Hello once again to what has become my twice-a-year column
on Sheckymag. Not so long ago I columnized for SM once a month,
but that was before I actually had a job and deadlines and two
kids and so many more believable but still completely lame excuses.
But as the Hollywood Gods would have it (and they have it in
so many odd and predictably despicable ways), I recently changed
jobs again, and since change always seems to send me back to my
roots, I'm returning to Sheckyville to file my semi-annual report
on the state of one standup skulking his way through the catacombs
So let's get to it.
* * *
For those who follow, in February, 2000, I moved to LA from
Austin, TX, with the idea of getting off the standup train
and parking my carcass as a comedy writer. My first comedy
writing job in Hollywood (well, if you don't count the week
I was flown to Branson, Missouri, to write for Yakov Smirnov,
and you shouldn't) began in November, 2002, when I slogged through
a year as a semi-staff writer on The Best Damn Sports Show
Period. Not a great job, but a start.
In late October, 2003, I landed a staff job on The Late, Late
Show with Craig Kilborn. Kilborn was everything that Best Damn
was not-- fun, profitable, interesting, a viable comedy writer job.
So with all of that going for it, one thing was certain-- somebody
had to screw it up. And that somebody was Craig Kilborn
As everyone in the comedy universe knows, in late August, 2004,
Kilborn quit one of the five late night jobs that every comic in
the world wants to do (or at least thinks he/she wants to do).
The first question people ask me about all of the upheaval at LLS
is "Why did he do it?" The first answer I give is that he's
crazy. I could leave it at that, and still be fairly accurate, but the
truth is that almost all talent in Hollywood is crazy. They'll gladly
admit to it, in fact. Kilborn's craziness is no more extreme than any
other, although his brand of aloofness mixed with a deep contempt for
humanity mixed with some truly sparkling ability mixed with a desire to be
a media darling, all sort of imploded at the time of his contract renewal,
and in his mind I think he wanted to see if he could achieve something
more impressive outside than inside his late night bubble. In a bizarre
way I almost admire the blended hubris and narcissism that forces someone
to quit a viable perch on the north slope to see if they can find another
path higher up the mountain. In a less bizarre way, I, and everyone else
on the show, couldn't help but wonder if this was a case of a guy seeing
he wasn't going to be the MVP, and taking his ball and going home. Only
time will tell if Kilborn will be able to tap into some hidden talent and
sizzle in another venue, or fade into the Hollywood night sky.
But enough about blondie. What's more interesting to you, I would
hope, is the effect all of this has on job-ness. When the host quits,
what, pray tell, happens to the nine comedy writers who made their living
putting jokes into that guy's mouth?
In our case, something odd. The host was gone, but the show was
still here. A headless body still strutting along unaware that it should
be dead. Worldwide Pants owns the rights to program the slot after
Letterman, and so it still had a show on the air, but no host. We were
told that people would be brought in over a six-week period to guest host
the show. Some of those people were being considered for the permanent
spot. Some were just here to have fun for a night. Some were here to
torture us for sins we had committed in some past comedy lives.
All told, there were 27 people who guest-hosted LLS after Kilborn quit
(although as I write this there are perhaps as many as 10 more who will be
filling in even more spots as the "search" for the new person
winds up). I wrote sketches, skits, songs, jokes, rants, props, dances and
god knows what else for a range of Hollywood-ites from Jason Alexander to
Tom Arnold to Rosie Perez to people you've probably never even heard of
but who had some connection to Letterman or Rob Burnett or CBS. Every day
was new, every host was different, every show was a teeter-totter between
moments of complete disaster and moments of refreshing late night
But through it all, there was one constant-- everyone on staff pretty
much knew we were toast after a new host was picked. It's just instinct
for most people who want to host a comedy show that they will want to
handpick their writing staff to make sure they have their same voice.
And, as Adam Corolla put it during his final monologue when he hosted, we
all had the "stench of Kilborn" on us. Because of the
guillotine over our heads, during the guest hosting there was a certain
gall over the writer's room at LLS. While it was still a hornet's nest of
jokes, zingers, and call-backs, there was a clear turn toward gallows
humor as each of us came up to our renewal week (on a network show you're
guaranteed 13-weeks of pay-- called a "cycle"-- but can also be
let go instead of being renewed every 13 weeks). It made for an oddly
desperate camaraderie, and it also made me get off my butt and change my
plans for the year 2005. I had intended to coast for a little while, write
daily jokes and work on screenplays, then start looking for a manager in
spring '05, an agent, and then try to transition into sitcoms in '06.
Now, coasting was no longer an option. I had to find an agent, a manager,
and a new job.
As luck would have it, I found the job first. Not long after Kilborn
announced he was bailing, a job came open on a staff where I knew a few
people-- Dennis Miller, on CNBC. I sent in some Miller-sounding samples,
and after about six weeks of twists and turns and contract wrangling (I
had to be allowed out of my contract by Worldwide Pants, and had to find
someone to negotiate my contract with NBC), I was hired at the Miller
show, where I've been happily ensconced for three weeks now. While the
whole world knows that Dennis has undergone a radicalization of politics
that has landed him in the far less funny right wing, I can tell you flat
out he's also one of the dead-on funniest people I've ever met, dazzling
in his ability to roll his own perfectly formed and edited pieces out of
his mouth during rehearsal. It's bizarre, after working with Tom Arnold
and Kilborn, to now be working with a comic's comic, one who can both
judge and create jokes adroitly.
And so here I am, in a new place, surrounded by new writers, new
and a new stream of endless PA's. Thus I say goodbye to the previous
chapter in my saga of Hollywood comedy writer jobs. The Late, Late Show
was a great place to get my feet set in comedy world, and while I'm sad to
see my time there end, it's cool to live in a city where there are always
other shows percolating, and there is at least the possibility of finding
other jobs. So I guess that's all for now, until the ground under my feet
shifts again, and I write to you about my new job writing joke balloons
for Animal Planet.