Ever since Will Rogers stood on a stage with an open newspaper, comedy has evolved and adapted to technological change. In the golden era of network television, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was the sole source for satirical reactions to breaking news, and this format has changed only slightly with the advent of Letterman, Conan, Leno, Fallon, and Kimmel. And despite outward appearances, the topical monologue is still the backbone of Seth Meyers’ Weekend Update on SNL, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Yet, with Twitter offering yet another way to laugh at the news, could the sheer speed of tweets threaten late-night primacy much in the same way the 24-hour cable news cycle forever altered our relationship with nightly network news? Does Twitter enhance the late-night comedy writer’s job or eliminate it? Do they save the best stuff for their bosses and for audiences after 11 p.m. or do they riff away in a stream of comic consciousness during the daylight hours?
Leading comedy writers and producers gave us their take.
With so much depending on topicality, do these writers ever have to cut or rethink a topical joke after getting totally scooped by Twitter?
"All. The. Time," says Alex Baze [@BazeCraze], head writer of SNL's "Weekend Update" segments. "We were doing a run that scolded global warming deniers that used the line 'If you’re still denying global warming, you’re the mayor from Jaws.' I was pretty happy about that joke, written by Pete Schultz, and then about an hour before show time, Gary Janetti tweeted that exact joke, pretty much word for word. We ended up having to cut the whole run for other reasons, but yeah, sometimes you write a joke you really like and then you nervously scan Twitter all day, hoping you don’t see it."
"Typically," says Molly McNearney [@MollyMcNearney], head writer for ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, "if a tweet similar to a joke we’ve written for the monologue starts to get traction before tape time, we’ll pull it."
Rob Kutner [@ApocalypseHow] a writer for Conan on TBS, agrees that sometimes you just have to cut the joke, but cautions, "If we tried to do that for everything, our monologue would be Conan staring off into space, a tear silently sliding down his face like that Native American."
Merrill Markoe, one of the pioneers behind the original Late Night with David Letterman program on NBC, says that she and her writers would have definitely made use of Twitter if they’d had it in the 1980s.
"There was no constant stream of stuff available that we knew of that we didn’t use," Markoe recalls. "When your job is filling up five nights a week over and over again with funny things, you need a lot of straight resource material to play off. We were subscribing to all these small-town papers and weird trade magazines. And on the positive side, we took cameras out in to the world a lot."
According to Kimmel Live’s McNearney, Twitter is currently the best way to track the pulse of the popular culture that her show parodies on a nightly basis.
"You can spend a few minutes on Twitter and know instantly what everyone is talking about," says McNearney. "It’s the modern-day water cooler without the awkward small talk. We aim to cover the popular topics in our monologue each night and Twitter is a great indicator of relevancy."
Comedian Jen Kirkman [@JenKirkman], one of the writer performers on Chelsea Lately on E!, also uses Twitter for cultural research and trend awareness and notes that Twitter’s reaction to stories is sometimes a story itself.
"Not only did Chris Brown and Rihanna get back together," says Kirkman, "but he quit Twitter because he said something over the line and was probably advised by his publicist to stop. I keep my phone on me during writer’s meetings… and I have that reference at my fingertips in case Amanda Bynes decides to get caught drunk driving while we’re in a meeting."
Kirkman points out, however, that even if a joke is played out online, the TV audience isn’t necessarily overexposed to it.
"It’s Internet vs. TV," says Kirkman, "it’s still funny to people when they hear Chelsea or Conan say it, 12 hours later. We’re more concerned with doing a story a day later and finding out that Conan or Letterman made the same joke the night before. That’s when it gets killed."
"Jokes that rely on a performance element or a long wordy setup are lost in translation when tweeted," notes Gavin Purcell [@GavinPurcell], one of the producers at NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. "Inversely, a lot of the funniest stuff on Twitter wouldn’t really work in the monologue."
Miles Kahn [@MilesKahn], one of the producers at The Daily Show says that while the show has an official Twitter feed [@TheDailyShow], he and his fellow writers, producers, and production assistants have their own individual accounts.
"There are no official guidelines for our personal feeds, but we’re all expected to use our common sense. I’ll tease and promote individual pieces that are coming up on the show, but I don’t talk about the “inner-workings” of the office. That’d be pretty boring."
SNL's Baze says his personal Twitter feed has an entirely different "voice" than the one he adopts to write for Seth Meyers, and notes that while a good Update joke has a clear setup and a punchline, more often than not, that mimics Meyers’ anchoring style, a good tweet can be an observation without a joke. A joke fragment.
"In the end though," says Baze "I think what makes a good tweet is the same thing that makes a good joke, which is getting at a fundamental truth of some kind in a clever or interesting way."
Kutner adds that, unlike monologues, the ideal personal tweets are typically one-liners, and there’s less riding on them.
"In terms of content," says Kutner, "I feel way more liberty to get political, obscure, or purely attitudinal with a tweet. You kind of never know who will respond to what, so anything’s game. And more to the point, there’s no chance of a silent audience on Twitter if it goes flat, so you can take more risks. Some of us tweet monologue jokes that were submitted to Conan but somehow their sheer unbridled genius was overlooked! For me, it’s a psychological safety net, a way to say, 'Yes, what know you of comedy, Conan O’Brien—four random people and two corporate bots just ‘Faved’ me!'"
Fallon producer Purcell finds Twitter remarkably useful, from a television perspective, for real-time interactive fan outreach.
"Twitter was the first social network that was entirely in public, all the time," says Purcell. "Suddenly, you immediately have access to all this data from everybody who was talking about your show, in the real world. But with great power comes great responsibility. You now have access to 7 million people, what are you going to do with that?"
Late Night actually does a lot. Besides being one of the first late-night talkers to delve headfirst into Twitter, Fallon initiates fan sourced hashtag games once every week, and according to Purcell, their hashtags regularly trend worldwide. And Fallon recently employed the medium as part of a promotion with Ford Motor Co., inviting his fans to #SteerTheScript of an upcoming Lincoln commercial. Additionally, the show’s head writer A.D. Miles [@80Miles] says he works daily with Fallon and Purcell to select jokes from their monologue to tweet with the hashtag #FallonMono.
It’s also worth noting that the personal tweets of female comedy writers who work for male hosts, such Kimmel’s McNearney, Conan's Laurie Kilmartin [@AnyLaurie16] or Fallon's Jen Statsky [@JenStatsky] tend to naturally have a more female "voice" and a more personal or observational tone, than the stuff they get paid to write for their bosses.
"I’m typically not tweeting about the topics we cover in the monologue," says McNearney. "If I have a good Obama or Honey Boo Boo joke, that one goes to the show. If I have one about the annoying girl who wears makeup in yoga, that one’s all mine. Unfortunately."
Finally, Merrill Markoe wants today’s talk-show writers to realize just how lucky they are to be working in the computer age.
"When I worked [at Letterman]," Markoe recalls, "Most of us still used electric typewriters. But damn, computers would have made everything a lot easier and more fun… almost too easy. Then again, I’ve never known a writer who didn’t like the idea of too easy."