An evening panel of head writers from TVs most popular late night shows was uproariously funny and cuttingly clever, as one would expect. But the 6 comic geniuses, speaking before a crowd at the 2011 New York Television Festival, did manage to expound on the TV writing process—and even a bit about how ratings influence their nightly show lineups.
Take Steve Bodow, co-executive producer and former head writer for Emmy-magnet “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He said they might alter their lineup of material when they have a really big guest on the show—someone like President Obama, for instance. Or Jesus. “Jesus would do well,” he said. “But with our audience, I don’t know….” Justin Stangel, exec producer and head writer for the “Late Show with David Letterman” agreed: “We do strategize when Obama’s on before. We’ll take an opportunity to show good stuff to people who wouldn’t normally see us.” A.D. Miles, head writer for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” added, “When we know something might go viral, we’ll show that when we have a huge audience.” Other times, the comics agreed, it’s the shows that are on before them that pad the numbers. The NFL Playoffs, for one, is a great lead in.
Pictured (l. to r.) are Steve Bodow, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"; Justin
Stangel, "Late Show w/David Letterman"; Terence Gray, NYTVF; Jason Sudeikis,
"Saturday Night Live"; Eric Stengel, "Late Show w/David Letterman"; Barry Julien,
"The Colbert Report"; A.D. Miles, "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
For the most part, ratings aren’t something that head writers consider much. That’s left more to the show’s producers. According to Barry Julien, head writer for “The Colbert Report,” “I think this is pretty well known, but if you start chasing your content around ratings, you’re screwed.”
As far as process for cable programs “The Daily Show” and “Colbert,” teams from both shows spend the day rifling through the headlines and figuring out what bits to include that evening. Once the pieces are written, it’s rehearsal time. Julien noted that on “Colbert” everyone writes every aspect of the show, though sometimes he’ll encourage certain writers to play up their individual strengths. A portion of the material that makes it to the lineup is written that day, he added. “Usually stuff at the beginning of the show was written the day of.”
Becoming a head writer for a hit late night show is a dream coveted by many, and this is a reality recognized by every panelist. It appears to have kept them humble. Most admitted they were incredulous when they initially landed their dream jobs. “Saturday Night Live’s” Jason Sudeikis (the panel’s moderator), expecting to be canned at any moment, didn’t unpack boxes in his apartment for months after his hire. A.D. Miles had a more creative escape route: “I bought a helicopter the day I started.”
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