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Behind The Collaborative, Competitive Process Of Being A Head Writer For "Saturday Night Live"

Co-head writer Bryan Tucker, who has had a hand in writing everything from the "Sump'n Claus" sketch to the Serial parody, talks about the reality of writing for comedy's biggest gig.

Bryan Tucker and Kenan Thompson

[Photo: Dana Edelson, courtesy of NBC]

Like pretty much everyone who has ever aspired to a career in comedy, Bryan Tucker long dreamed of being a part of Saturday Night Live. So to be one of SNL's co-head writers—alongside Colin Jost and Rob Klein—as the iconic show celebrates its 40th anniversary on February 15 is a mind-blowing experience. In a move befitting such a landmark show, the producers are celebrating with a three-hour special bringing everyone from Eddie Murphy to Bill Murray back to 30 Rock. "I’ve gotten to meet a lot of my comedy heroes, but this will be one night where most of them are all in one room, which will be really cool," Tucker muses days before the big event, noting he'll be able to truly take in just how monumental the occasion is once the show airs, and he can kick back at the after-party.

A native of Virginia, Tucker first joined SNL as a writer 10 years ago and moved up the ranks to his current position, becoming co-head writer in the middle of last season. There was a time when Tucker, who first took a stab at standup in high school, couldn't see how he could ever make a living at comedy, which explains why he majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early '90s. "I liked journalism, and it seemed like something that I would enjoy, that was an achievable goal," he reflects.

As much as he wanted to play it safe, though, Tucker couldn’t resist the lure of comedy, and his passion won out over practicality. He decided to forget journalism and go after the career he really wanted. "My parents were pretty encouraging," he recalls. "They said, ‘If there is any time in your life that you need to try to do this, you should go and try to do this now.’ "

Tucker had been performing with a sketch group called Selected Hilarity while he was in college. He stuck with the group after graduation and was actually making a modest living doing gigs with the group in North Carolina and nearby states. After Selected Hilarity broke up, Tucker moved to New York City in the late 1990s and broke into the standup scene, then he started writing comedy sketches and bits first for The Chris Rock Show before moving on to Mad TV, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn and Chappelle’s Show before he got a writing job at SNL in 2005.

Here, Tucker talks to Co.Create about what it takes and what it's like to be a co-head writer at SNL.

Head Writers Write, But There’s More Involved

"Most of what it is is just writing funny sketches for the show—that’s 75% of it," Tucker says of his job. "When you get in a more senior position, instead of writing everything you just want to write, you have to concentrate more on the show as a whole, and usually, that involves thinking about cold opens, current events stuff, the monologue for the host and then the places other writers are not writing for—it might be trying to write something for a cast member who needs a little more screen time; it might be trying to write a piece that involves lots of cast while other writers are just writing a piece for two or three cast members. It’s trying to help fill in the gaps."

Being part of a group that helps manage the show is also part of Tucker’s duties as co-head writer. "Ultimately, the biggest decisions lie with Lorne Michaels about what gets on the show, what gets cut between our dress rehearsal and air, who gets cast on the show, who gets fired from the show," Tucker says, "but as co-head writer, I am part of a group that includes the other co-head writers, a producer, and usually people in talent, and we all talk together about those decisions."

The Competition To Get Sketches On The Air Is Fierce

Each week about 40 different sketches are written during all-nighters that start on Tuesdays. The finished work is then read out loud on Wednesday afternoons. "Everyone is tired and grumpy," Tucker says. "You’ve got to be pretty funny to get everybody going."

Once everything has been shared, Michaels gets together with a few people, including Tucker, and decides what belongs in the show. "Every week there are winners and losers, and so it’s a friendly, respectful competition, but nevertheless, it’s a competition," Tucker says, "and there’s no week that I say, ‘Oh, you know what? I’ll just kind of phone it in this week, or I’ll take it off.’ Otherwise, I’m not involved in the show."

The sketches that pass muster are performed at a dress rehearsal in front of an audience on Saturday before the main show. "That will tell you very quickly if something you liked is also something the audience liked, and you get a lot less precious about your work once you see it not go so well with the audience," Tucker says.

Tweaks to sketches are made, while others are dropped before the live show.

Collaboration Is Key In Writing For A Sketch Show

You have to really thrive in a collaborative environment because no one at SNL goes off alone to write—it’s all about working together. "Almost all of our sketches are written by two or more people. It’s usually a writer and a cast member, but often it's two writers or even three writers," Tucker says. "We have several writers on our staff who have partnered up. They’re not necessarily official teams, but they write together every week because they get along really well, and they write really well together."

Tucker happens to write a lot with cast member Kenan Thompson, and their collaborations have yielded everything from those "What Up With That?" sketches, which they wrote with co-head writer Klein, to the "Sump’n Claus" song/music video that aired just before Christmas last year. "Kenan and I have kind of clicked in terms of what we think is funny," Tucker says. "I can write for his voice very well."

"Sump’n Claus"—destined to be a Christmas classic—came out of Tucker thinking it would be funny if Thompson played a guy who gave naughty people Christmas gifts, though he didn’t have the name Sump’n Claus at the start. "I was like, ‘It’s got to be blank Claus, something like Sump’n Claus.’ I didn’t even mean that would be the character’s name, and Kenan was like, ‘Yeah, Sump’n Claus!’ Then Kenan immediately was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ sump’n!’ "

The Best Material Tends To Come More Easily

Tucker and Thompson wrote "Sump’n Claus" in less than two hours. "Almost always, the best sketches seem to just spill out. The ones that are a slog are often not as good," Tucker says. Last season’s "Black Jeopardy," which he wrote with Michael Che, is another popular sketch that just spilled out. "That one, I bet, we wrote in an hour and 20 minutes," Tucker says.

The Host Dictates The Show’s Tone

If you write for a typical late-night comedy show, you write for one host. But the tone and feel of SNL shifts from week-to-week because of the changing hosts. "Each host has such a different voice. Writing for Kevin Hart is a whole lot different than writing for Blake Shelton, and you have to adjust your style to fit what they do well, which is something unique in terms of late night comedy writing. I don’t think there are a lot of other shows that have to do that," Tucker says.

You Can’t Linger On Successes Or Failures

Working in comedy can be an emotional rollercoaster, and while the cast members are the face of SNL, the writers also know what it’s like to get tons of praise one week only to be slammed with criticism the next, and they have to learn how to deal with it. Tucker rarely reads reviews of the show these days. The last time he remembers doing so was after the parody of the Serial podcast he wrote with Cecily Strong ran. While he was confident that fans of the podcast would enjoy the sketch, he worried it might go over the heads of people who hadn’t heard Serial, so he wanted to see what people thought.

That said, Tucker used to read reviews more regularly, probably out of a need for validation, he theorizes. "I found that it just didn’t help," Tucker says. "If someone said something I agreed with, or praised something I was involved with, I would be glad, but then if someone didn’t, it would just make me mad. It’s funny. If you read them all, you would find that one reviewer’s favorite sketch of the night was another reviewer’s least favorite sketch of the night. Comedy is so subjective."

When he does want to gauge whether something clicked with the audience, Tucker finds it more helpful to go to Hulu or YouTube to simply see what sketches people are watching. "I’ll see what people are clicking on," he says. "That is, to me, the most objective metric of how much people liked something."

The great thing about writing for a show like SNL is a writer always has the opportunity to begin anew. "The more you do it, the more you realize that there’s another show coming up and that you have another chance to reinvent yourself, which is nice," Tucker says.

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