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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
wga.org 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.
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
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
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.