opportunity of comedy writing for the legendary Betty White. Can you tell how you became one of her ‘go-to’ writers for Ferguson?
JS: In the earlier days of Craig Ferguson, we pitched a lot of ideas, and they would go after those people. Betty White – this was post Golden Girls, but before her big resurgence – she became this really hot commodity again. I grew up with The Golden Girls, and we had Betty White on the show a few times. She’s like you’re TV grandma. I adored her, and just as a guest, she would be very funny. I said, “I wanna write an idea for Betty White.” I wrote a sketch idea where Betty White would come out as the CBS nurse to give Craig Ferguson a flu shot. She comes out in a nurse’s costume, and it’s three minutes where she’s inept and doesn’t know what she’s doing and asking Craig if he wants the shot in his right or left eye. She’s all hopped up on pills. It was awesome. They pitched it to her, and she agreed to do it, and Craig Ferguson loved her.
She’s been working in the industry for so long, and she’s just not lost that timing. Back then, she was having issues with her eyes, so she had a hard time reading cue cards or a teleprompter. She could memorize a three-page script in a couple hours, and also if you had a change – because you do things in rehearsal and some jokes don’t work and you have to swap out a few lines of dialogue – she could pick it up. That’s something I can’t do. It was never a problem for her to edit on the fly, and she had her own suggestions. Her instincts, her improv skills are great. We did that first one and ended up doing another ten-to-twenty. She was a speechwriter for John McCain; another time she was the Nutcracker, which was one of the last ones we did together. It was a lot of fun.
NR: After Craig Ferguson went off the air, including the rotating round of guest hosts, did you find yourself looking for work in comedy writing?
JS: When you’re a late night writer out of work – to apply for places – you’re submitting packets. You submit packets of material, jokes and sketch ideas. You keep creating those for different shows. It’s a slog, and you don’t know if anybody’s really even reading them. It can be demoralizing. You’re thinking, “My packet is in a stack of 300 packets. How is mine going to get read or stand out?” But I did one for Jimmy Kimmel and got brought in for an interview, and it worked out. I’ve been there for about a year-and-a-half now.
NR: Can you tell me about the pitch process of comedy writing for Kimmel?
JS: It was a big change for me from Craig Ferguson. I’ve never been somebody who wakes up at 6am, and then you have a kid, and then you don’t have a choice.
NR: Do you spend time a lot of time seeking out material?
JS: There’s a group there of very talented people; it’s their job to look for stuff on TV and on the Internet and bring it to the show. You’re ready at your computer at 7am and start working from a list of topics, or you’re welcome to check the news to see if there might be anything else you see interesting. You’re writing jokes and sketch ideas and those can be anything from live bits where a guest comes out and does something or clip-bits, where you take a clip from the news and alter it or make a fake commercial.
NR: That must be a lot of pressure in the morning to turn around material?
JS: Yeah, it is. There are days when you feel like, “Okay, I totally kicked ass today,” and days where, “Man, I totally did not kick ass today.” There are fourteen writers there, so you can have a little bit of a slow day, but there are a bunch of other people, so hopefully all of them didn’t also have a slow day [laughs]. When the clock is ticking and you wanna spend time writing bits, but you also wanna make sure you have enough jokes, you’re always switching back and forth. It’s up to you on how to utilize that time. Then, throughout the day, there are assignments like, “Come up with some ideas for this person or this thing,” but the morning is definitely the most pressure of the day.
NR: You always want to write those water-cooler moments?
JS: That is the goal and it doesn’t happen as often as you’d like. When you get one of those, it’s a big deal.
It doesn’t have to be our first focus, but at the same time, when we are working – it’s always a thought in the back of our head – is this going to be something that goes viral? It doesn’t dictate us from start to finish, but it’s still a lingering question that exists, whether people say it or not. You like to think that it doesn’t matter, but if I write something and it gets produced and put on TV and has six million views [online], it’s exciting to see the thing with six million views. I recently did this bit where Guillermo, who’s the side kick on the show, does that Skyslide downtown [Los Angeles] that’s on the side of the U.S. Bank tower, because he’s scared of heights. I’m like, “Let’s send him out there and make him ride the slide and just scare the shit out of him.” It was a big production, and we went down there and that’s gotten six or seven million views.
NR: After that block in the morning, what is the process once you head into the office?
JS: Everything you’ve written goes to Jimmy; he goes through everything, and we’re talking like forty pages of material a day that he goes through himself and picks out what he likes and what he wants to move forward with. And so you get that list, and if you’ve got something on there that he picked that’s a more substantial piece, you start working on it. You’re assigned a director, producers and a crew; and then you got out and make it. If it’s something on the street – a fake commercial – where you’re taping in-studio, the gears just start moving on whatever it is that you’re doing. The list of all the jokes that he approves goes out too. You see what topics need more jokes and what jokes he’s picked, and so you do another round of jokes on those topics. Then we have rehearsal, and if you have anything to show in rehearsal, at that point you’re with Jimmy and a lot of the crew and staff.
NR: With Jimmy being so involved and very thorough, does that make your job easier, especially if some bit doesn’t go over quite as well as you had hoped for?
JS: Yeah, exactly. I feel like it’s hard to be in a situation where I’m responsible for ten failures in a row, because I feel like Jimmy’s instincts are so good to where he wouldn’t have approved ten things of mine that sucked. Everything is approved by him, and he’s been doing this for a long time, and he knows what works and what doesn’t. He’s very meticulous, a hard worker, I don’t know anybody on staff that works harder than him.
I’m continually impressed by him and the rest of the staff for the amount of effort and work that they’re able to put in day to day. The show starts at 5pm, and some days it’s 4:45pm, and you’re still trying to finish [laughs] and the fact that it’s just down to the wire like that every day…it’s crazy.
NR: Part of the atmosphere must be that Jimmy treats his people really well because he does respect you and what you consistently bring to the table?
JS: Yeah, completely. He’s an incredibly loyal person. He works really hard, he expects other people to work hard, and if you do that, he’s good to you. He’s always working. You’ll send him stuff in the evening for him to check out, and sometimes I’ll get a script that he’s revised, sent back at 11pm or 12am. I do not know when he sleeps! There are times where you have to work outside of banker’s hours, but the end result is just worth it to me. If I don’t like this, then I’m fucked, because this is exactly what I wanted to do, and these were the dreams that I had. There’s nothing else for me. If I don’t like this, I’m really screwed [laughs].
NR: You also wrote for the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards, which Jimmy hosted. How did you land a comedy writing gig for one of the largest TV audiences?
JS: He [Jimmy] had the opportunity to use other more experienced awards people, but he used everybody on staff. I’ve written for other award shows: People’s Choice Awards in 2006; the MTV Awards in 2008; but the Emmy’s are certainly a different level. I’m really honored and excited to have been a part of that.
It’s a situation where we wrote thousands of jokes, where there’s gonna be twenty to forty, maybe not even that, where we’re just churning stuff out. He just picked out the best of the best – after round after round and narrowing it down – of what he wants to use in the monologue.
NR: What advice would you give to those trying to break into comedy writing for television, especially with so much competition in the TV and digital space?
JS: There’s so much opportunity now than there ever was to create and have your work seen in a way that just didn’t exist when I started out. I started out working in the industry in 2000, and YouTube was ’05, and it started before that whole revolution began. There are so many more shows than there ever was, and there’s a lot more opportunity to work on a show, even if it’s not the exact kind of show that you wanna work on. Start somewhere, meet people, make connections, and network. Just create.
I feel like I started out with a very millennial attitude like, “I’m good and I should be getting jobs and people should be discovering me because I’m good.” But what you find out is that there are lot of people who are good, and your competition is a lot of people. You have to be patient; you have to wait your turn; and you have to play the game.