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
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
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
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.