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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


Castle Breached

A few months back I told the beloved publishers of SHECKYmagazine that I would write another article when I had found another writing job (I couldn't quite sit down to write for free while my children were nearing beggar status), and in the interests of not being made out to be a huge liar and thus an emergent Hollywood a-hole, I'm now doing just that.

I was hired recently as a staff writer on The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn. I'm into my sixth week of the job, and this week we're "dark," which means I have no excuse not to haul my carcass to this computer and tell you all about this new thing in my life.

For those who don't remember (and count yourselves lucky, because I've tried to forget and can't), my first Hollywood writing job was at FOX, for The Best Damned Sports Show Period. I stayed there off and on for about a year, was poorly paid, poorly treated, and yet somehow still managed to be weirdly happy to be "working in Hollywood."

The thing is, it turns out I wasn't really working in Hollywood. I was working in a strange little corral just off of Hollywood, one the unions and guilds allow to exist as long as it calls itself "cable television." In that corral, you can be underpaid, refused benefits, overworked, and spit on by cantankerous stars, and there's nothing to be done about it.

But not so in the wondrous world of -- come on, say it with me as the trumpets blare -- "Network Television!"

Ah, yes. Castle stormed. I'm inside, my friends. I am inside.

* *

I have an office (my own office, as compared to a cubicle in a trailer at FOX) at CBS studios, Television City, at the corner of Fairfax and Beverly. This is the studio most famous for The Price is Right, whose customers line up every day to pour in and see whether Bob Barker will keel over before they get their washer and dryer set.

I roll in every morning at 9 a.m. (about a 40-minute commute), roll out when we start taping at 6 p.m. (home by 6:45, not too bad).

My day has specific rhythms. From 9:00-10:00 all the writers meet in the conference room to drink coffee and eat free bagels and insult each other. A feature producer has laid off possible news stories into bite-sized stories from the overnight CBS news feeds, and we choose three of them that will be the foundation of our "In the News Segment." But mostly, it's about the coffee and bagels and insulting.

The Late, Late Show has four comedy segments: opening monologue (four or five jokes), desk piece (six or eight minutes of some kind of comedy feature, such as "What Up?" or some skit/sketch between the head writer, Mike Gibbons, and Craig), In the News (fifteen jokes), and Kilborn's signature 5 Questions.

So that's 25 jokes, and maybe another 25 in the desk piece, every night. Fifty jokes from eight writers. For which we write, I'd estimate, probably 300-500 jokes between us. I guess. Maybe. I don't really keep count.

Most of the writers write stuff for all four segments. One guy is straight monologue. I'm a write-it-all guy.

From 10-11:30 we write news parody jokes, which are gathered from all the writers by a writer's assistant, and taken to the guy who goes through the pile and chooses the ones he likes for a first draft collection. 11:30-1:00 is lunch-ish, or you can start on a Desk Piece if the topic has been decided. I usually use that time to get organized for monologue jokes and 5 questions. At 1:00 we meet and choose the jokes that will go into the actual news (basically by whatever jokes from the first draft get any sort of laugh, response, endorsement, cough, etc., in the room). 1:30 to 4:30 is filled with monologue, 5 questions, desk piece, and playing basketball outside on the roof of CBS or wandering into another writer's office to ask "What are you doing?"

At 4:30 we have rehearsal with Craig. He runs through the jokes, throws out the ones he dislikes (usually just a few), or rewrites things on the fly. It's a fast process, but he's usually good at knowing what works for him and what doesn't, so it has its own efficiency.

At 5:00 we head to the green room to grab free food and beer (yeah, free food and beer-it's like a really good road gig before the comics screw it up). If there are last minute changes we go back and write them, or throw in some more 5 questions.

Taping starts around 6:15, and sometimes I stay, sometimes I don't. Some of the writers are on-air a lot, so they stay the whole time, but once the script is set, there's not much to do, so it's onto the roads and back to the family awaiting in Glendale.

* *

As I said, I've worked a comedy writing job before this, but in truth there isn't much comparison between network TV writing and cable TV writing. This is what I came out here to do. I really like this job, both because of the work itself and the "perks."

As far as the work, I like the other writers, they're funny, easy going, generally happy in the job, and they make me laugh. There are seven writers on staff, and a head writer, Mike Gibbons. Most of them are in their thirties, from the East Coast (New York and Boston), went to good schools. I'm actually impressed when I read the first draft of jokes. I actively laugh, and even feel some amazement that they found angles I never even considered. It's the way a staff should work -- everyone has a slightly different voice, but it works together to come up with some really great product.

And the show is well-written. Like or don't like Mr. Kilborn (and he's certainly a polarizing force in comedy), but I challenge you to look at the text of the jokes and tell me they aren't sharp; easily as sharp as The Daily Show. I feel good about what comes out at the end of the day on the show.

The show is owned by World Wide Pants, which means I'm employed by one of the great production companies now operating in Hollywood. They own Everybody Loves Raymond, King of Queens, Letterman, etc.

The perks? Nice office, nice place. Good vibe. Free food and snacks. I'm instantly a member of the WGA, so pretty soon I'll have health insurance and get into movies for free. I get paid scale minus ten percent (you can look it up on to find out exactly how much that is, but to me, it's a lot -- about $3,000 a week). I'm on a 13-week renewable contract for three years, with automatic bumps in pay every year I stay. There is bigger money in Hollywood (ie, the sitcoms), but as an entry into the system, this job is nicely paved.

Fine. You get the idea, yes? But that's not what you want to hear. You want to hear how you can get this kind of job, too, don't you? Believe me, I know the feeling.

To wit:

* *

I got this job through a chain of events that went something like this. I moved to the Los Angeles area four years ago, with nothing more than standup contacts and a desire to get off the road and write for a living. I knew I didn't want to act, and I knew I needed to learn a lot about TV writing.

The first two years I worked a day job and hung out in clubs and talked to other comics who wanted to be writers. In other words, I live the ignored life. But that can't be enough to stop you, right? Eventually another comic opened the door a crack to a gig writing jokes for a daily radio service. I did that every day for a year and a half, and got good at it, gathered a ton of samples. I also wrote for free for some well-established Hollywood comics. Two of them knew I was looking for a TV gig and recommended me to another writer who got my radio samples to the head writer at Best Damn, who liked them and brought me in for a two-day trial that turned into a year's work.

Best Damn was not a good place to work, but it didn't matter. It was a credit, and it was experience, which meant I knew what these kind of jobs entailed, and I had a show to point to that proved I at least wasn't a psycho. And while I was at Best Dman I kept looking for another, bigger opportunity. I mapped out every talk show in LA, started asking around about who knew who at what show.

As it turns out, the guy whose job I took at the radio gig had moved on to being a Kilborn writer. I met him a few times, kept in contact, and when a job opened there he suggested I submit. I spent a week doing nothing but practicing Kilborn's voice. I mean nothing but. I stayed up every night, I hid away in a cubicle at Best Damn, I wrote and wrote until I could get his voice in my head. I sent in a sample, my friend gave me some feedback on what worked and what didn't. I rewrote, then he gave it to the head writer, who liked it and called me in for a half hour interview. But that was six months ago, and instead they hired a guy with more credits. I was now unemployed from Best Damn, but kept up with Kilborn. My contact told me when another job opened there, and for a month I submitted a torrent of material as a faxer. They began using my stuff, and then I was hired, via email, six months after my first interview over there.

That was my road. Four years after arriving in LA, I got my first network

job.* *

The lessons that you can take from my fractured experience?

Localize what you want (a writing career in LA). Localize it more (sitcoms, film, talk shows, standup). Localize more (talk shows -- monologue, sketches). Localize more (learn a specific show, really get its structure, rhythm, set bits, and voice down).

Develop specific skills -- writing news parody, writing monologue, writing top lists, writing sketches, writing stories. Develop even more specific skills -- writing for a specific performer or a specific show.

Broaden your skills. I am an irons-in-the-fire guy. I learned a lot of different writing forms so I would have options. I've prepared to write sitcoms, films, talk shows, and straight standup. Talk shows are what came first, but I'm trying to make sure I keep writing other forms so if this show, or I, get cancelled, I have options.

Network. With comics, writers, producers, managers, agents, assistants, publicists, homeless guys. Let people know your skills, credits, wants.

Take lesser opportunities to get to bigger ones. I took a radio writing gig, I wrote for comics for free, because I needed experience writing for people other than myself. It's not nearly as easy as you would think it is. Turning your nose up at tiny gigs means you won't be ready, won't be able to convince people you are ready, when good gigs brew up. And by taking tiny gigs I mean working at them as hard as you would work for the networks. Doing it half-assed because the money is low or non-existent gets you nowhere. Working your ass off to make something good gets you everywhere, even if that thing itself never gets good, because everyone you work with knows you're good, and they recommend you somewhere later on.

Have great samples ready. And even then be ready to create great samples for specific shows fast. You can't get jobs on "potential." You get jobs by showing what you can do so there's not much question that you'll be good when they hire you.

And finally, be somewhat cool to hang out with. I may not be the most entertaining guy in the room at my current job, but at both my jobs I've come along in the wake of various writers who apparently weren't always the easiest guys to work with. A lot can be said about hiring a guy who doesn't disrupt, who isn't high maintenance, and who, when playing the insult game, doesn't actually insult anyone.

So that's it. I'm in the castle, working my way up toward the battlements. And it's good to be in the castle, even if you're not exactly the king.

I'll catch you up again whenever my career world shifts.

As surely it will. HOME Back to the Top