An aspiring comedy writer who’s taking a “Writing for SNL” class and saw this thread on packets on Matt Ruby’s blog wrote me asking for tips on writing a Daily Show packet; she also asked if I had any general advice on writing comedy for television. I replied:
Here’s my advice: A lot of people get hung up on the idea of getting a job writing for the Daily Show, Colbert, SNL, or late night talk shows. The unfortunate truth is that these shows almost exclusively hire working, established comedians and writers; and even if you are one of those comedians, your chances of getting one of those jobs are exceedingly small. It’s my opinion, therefore, that focusing narrowly on “writing for the Daily Show” or “writing for SNL” is just setting yourself up for failure. It’s like studying to be an astronaut without learning how to fly a plane.
Instead, focus on mastering the fundamentals of comedy. Most importantly, focus on doing your own work first. The people who get hired aren’t the people who obsessively study the Daily Show for five years — they’re the people who produce their own work, put it up somewhere visible (whether through standup, live sketch, the Internet, or another medium), and who got enough attention and recognition doing so that they eventually got on the radar of people looking to hire funny writers. The last three New Yorkers I know of hired to write on SNL were John Mulaney and Hannibal Burress, two of the funniest standups in the city, and Christine Nangle, one of the top writers at UCB. They got those jobs because they were being so utterly and visibly hilarious for so long that a producer at SNL finally said “Hey, they’re fucking funny! I want that funny on my show!” — not because they jumped through some arbitrary hoops of “this is what SNL is looking for in a writing packet” or “this is what a Daily Show packet should look like.” (And yeah, they probably wrote good packets too, but the fact is that the funny came first and the packets second.)
So: If you want to write comedy, stop worrying about getting a job and start just fucking writing comedy. Then put it somewhere that people can see it. Then repeat. Success will follow. Good luck!
Now, here’s a big proviso: I haven’t worked on any of these shows, and have barely written for television at all. Still, I don’t think I’m wrong about this; it is, at least, how I’ve chosen to live my life and how I’ve chosen to approach my career. If anyone has a differing perspective, I’d love to hear about and discuss it.