How to write for late night TV shows

8 10 2014

now-hiring

So since I was putting together my Jimmy Kimmel writer packet submission last week, I got a lot of questions from people asking me how to get a job on one of the late night talk shows or a show like SNL.  So I figured I’d blog about how different genres evaluate writers.

Writing on a scripted TV show (ie sitcom or drama)

In order to get hired for a scripted TV show you need to have a number of sample scripts for that genre. So if you’re trying to get a job writing on Modern Family, you should have at least one spec script of an existing single camera half hour TV show and at least two original scripts – also single camera.  Those 3 scripts would really cover all your bases. Now most showrunners will likely read one script, but in case they want to read another you need a back up.  Also most agents won’t sign you unless you have a fully built out portfolio.

Another piece of writing material you would benefit from having (but should not be a priority) could be a short story.  Myself and a number of my friends have gotten show meetings on our short stories that are usually edgy, unexpected and really funny.

It doesn’t matter what spec script you write but you just want it to be a really strong sample.  People always say “well I love Modern Family and have a great story to write for it, but everyone is writing a Modern Family.”  But when I investigate even more, they say that Modern Family is the show they know best and know all the character voices and can write the best. So my theory is, write it. If that’s going to be your best food forward, than you should absolutely have it in your portfolio where it can wow tons of people.

Writing for a late night TV talk show / Saturday Night Live

Getting a job writing on a late night talk show (like Kimmel, Fallon, The Daily Show etc) or a show like SNL works very differently.  When the show wants to hire a new writer, they send out writer packet guidelines to agents and managers to then pass along to their writers.  I’ve written a number of these packets over the years and they’re all pretty much similar.

  • A few pages of monologue jokes (this is more applicable for Fallon or Kimmel etc)
  • 2-8 sketches (4-8 pages long) depending on the show.  The sketches should be very show specific, so for SNL you would probably do a political one, a commercial parody, but for Kimmel you would do one that is on brand for Kimmel meaning sending Guillermo out to do something ridiculous or have man on the street interviews showing how dumb the average american is.
  • Most shows ask you to just pitch 5 or so sketch ideas, not written out in their entirety but just to give them a general idea about what you think is funny and then if you truly get the types of sketches the show typically does.

Packet Tips

The packets are a lot of work, but also a ton of fun.

  • Don’t write something you want to write but isn’t right for the show you’re writing for: Before you start writing the packet make sure you watch the show to see what type of jokes they usually write.  For example, Fallon is very family friendly, so edgy jokes woudln’t be apropriate. So no matter how much you love your edgy joke and are dying to show someone how funny you can be about an inapropriate topic, Fallon isn’t the venue to showcae it.  In fact you will just be demonstrating you don’t know the voice of the show and will immediately get dinged.
  • They give you a very limited time frame to write them, usually only a few days. Which is longer than what you would have timewise to come up with timely monologue jokes if you were writing on the actual show, so don’t get too precious about your writing because you don’t have time to.
  • Know the characters on the show you will need to write for. Know that Kimmel always talks to Guillermo or on Weekend Update they often have the character Drunk Uncle.  The show will want to see you know that it’s not just the host that can be involved in sketches.
  • Make sure you are writing really timely material.  Don’t recycle a joke you wrote for a spec about SARS 7 years ago  because you thought the joke was so funny and the people reading your packet would be really impressed. Do the work, scour the internet for interesting news stories and come up with a unique take on it.

So now you know what it takes to get a job writing for a TV show, so get out there and start writing.

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