The Daily Show with Trevor Noah executive producer Steve Bodow was on the phone recently describing what its like to come in to work lately with a weekends worth of news staring him in the face. In these early (-ish) days of the Trump era, 72 hours off-air feels like years. Boiling down a weekends worth of stories into a six-minute monologue to lead the show is fraught, and getting fraughter. Theres “the Friday news dump, and the Sunday shows, and theres invariably a weekend Twitter storm.”
“Mondays,” Bodow says, “are a bitch now.”
The age-old art of TV-monologue writing, in 2018, has become a Sisyphean task. Thanks to the frenetic news cycle, late-night writers throw jokes in the trash almost as quickly as they compose them—sometimes minutes before air. Then theres Twitter, a swirling vortex of would-be comedians riffs on the same stories in real time that late-night writers must tackle hours after the fact. And yet, despite all these challenges, the monologue persists—thrives even, thanks to YouTube and the Internet, lengthening its shelf life.
“Because everything is so constantly chaotic and disorienting, it is nice to have a daily, comedic synthesis of whats happened,” says Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Sal Gentile. “Somebody to just sort of run through, in an orderly way, the things that have happened today, and also make it funny and entertaining.”
Theyre also the audiences most intimate moments with their favorite hosts. If theres anything a host can do to keep viewers from changing the channel or staring into a second screen, its to establish a genuine connection by showing a real piece of themselves. Thats why, although it might seem that the monologue has been dragged into the modern era kicking and screaming, the format has endured—and even, perhaps, become more important than ever.
To The Late Show with Stephen Colbert executive producer Chris Licht, Colberts monologue is one of the most precious moments of the CBS show. Why? “Hes looking at you. Hes in your bedroom. Hes looking into the camera, which is looking at you,” Licht says. “And its the time that you feel the most personal connection with the host. The rest of it, when hes interviewing people, youre looking in on something. The monologue is being said directly to you.”
Todays hosts have adapted the traditional monologue to suit their individual needs, infusing the template with their own personal style. Late Night head writer Alex Baze says Meyers likes humor that gets at “the heart of the truest truth” about any given subject. “Thats one kind he likes,” Baze says. “And then the other kind he likes—God bless him, I love him so much—is the really stupid one.” Jimmy Kimmel Live!? According to Molly McNearney, Kimmels wife and the shows co-head writer, “First and foremost, he likes self-deprecating jokes.” Conan writer Laurie Kilmartin says Conan OBrien “likes a joke that he can play around with afterwards—like, he can get the initial laugh, and then . . . mime the person thats in the joke.”
For many shows, the work begins in the wee hours of the morning when a researcher pulls headlines that might be of interest. Writing staffs tend to start kicking around ideas at about nine A.M., either in meetings or pitch e-mails. Hosts whittle hundreds of jokes down to a handful of favorites, and many enjoy an active role in the writing process as well. The later the hour grows, the sharper the jokes become, but theres also a looming threat: the dreaded afternoon news break—a wrecking ball that can demolish even the most polished script.
“I really envy the Carson writers. They had it so easy,” says one Conan writer.
In the good old days, news moved at a reasonable pace and competition was scarce. The Tonight Show was basically a solo act. Now, late-night shows compete not only with one another but also with would-be comedians on Twitter. “I really envy the Johnny Carson writers,” Kilmartin says. “Really, they had it so easy.”
When news breaks late in the afternoon, the writers feel the impact—and band together to try to get something, anything, about it on-air. Sometimes that means writing jokes 10 minutes before taping begins.
At The Late Show, Licht says, the effects reverberate from department to department: “Stephen feels it. Hes gotta go perform material thats never been rehearsed. . . . Its challenging on the writers. Sometimes they write stuff while we are taping. Its tough on the crew. Every part of the organization feels it equally.”
On an average day, Baze says, the Late Night writers room comes up with 500 jokes. Eleven make it on the air. “I tell the writers, Look, youre basically writing your jokes into a shredder, and every once in a while one of them will get plucked away and itll get to be on TV; dont fall in love with your material.”
Depending on the monologue structure, the impact can be easier or more difficult to absorb. For narrative practitioners of the monologue, such as Colbert and Trevor Noah, who use a more conversational style than the traditional set-up/punch-line format, it can be harder to work in those last-minute adjustments. As Daily Show executive producer Jen Flanz says, “We have to figure out . . . what part of the story we were formerly gonna do [that] we could lose. When that stuff comes in late in the day, it takes a major hit on the first act.”
And thats not even mentioning the emotional toll the constant churn can take. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee head writer Melinda Taub describes it as a “cycle.”
“For me, its very much Im constantly stirring this swirl of bad news, and you sort of build up a resistance to it, and that resistance builds up and builds up, and then something will happen that just strips it all away,” Taub says. “I think thats part of why you have a writing staff. We can pick up the slack for each other.”
Jimmy Kimmel Live! co-head writer Danny Ricker says, “I think we are buoying the therapy industry. There is a level of fatigue and exhaustion, I think, [that is similar to] when we talked about Jersey Shore every day. Jesus, enough with these idiots!”
“Its incredibly hard, I think, to be funny when youre really angry and sad at the same time,” McNearney adds.
The deluge of news—and jokes about the news—can be overwhelming. But where the latter is concerned, multiple writers noted, there is one upside: the increased competition forces them to write even more carefully, and to lean further into each shows identity. Kilmartin puts it this way: “At the end were writing jokes specifically for Conan to say. . . . Sometimes, you just have to unplug and go, Now, Im Conan OBrien.” The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon writer Jonathan Adler says that the constant noise encourages everyone to write things specifically tailored to Fallons voice. “You want to push yourself to write things that only he could do,” Adler says, “rather than things you could tweet on your own personal account.”
For veteran writers, such mimicry can become second nature. “Sams voice is just a part of us,” Taub says of Bee. “I havent written anything not in Sams voice in two years now.” At the end of the day, though, the material has to be sincere. “Truth is funny—and theres no limit to how dark a topic you can cover if you approach it from the jokes coming from your own feelings about how awful it is,” Taub says. “I think our best work comes from our honest reactions, and our honest passions and sadness and anger about the things going on in the world. Those things are funny—if youre honest about them.”
Multiple shows also have staffers tasked with doing research to make sure none of the jokes that make it into the monologue have been done before—allowing the writers themselves to put on blinders and concentrate on their work. So when the late-night hour hits, viewers have their pick of options: prankish Colbert, genial Fallon, Kimmels snark . . . And the list goes on. As far as Licht is concerned, thats for the best. After all, he says, “you never win if everybody is basically doing the same thing.”
Still, are timely-as-possible jokes about the days news really worth all this—the writing, the re-writing, the therapy bills? The monologue hasnt changed much over the years—which, some might argue, makes it seemingly incompatible with the fast-paced world in which we now live. But monologues have endured for a reason. Tonight Show producer/writer Mike DiCenzo summed it up well: sometimes, its nice to be able to turn on a program and know, generally, whats going to happen. On top of establishing intimacy with viewers, monologues provide that element of familiarity.
“All the monologues that are happening today are different in many ways from what they were in Johnny Carsons day,” DiCenzo says. “But in many ways theyre also exactly the same.” That speaks to the strength of the form: good monologues do not re-invent the wheel, but instead help viewers process whats going on around them. To make people laugh at the very things that make the world feel more incomprehensible by the day requires a strange blend of wit, heart, ironic distance, and even empathy. Its hard to think of anything a late-night program could provide right now that viewers need more than that.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.