How Do I Get Your Job?
To bring up to speed those who didn't
read my previous article(s) for SHECKYmagazine,
I am a comic who in the past few years
has transitioned out of standup and into
fulltime comedy writing in Hollywood.
After a year stint on The Best Damn
Sports Show Period, I've now been at
The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn
for approaching six months. Since our
show is once again on a dark week, I thought
I'd take a little time and catch SHECKYmagazine
readers up on the glorious world inside
network television comedy writing.
In brief, I still love the job, the other
guys on staff are pleasant and funny,
and I've found my own groove between how
I naturally write and what Kilborn needs
in order to fill in his show. The longer
I've been in the job the more efficient I
am at it, so it no longer feels like I'm
in a mad scramble to get all the assignments
done, which, as you might guess, is a
From what I can tell at this point,
the job and I seem to get along pretty well.
Will it stay that way? Unfortunately,
there are no reliable long-term weather
reports in the Hollywood climate.
Cancellations storm through, stars quit,
personalities clash-- all making it way too
hard to know the future. C'est la Hollywood.
But none of what I've said so far is why
I'm taking time to write this article.
The truth is that I'm writing because I've
had a lot of comics approach me not so
much to help them get a writing job, but
to help them at least understand how
to get a writing job. They ask for advice
in different ways-- what kind of sample
do I need, how do I get my stuff seen,
etc.-- but it's all the same question:
how do I get hired when I'm not inside
the system, I don' t have an agent, I don't
have direct experience, and I don't know
much about the game?
Since I'm now an "expert" on
getting work in Hollywood, I'm going to try
to tell you what you need to do in order
to get hired on a talk show. There are four
elements, I think.
(1) Understand the layout of
the land in comedy writing.
(2) Understand your own abilities
at comedy writing.
(3) Gather together proof of
(4) Get that proof to someone
who can hire you.
I'll now cover these with far less depth
than they deserve. Maybe some day I'll
write a book in all my spare time between
working, being married, and raising a family.
(1) Understand what you're getting into.
The first step in working in this business
is the one that most people skip entirely:
realize what you're getting into.
There really aren't that many talk show jobs.
There are only five network talk shows:
The Tonight Show, Conan, Letterman, Kilborn,
Kimmel. The Tonight Show has around
15-20 writers, most have been there long
term. Conan 12-15. Letterman 12-15.
Kimmel I think is around 12. And we have 7.
So for networks, you're talking a total
of about 60 jobs.
Dropping down below the networks you'll
find syndicated daytime talk shows and cable.
Daytime would be Ellen. I think \
that's it (Wayne Brady was recently cancelled).
Cable you have The Daily Show,
Real Time with Bill Mahr,
Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, then
Dennis Miller on CNBC, The John Henson Project
on Spike, and Best Damn on FoxsportsNet.
After that you have a host of shows that have
come and gone-- Orlando Jones, Tom Green, etc.
Again, not many options. And daytime
and cable don't pay very well. Damn it.
Below those shows are a range of other
shows that aren't exactly talk shows,
but that need "humor." Game shows,
animal planet shows, sports talk shows,
radio shows, etc. There are lots of places
that use jokes, although again, not for much pay.
So there aren't many jobs. Less than
100 total talk show jobs, maybe another
50 asundry game show jobs.
And there are lots of people trying to
get those jobs. We are a nation of 250 million
or so. Of whom probably about 25 million
think they can be comedy writers. Of whom
maybe about 25,000 actually pursue a comedy
writing career. Of whom probably 15,000 or
so do some standup and even move to LA
or New York.
That's the layout of the comedy talk show
occupation. You have a huge morass of people
trying to get a few comedy writer jobs.
Is there any hope, you ask? From
the scenario I've set so far, you wouldn't
think so. But there is a rub, and here it is:
Most of the people applying for these
very few jobs... suck. Which leads to
the second step in getting hired:
know your own abilities.
(2) Know your comedy writing abilities.
A very important question to ask
yourself in the process of getting a
comedy writer job is: Are you really a writer?
It's a good question, because, you see,
comedy writers write. Every day. Hours on end.
They generate piles and piles of useable,
polished material. Comedy writers are
obsessive about generating new material,
with reworking old material. They have big
comedy muscles that don't get tired from
generating day after day after day, for
hours on end.
And they donít mind giving 95% of
their stuff away (for pay). They don't
mind working with fairly crazy performers
who sometimes make your stuff sing, sometimes
just dismiss it like a diva. A comedy writer
is okay with being the person shoving coal
into the comedy furnace. It's not the type
of job that gets much public recognition,
it's the kind of job that just makes money
in a fairly pleasant working environment.
And if you get good at it, it's the kind
of job that allows you to run a show, hire
performers you like to write for, and make
a lot of money.
But it's not a money-game. It's a work
game. And the work is generating humor
every single day. Much like making
If you really feel like you want to
make comedy doughnuts, then continue to
read on. If not, head back to the standup
stage or try to be an actor.
For those who are convinced that they
are writers at heart, the next step is to
figure out how good you are at writing.
I tend to think in categories, and so I
break comedy writers into three broad
distinctions: those that suck, those that
are competent, and those that are great.
Suckness as a comedy writer comes in
many varieties. Sometimes the comedy mind
at work isn't sharp enough. It spits up
mediocre thoughts, easily guessed punchlines,
boring language use, recycled ideas.
Sometimes the mind is sharp, but it isn't
sharp about what a particular show needs
(ie, writing for the widely accessible,
easily decoded, visually-dominant, mostly
Midwestern Leno is very different than
writing for the snarky, boozy, ironic,
swinger hipster Kilborn). Sometimes
the person is sharp, but just doesn't
want to work very hard, or is burnt out,
and doesn't put their full mind to work
at a particular job. And sometimes
the mind is just too inexperienced-- not
enough standup to make them seasoned,
not enough television writing to let them
know what works.
Competent means you can handle the basic
needs of comedy writing, but there are limits
on what you do and how well you do it.
You have both distinct strengths and distinct
weaknesses. To analyze your own competence
you would ask things like, how unique is
your sense of humor? How consistent, how
reliable? How well does it fit for a
particular show? How hard do you really work?
Are you crazy and/or high maintenance?
Do you have a downside that might
explode-- too much pot, alcohol, bad
relationships, distractions, etc.? And are
you a good guy-- i.e., would you help others
if you were in a position to do so?
Most Hollywood comedy writers that I
know are competent, even drifting toward
highly competent. They write solid jokes,
they come up with a slew of ideas, they
have decent work habits. You can hire
them and they get the job done well enough.
And then there are those writers who
are just amazing. Their minds are fresh
and unique. They have something funny to
say on nearly everything. They have a
way with language, a different take on
politics, a feel for people, a keen
sense of what's funny and not. If they
match all of that up with a good work
ethic (and sadly, most do not), they're
gold. A relentless, talented comedy writer
who isn't high maintenance is a golden ticket.
Once inside the system they will always
work because they're valuable. Very
valuable. The top very small layer of
comedy writers in Hollywood will blow you
away with the amount, quality, consistency,
and breadth of their output. Give them
an assignment, they come back quickly
with funny, surprising, unique, and
powerful stuff. Time and time again.
You know you can rely on them to give
you what you need, give it to you fast,
and give it to you week after week after week.
Think about how valuable it would be
to you as a standup if you had a writer
who every day could churn out a new two
or three minutes, perfectly in your voice
and without any need to edit even a single
word, that absolutely killed on stage. Not
that got a chuckle, but blew the room open.
You could use it on TV, to get corporate work,
to up your money in the A rooms, etc.
You would want that person to be around,
available. Hey, you might even pay them.
That's the type of writer you want to
be if you really want to get work in
Hollywood. Someone who is so good and
reliable that whoever pays you is convinced
that they're going to get quality material
for their money.
So there it is. Many comedy writers
trying to get work in Hollywood suck,
another big layer are competent but not
spectacular, and a handful are amazing.
When it comes to getting jobs in
Hollywood, if you are in the top ten
percent of talent and work ethic, or even
in the top twenty five percent of competent
writers, you have a massive advantage on
the field. Sort of like you're a horse
without a jockey racing a thousand other
horses carrying John Goodman and Rosie O'Donnell
So ask yourself: do you suck?
Are you competent? Or are you a top ten
Unfortunately, most people cannot
answer those questions themselves. Either
the answer is too painful, or they don't
want to admit the truth. Or they're crazy.
Or they don't get enough professional,
trustworthy feedback to ever really
know where they stand.
One thing I try to do for people who
want my help is to get them to see where
they are on the talent continuum.
If you suck, I will tell you nicely
that you need to keep working to make your
If you are competent I will try to figure
out your strengths and weaknesses so you
can see where you need to get better, what
strengths you might be able to peddle right away.
If you are an amazing writer/generator
of humor, and without huge downsides, I
will immediately tell you so and then do
whatever I can to help you get work, because
you're going to be in this business and I
want to stay in contact with you, work
with you, because I am going to be in this
business, too. And I want to work with amazing
people. It's a lot more fun that way.
But then comes the question. How do I,
or anyone, truly know if you're good or not?
Easy. I get to see proof.
(3) Proving that you're a good
What someone really wants when they hire
a writer is to have proof that the person
will be good or great at the job that needs
to be filled. Proof comes in four possible forms:
samples, credits, recommendations, and
I constantly get asked about what goes
into a writing packet. The useless but
most truthful answer is that it doesnít
matter as long as it's great. It can be
sketches, top lists, jokes, columns, standup,
etc. It doesn't matter so much what it is,
just that it shows that you are drop dead,
unquestionably, and forever funny.
The more useful answer is you need a
generic package that shows you're funny,
and serves as a basic foundation from
which you can adapt other writing packets
that fit the exact show you want to apply for.
You get hired because the person who
is hiring is immediately and unequivocally
convinced that you will be able to give him
or her great material that is dead on
and doesnít need to be rewritten. You
need to show the person you can nail
the voice, the tone, the content of his
or her show. So whenever you apply for
a job you need to adapt your material
to that job.
To do this you might try any of
the following options:
* Topical monologue jokes. Two pages
is plenty, usually collected over a span
of time, but you might also include a
page of recent jokes from the past
few months to show you are still actively
writing. Don't just leave these in
your voice. Adapt them to each host
and show-- i.e., if you write Leno-type
stuff for Kimmel or vice versa, forget it.
* Top Lists. Four or five with nothing
but killer lines, and not derivative
* Desk pieces. Every show has the host
at the desk doing bits-- fake ads, doctored
photos, fake magazines, etc. Kilborn has
set things we do-- Sebastian the Asexual Icon,
What Up?, or To Blank With Love.
* Sketches. Usually things that can
be done in-house, on small budget, on
the actual set of the show.
* Rants/mini-monologues. Aka Dennis Miller.
Or a host of others who do these.
* Bits specific to each show. Every
show has particular things they do that
you can use to show you get the tone of
the show. Kilborn and The Daily Show both
do news parody, but they have different styles.
Kilborn also does product sponsors
(the news is brought to you by), This Just In's
(someone hands Craig a page with a random
piece of information on it), and Camera Turns
(and now Craig shows you a tiny piece of acting).
Put together a nice, tight packet of jokes,
a couple of desk pieces, a couple or rants,
and anything from that particular show you
want to take a crack at. It should be short
and to the point, no frills, and nothing cute.
Make it business-like and easy to read.
It doesn't need to be long.
What it does need to be is great.
Great samples will get noticed. They will
get you interviews. But only if they stand
out from the others that the person sees.
Your sample packet has to be better than
what the head writer receives from
professional writers with years of experience.
How do you make that happen? You work
really, really hard to become a good writer.
You work really, really hard on the packet
itself. And, of course it's Hollywood,
so you cheat, too.
The honest part of putting together
your writing sample is that you have to
work on it not over the course of a
weekend when someone asks to see your
stuff, but every single week over
the course of a couple of years. You
want every joke to burst off the page.
Those types of jokes don't come out in a week.
They pop into your head once a month,
if you're lucky.
By far the most common mistake I see
beginning writers make is to not have
great samples ready when asked. Instead,
comics try to throw together stuff in a
single night, and it comes out a mixed
bag of weak jokes and strong jokes.
It comes out not good enough to impress.
But even putting in hard work over
a long period of time often isn't enough
to make your samples sing. You have to cheat.
By which I mean that nearly every single
sitcom spec script or writing packet
that gets someone hired in Hollywood has
been worked over by a writer's group,
best friends, spouses, teachers, and other
professional writers. It's an odd secret,
but just like most standup sets are full
of lines other comics added into your show
over the years, so are writing packets.
To make one great you usually need help.
My writing packet is a result of four
years of daily joke writing, all of which
I've reworked and rewritten on my own
hundreds of times, and which I've also
shown to friends and professional writers
who have given me suggestions and led
me away from bad choices. I've been
writing fifty jokes a day for Kilborn
for six months now. The sample I now
have is much, much better than the sample
that got me hired at this job, which I
put together over the course of three
years of writing radio jokes, and six
months of watch Kilborn every night,
and two sets of feedback from a writer
who was already on staff at Kilborn.
So let's say you manage to put together
a killer writing packet. Unfortunately,
even that's not enough to totally prove
that you're great, and reliable, and hirable.
You need other types of proof as well.
Credits are a list of what you've
already done, places you've already worked,
awards you've already won. Credits
are wonderful things in Hollywood. They
open doors and get your stuff seen,
get you interviews. I lost out on a
job at Kilborn the first time I applied
there because they hired someone who
had an Emmy, and had worked on Chris Rock,
Conan, and a couple of sitcoms. He was
also a funny writer, so he deserved
the job, but what put him clearly ahead
of me were his very substantial credits.
I couldn't compete with those.
How do you generate credits before you
get jobs? Really, you don't. You have to
rely on the other forms of proof, and hope
you don't go up against guys with huge credits.
And you shouldn't try to massage what you've
done to make it look like you've got credits
when you really don't. Say you're a standup.
Say you've taken writing classes. But
don't reach for things just to make it
seem like you've done things you havenít.
For television, the only credits that matter
are television credits. Anything else
that isn't TV or film just sounds amateurish.
Don't manufacture credits like
"I write my own column," or
mention your "Evening at the Improv"
from 1989. It's better to look inexperienced
than to look desperate.
* References and recommendations.
Having other established writers
recommend you and praise you will also
get you some play for jobs. I sometimes
recommend guys I like. I don't have a
lot of pull, but I have enough to get
someone's packet to a few different head
writers. But I only recommend those I know
are stable, competent, or great. Because
if I recommend someone who can't do the job
really well, I look bad, and I go down
in someone's estimation. If I recommend
someone good, I go up in their estimation,
and then I have some favors owed to me,
more friends who are working, and I get
to think of myself as a wonderful guy.
How nice for everyone.
Recommendations are useful, and powerful,
but they won't be enough. The person will
still want to see your samples and meet you
in order to judge for themselves if you're funny.
* Live demonstrations of your ability.
Actually showing that you're funny
in live settings can also get you jobs.
Which means you can be funny in conversation,
in standup, or in a job "tryout."
Being funny in conversation is tricky. One
of the hardest things to watch down at
the Hollywood Improv is guys trying to be
"funny" in normal conversation.
I know why they're doing it, because they
are desperate for work and want to show anyone
within ear shot that they have the goods.
Unfortunately, it never works. Comics don't
let you be the funny one the way the regular
world lets you be the funny one. You're better
off just being pleasant and having something
interesting to add instead of something
quasi-funny to add.
A better way to show you're funny is by
having a killer standup set you can do around
LA or New York. If other comics think you're
funny, they'll help you (sometimes).
And there are producers, and assistants,
and agents in the audience sometimes, and
they might be impressed enough to also
offer to help or to work with you.
It does happen.
Or you might be able to get a
limited-time tryout for a show. I
got hired at Best Damn after submitting
a sample that got me a two-day tryout.
It's a suck way to get hired, because
you are pressured to jump in and be
good with very little help or preparation,
but if that's the only chance you've
got, you've got to do it well. My
first two days at Best Damn I pitched
and wrote like a demon. I wanted them
to think "This guy puts out a lot
of stuff, and it's good." I managed
to tread water fast enough that I got
stuff on the show, and I was hired.
So at this point you know what Hollywood
is, you know your own abilities, and you've
got your "proof" ready. Now
all you need to do is get it seen.
And that's the tough part.
(4) Getting submitted for jobs.
Itís tough looking for work in Hollywood.
Believe me, I know it's tough. It's
maddening, trying to figure out where
the jobs are, how to get to the person who
is doing the hiring. It's very frustrating
to find that you can't even figure out
who is hiring, where they are, what
they want, or how to ask them anything.
They don't return phone calls or emails or letters.
Why is that? Because producers and head
writers in Hollywood don't want to be drowned
in a huge avalanche of writers and wanna be
writers looking for work. If a producer
were easily available and highly publicized,
they would receive hundreds, thousands,
tens of thousands, of applications.
Every job that opens up in TV writing
is besieged with writers who come in
through a variety of channels. The business
channels send writers -- agents
and managers submit guys (and believe me,
there are hundreds of agents and managers
of all levels and credibilities in this
town scurrying to get work, to submit
their clients, even if that client isn't
really what the producer wants to see).
Personal channels send writers -- people
already on staff recommend people, actors
recommend people, your old college
recommends people, the show's crew
recommends people, friends and family
recommend people. The show itself sends
people-- every writer's assistant and most
of the production assistants and personal
assistants are trying to get hired on
as actual writers. And then there are
the "weird" channels-- every show,
every head writer, every writer's assistant,
is constantly deluged with unsolicited
writing samples sent out of the blue by
someone no one has ever heard of. Our show
gets 5-10 of these a week. They just float
in out of the ether.
So that's the bad news: almost every
channel into every job is clogged. Badly clogged.
How do you cut through the clog?
There's the multi-million dollar question.
My advice for guys who are just getting
started is to try to get some kind of personal
"in" to a show you like. Find
someone who will do you a favor and help you
get your writing sample to someone already
on a show. Pick the shows you would like
to write for, go through your jokes and adapt
what you have so you have a killer sample
crafted for each particular show, and then
try to find someone on staff you can get to
read it, usually through a mutual standup
acquaintance. It can be anyone on staff,
or even an assistant. If itís good they might
be willing to hand it over to the head writer,
and if theyíre looking for someone, you might
get an interview. There's no better way to
get a job in Hollywood than to know someone
already on staff who takes your stuff to
the head writer and gives you a decent
Other than that, itís more of a long
shot, but you can buy the Hollywood Creative
Directory on-line, get emails and addresses
of various shows and production companies,
and then blind submit your packet to
the writerís assistant, the head writer,
and the exec producer at each show (three
separate packets). That way maybe one of
them will read it and see that you have
your stuff together. After a week, send
each of them a letter seeing if they got it,
then follow up with a letter a week after that.
Unsolicited phone calls make you seem creepy.
Just be business-like in the letter, donít
try to be funny, just try to sound normal
and easy to get along with.
I know it sounds like a lot of work,
and it's a long shot, but hereís the deal:
most writerís assistants are trying to
get hired themselves, so they dump packets.
Some head writers look at stuff, but
they usually have a ton of stuff coming
in so they might just pitch it. Exec
producers donít normally get sent packets,
but some of them like to "discover"
the writers, so you never know. Doing
blind submitting, if your stuff is good
and you seem professional, can sometimes work.
But remember, they already think you're
a loser because your stuff isn't coming
through an agent or manager they know,
so it may also be worth your while to submit
the same "amazing writing packet"
to agents or managers (although dealing
with those people is a whole other can of
worms that I don't have time to get into right now).
Other than that, some shows allow
freelance submissions from "faxers"
(emailers, actually). You can call and try
to talk to a writer's assistant about getting
on the fax team. If you make that inroad
and get to send stuff, and your stuff is
consistently on target and funny, you'll
again stand out. Half the staff at Kilborn
was hired off the fax list. Because, again,
you've proved you're consistently funny, so
it's almost like a job audition. Unfortunately
it doesnít pay much, so it's like writing
every day for free, but that again is the reality
for people just trying to get started.
Those three techniques-- some kind of a
personal "in," doing blind submissions,
and getting on fax teams-- seem to be the key for guys
who donít really have any credits or an agent.
And that's it. I know this is long, and ramble-ish,
but I wanted to have something comics can read that
tells them how to do this stuff. That way I can
say "Go to SHECKYmagazine" instead of
trying to say all of this in conversation while
I'm trying to concentrate on my drinking.
In the end, I don't mind trying to help, I really
don't. It's part of the process out here, and it's
part of who I am as a good Midwesterner/Southerner
with a Catholicized conscience. Depending on your
strength-to-weakness ratio, and depending on how
soft-hearted I am at the time, and depending on how
many other guys I'm already trying to help, I might
actually help you with getting a job, or with building
your strengths and losing some of your weakness. But as
you could probably guess, doing much of any of that is
time consuming and effort-filled, and with a family and
a job I don't have much extra time or energy these days.
So best to come to me if you're already very competent
with very little weakness. Or even better, you're competent
and I like you. Or maybe even better better, you're competent,
I like you, and I think you can help me get work down the
road because you seem really motivated, talented, and
together. Sorry, I don't mean to be less than authentic,
but a truth of Hollywood is that you can get by without
friends, but you can't get by without people willing to
hire you. Having something to trade for something you
want is always a good idea in this town.
Hopefully after reading all this you understand better
what you need to bring to the table if you want to write
comedy in Los Angeles. It's a sharky world in Hollywood,
but it's not an impossible one. You just have to have
your game together so you end up being a little sharky
yourself, and not floating around like chum.