Have you always dreamed of writing comedy material for late-night shows, but didn’t know how to go about submitting anything? The process of amateur writers sending jokes and other material to late-night hosts goes back decades to the era of Johnny Carson. In those days, sending jokes was all done by snail mail and the prospect of possibly getting paid. Unfortunately, many of those who sent jokes in didn’t get paid, which set up a bit of a precedent that’s continued to this day. It’s also a process the Writers Guild of America has had issue with, yet had trouble fixing.
The latest concern came last fall and from the top late night host today: Jimmy Fallon. When it was announced Fallon would take over “The Tonight Show”, they put out ads asking for comedy bits from amateur writers who could possibly be hired on the show later. These calls for comedy material enticed millions with the thought they’d be able to see their material on national TV without credit. What perked up the ears of the WGA was in Fallon’s staff asking for the comedy material without pay.
This led to an investigation since late-night shows have to pay writers under WGA rules. And yet the world of late-night TV has been doing this same practice for decades with the WGA consistently turning the other cheek until now.
It’s unknown whether “The Tonight Show” is now paying freelance writers, though you have to suspect not if they’d been able to get away with it for so many decades. Even if they are for an initial joke, WGA’s main concern was the use of evergreen material after a writer gets refused to work directly on the show.
Will writers still fall for this tactic in the future? And what’s the real solution for late-night hosts in not having to mine for comedy from the public?
The Lure of Hearing Your Material, and the Ferguson Factor
A writer who makes their profession a serious business is going to fight off submitting anything for free. This disrespect of writers is one that’s been around much too long and one you sometimes see online. Plus, it’s equally painful when the Writers Guild of America says something is against their rules while still allowed to fester.
Regardless, the late-night shows know the psychology of the amateur writer. They know people find satisfaction in seeing their material on national TV and being able to tell their friends and family about it. In that regard, many of the submissions “The Tonight Show” gets are perhaps from those who only submit once and don’t plan on making it a career. For those sitting on their computer toiling away on a stack of comedy material are asking for major disappointment.
Being hired as a permanent writer is the same equivalent to winning the lottery, and it’s something every amateur writer doesn’t always process. The prospect of being hired is likely going to keep this writing practice going through the new generation of late-night hosts.
Some hosts might be able to lessen their dependence on freelance writers if they follow the lead of one late-night host: Craig Ferguson. If you watch “The Late Late Show” after David Letterman, you now that Ferguson seems to be a master of making things up as the show goes along. While writers likely create an outline for the monologue, you don’t see any cue cards for jokes on his show as you do with Fallon and the others.
Should hosts like Fallon depend more on extemporaneous comedy rather than written material? We all know Jimmy Fallon is capable of creating on the spot, even if a basic outline can keep it from falling flat on the floor.
The only hope is that even if amateur writers create an outline, they’ll at least get an industry pay rate. It should be for the time they took that perhaps could have been used for something more productive.