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DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

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Dan French

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development

"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming

"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set

"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.

Why move to L.A.?

"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?

What should a manager do?

"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?

"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars

"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living

"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says

"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience

Casting Season in L.A.

"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period

"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!

"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.

"How Edgy"
Column #2

"How Hip"
Column #3

"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?

"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"

"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column

"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise

"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development

"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!

"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money

"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned


Stoking The Joke Machine

This is the second in a series of articles on the beginning, scratching, just-getting-into-the- fringes-of-the-game echelons of doing comedy writing for a living in LA. Maybe someday I'll write about writing in the big leagues; right now, you get to hear what I know, and I know the beginnings.

Last month I wrote about my experiences writing standup for other comics, and I concluded that, well, it's often a pain in the ass. Little money, lots of creative misstepping, and mostly a tradeoff on future favors that may or may not (okay, probably not) ever pan out. Not really where any of us want to get.

This month I'm going to talk about my other gig of the moment, which is a little more stable, just a tiny bit more lucrative, and almost sounds like the nibblings of a real writing job. That is the job of writing daily humor.

* * * * * *

Every night I sit down at my computer, pull up CNN or YahooNews or the AP wire, and turn whatever I find there into jokes. I do this not because I like to alchemize the serious b.s. of the world into my own less serious b.s. (which I admit is kind of fun), but because I make money for it.

I am paid by a daily radio prep service to write topical jokes for radio dj's. For those who don't know (and why would you want to, really), a radio prep service supplies all the raw material and even some finished product for radio dj's around the country. Since those wacky morning teams don't have budgets that can sustain writers, and since they're really not very funny on their own, they pay a measly fee each month for a mass-mailed morning sheet that they can adapt to their own purposes.

There are probably thirty or so of these prep services in the country, most of them consisting of one unfunny guy trying to write the whole thing, and doing a horrible, horrible job of it. There are also some that are bigger than the one I write for, and some that actually supply fully-produced radio bits that can be run, as is, on the air.

The sheet I write for is kind of impressive, in its own niche little way. The guy who runs it used to be a producer for Rick Dees, and every day his staff puts together about 30 pages of Entertainment News, Politics, World Happenings, Stupid News, Celebrity News, Music News, This Day in History, Deaths, etc. It doesn't break new ground, but it's usually funny enough, and it even has that slight hint of cynicism that might make it palatable to standup comics.

The section I submit to is called "Jokes." Whereas the editors might rant on for a paragraph or more about some celebrity, I write dagger-like one-liners. Joke jokes. The kind you would hear during a Letterman, Kilborne, Conan monologue. I would include Leno, but I can't write that pap, so...

I had thought about writing for radio off and on for awhile. I knew Dan Whitney before he became Larry the Cable Empire, and that seemed like a good gig. I watched Rick Kerns pull himself out of the trenches of his life and do well in Denver radio. And since talk radio eats up constant material-- every day the big maw of air-time requires its funny food-- there has to be some room for guys who can feed the monster.

I've been doing this now for about six months, and I've learned that what looks like an easy gig for a standup is actually its own thing with its own requirements and its own demands. Writing topical jokes isn't like writing standup. I have to do it on a deadline. I have to write it whether there is good stuff happening in the world that day or not. I have to write it whether I feel like it or not. My stuff gets picked through and judged by others who get to decide what's funny and what isn't, so I have to adjust to their tastes, not just my own. In other words, this is not free spirit standup type work; this is work work. It's just that instead of tightening screws, I'm writing jokes.

In my experience I'd say about two-thirds of what I write is "funny." The other third I throw in "just in case" they might buy it, even though I can't think of a decent punchline to save my life. About a tenth of what I write is funny enough to actually be standup quality, so I cull it out and actually use it on stages around town. It has a short half-life because it's topical, but most of it works. My favorite line right now is: "Stephen Hawkins turned sixty this week. Either that or he said he was sexy."

The big problem with radio work is the money. Here's my deal: $7 per joke.

Sounds like a rip off. And if you compare it to selling standup-ready jokes, it is. But these aren't standup-ready jokes. They're daily monologue. It takes me about an hour a night to write twenty of them. I sell enough of them that I make anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 a month. I figure twenty hours a month, I'm getting $50 to $100 an hour. It's not TV money, and it isn't exactly artistically satisfying every single night, but it's a start.

So if you're wondering how you can get this kind of gig, let me tell you how I got this gig. Same way everything is gotten out here. First, I lived in LA, and everyone I know knows I am looking for writing work. I tell them every single time I see them. A comic who knew me called me and told me about this job, and I hopped on it like Woody Allen on an Asian refugee. Make that a comic I had done a few favors for, someone I had gone out of my way to help with some of her own writing projects, someone who I had developed a relationship with-- called me and told me about the gig. She told a few others, too, but they must have thought $7 a joke was too small. For me, a gig is a gig, as long as it doesn't take away too much from other things I'm doing. If it isn't free, and it's based in LA, it's worth doing. You get things out here by doing things, pure and simple. Sitting around and waiting for a great, or even a good, opportunity is a wonderful way to insure that you'll be sitting around.

From what I can tell about 98 per cent of jobs in LA are gotten through personal connections, either yours or your manager/agent's. You have to have the skills to do the job when someone calls you, but they only call you if they know you already, or if people they know know you already. Because I was recommended by someone they knew, someone who already was working for them, the prep sheet hired me instantaneously when I emailed the producer. He looked at ten jokes I wrote that morning as a sample, bought six of them before responding, and told me by email to start sending jokes by 2:00 am every day. That's the way to get work. No butt-kissing, no hassle, no competition.

And maybe I'm not making huge money, but the best result of all of this is that I now know about the job of writing daily jokes. I've got a portfolio of strong jokes I can show to people who want to see what I can do. I've got a little track record that shows I can do the work, and someone has paid me to do the work. If I want to move up to talk show staff writing, I'm better positioned to do so. We all know guys who write for Leno or Dennis Miller or Letterman, and those jobs pay a lot better than standup. I know Dennis Miller staffers get over $100,000 a year, which is good money for a gig that only goes about six months.

What I've really learned from all of this is that I actually like doing this kind of work. I like getting paid every day for writing what comes to my mind. It feels different than getting paid to do standup, but it feels good. I remember when I first got paid to do standup that it suddenly wasn't nearly as much fun to do it unless I got paid. Same thing here. Now that I get paid for the random stuff that comes out of my head, I want to get paid for all my joke creating. I don't think it works that way, but that's what I want.

That's it for this writing gig. Next month I'll write about what standups need so they can get into writing films. And then I'll finish the series by dealing with the grail: sitcoms. HOME Back to the Top