Master Class: How to Develop Bits Like a Late Night Talk Show Writer

Seasoned comedian Andres du Bouchet is part of the Emmy-nominated writing staff on "Conan," where he sometimes appears in his own bits. Here he walks Co.Create through his process for writing jokes and sketches night after night.

In the 1970s, if you wanted to have a laugh before drifting off to sleep, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was the only game in town, more or less. With the advent of cable and DVR, and then Twitter and podcasts, modern audiences have since been inundated with options for their late-night fix of funny. As a result, those who currently work within the talk-show format are forced to find innovative ways to stay fresh and entice viewers back night after night, all while maintaining a consistent voice. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one pulled off with aplomb by comedians like Andres du Bouchet, who is a writer for TBS’s Conan.

Du Bouchet started writing and performing comedy in New York in 1997, specializing in absurdist bits that succeeded on the strength of their own internal logic. His particular brand of alt-comedy eventually earned him a distinction as one of Time Out New York's Best Comedians of 2004. After appearing on shows like Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn around that time, he soon began working in late-night television. By 2009, he’d landed a spot on Conan O’Brien’s writing staff, where his work has helped garner Emmy nominations, and where he has remained ever since. In 2011, he also released his first comedy album, Naked Trampoline Hamlet, which has been well received. In Conan, du Bouchet has found a family of writers, and a redheaded host, who are simpatico with his surreal style.

Below, the comedian breaks down his process for developing bits for the show each day and discusses how the immediacy of Twitter affects modern joke writing.

The Moment of Inspiration

As one of the sketch writers on the show, my creative process isn’t very structured. Whereas the monologue writers are expected to turn in batches of topical jokes at specific times throughout the day, the sketch writers are mostly left to their own devices. We’re expected to come up with comedy bits by surfing the web, tossing ideas around in our morning meetings, and just shooting the shit in and around our offices. We also engage in lots of lengthy "reply all" email threads that often lead to ideas (and often lead to lots of useless, silly inside jokes). To aid in the process, our interns sift through the news and send us lists of topical premises that seem particularly ripe for comedy. Similarly, we have clip researchers who do the same with video links. On any given morning, a few topics will spark ideas for comedy bits, and we’re off to the races to try to produce them in time for that day’s rehearsal.

A good recent example of something I wrote for the show would be the "Mega Millions Fantasies" sketch.

Basically, first thing in the morning, I noticed that the Mega Millions jackpot was up to some ridiculously huge amount. It was around $300 million. I don’t remember where I saw it exactly, but it was probably some article on CNN.com that caught my eye. As I recall, the article focused on the common phenomenon of coworkers pooling their money to buy lottery tickets. I shot off a quick email to the entire writing staff then, suggesting that we do a bit where Conan asks various members of the studio crew what they would do with the money if they won, and each crew member is more and more openly hostile towards Conan ("quitting this shitty job" being the common element). Our head writer approved the idea, and some of the other writers suggested funny additions over email. Essentially, each sketch writer is responsible for producing their own work, so then it became my job to write a script for the piece and inform all the relevant departments about what would be needed come rehearsal time.

Thinking Ahead Is Part of Writing

When I’m trying to execute an idea, I’m picturing it playing out on stage or as a clip that’s going to be shown to a live audience. Before even beginning a script, I send out what’s called a "Heads Up" email, which goes to all of the department heads, producers, and writers; basically, anyone who needs to know what the heck is going on. In the Heads Up, I specified what the Mega Millions bit was (a live bit with multiple actors with dialogue, etc.), who I wanted to cast in it (all writers except for one of our actual stagehands, Paul), and if there were any special scenery, costume, prop, music, sound effect, or graphics needs. For this particular sketch, since it just involved crew members on the actual set, not much was needed beyond a few simple costume and prop elements to make the writers look the part. Often, many more elements will come into play to produce a sketch.

The writing environment varies. It can swing from the joyous cacophony of the writer’s room to the analytical atmosphere of two or three writers collaborating on something in one writer’s office, or the quiet tension when it’s just you alone in your office, trying to bang out a script on a short deadline. More often than not, the atmosphere is fun and highly irreverent, to put it lightly.

It Doesn’t Necessarily Take a Village

The average comedy bit goes through pretty minimal tinkering, if it isn’t cut from the show. At this point, I think the writing staff as a whole is pretty good at crafting comedy that suits Conan’s voice and the show’s voice, so if a sketch is chosen to be in that day’s show, chances are it won’t undergo TOO much revising. Though there are, as always, exceptions to the rule.

After I wrote the Mega Millions script, I sent it to our head writer. He then made any tweaks he felt were necessary, and sent it to our script supervisor to be "published," which is when the script goes back out to the Heads Up list, so everyone can literally be on the same page about what’s going to be rehearsed. Prior to rehearsal, we blocked the sketch out on the studio floor with all the actors, so our director could decide how he wanted to shoot it.

Eventually the bit gets rehearsed. Rehearsal is when Conan sees most of that day’s material for the first time, and when he gets to either reject material outright, or tinker with it so it suits the show better. If he starts talking about what he wants to change about a sketch, that’s actually a good sign, as it means it has a shot of being in that day’s show. Following the rehearsal of this particular bit, Conan wanted the final crew member to be even angrier than he was in the initial script. We made those changes, and if you watch the clip, you’ll see I go pretty ballistic as the last crew member.

Trust Your POV and Disregard the Jokes on Twitter

I feel like Twitter has largely had a positive effect on my comedy writing, as it encourages me to keep my brain working. Even if the stuff I tweet is un-topical and just plain stupid (my tweets are idiotic at best), it at least keeps me in a creative mindset. Also, I feel like Twitter keeps me abreast of the current--and please forgive me using this word--zeitgeist. Honestly, I’m not even sure I used that word correctly, or how it’s pronounced. But I’m pretty sure it’s the word that means the thing that I wanted to convey in that sentence.

I don’t try to anticipate what anyone else is making jokes about, but if I come up with an idea for the show that feels familiar, or that feels too easy, I’ll often Google it to see if it’s been done before. I honestly have no idea what’s "hacky." If something makes me laugh, then it’s fine by me, even if it’s incredibly corny or built around a formulaic structure. I just have to trust that I, myself, am not a hack, and that the POV I bring to my material automatically excludes it from hackiness. But who knows? Maybe with age the hackiness will overcome me, unavoidably.

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1 Comments

  • Antonio Radovcic

    You used »Zeitgeist« correctly. It's pronounced »Tsyte« »guised«, just in case you need it again.