Earlier this week, the Writers Guild of America hosted a Q&A panel for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on the show’s own stage. Moderated by Fallon himself, the panel featured head writer for the show A.D. Miles, monologue writers Jon Rineman and Caroline Eppright, supervising writers Mike DiCenzo and Gerard Bradford and sketch writer Albertina Rizzo.
Throughout the panel, the writers discussed what it takes to, as one writer put it, produce a “one hour fully-formed play.” They also discussed how to write sketches for celebrities – from Presidential candidates to iconic musicians – and how many pitches and ideas it takes the full staff to produce a “Tonight Show” that everyone can be proud of.
They’ll skewer the news any way imaginable, but they don’t want to pick a side.
“The Tonight Show” has hosted every politician under the sun, from Trump to Hillary to Cruz to Christie. This week even featured President Obama’s first appearance, where he and Fallon “slow-jammed” the news as they talked about his presidency.
“Having the president on…I wanted to apologize to him for making fun of him for eight years,” said Fallon. “This is the only president we’ve known since we started ‘Late Night.’ He looks pretty good right now. I think he’s wearing Just for Men.”
Yet Fallon and his staff stress that they are not interested in picking a political side with their humor – they want to show an equal amount of love (and poking) to whoever they’re hosting, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican.
“I think they know when they come on the show they’re going to look good. And they’re very willing to laugh at themselves,” said Fallon. “I’m not Diane Sawyer, and I’m never going to be, that’s not the type of interviewer I am, if you want someone to go in and give you gotcha questions, that’s not the type of interviewer I am. My job is to get to know a different side of you and let the audience be the judge.”
“I think we have this good way of showing not telling,” said writer Jon Rineman. “We’ll approach these topics and use innuendo, but leave it to the audience to decide how they feel about these things.”
“In the ’90s when we were going up, everything on late night was very opinionated, and now news is like that. Every channel takes a side. For us, we ask what are non-biased people saying or thinking. We still do political jokes… it just seems more family friendly with us,” Fallon said.
He and Miles recounted a “Thank You Notes” segment he hosted with Obama that week. “I had said, ’Thank you Hillary Clinton for being the first f-president. We would’ve said first female president but someone deleted the ‘emale’. I was sitting right next to President Obama when I was saying that and he just went—” [shakes his head]
They noted their continual surprise at the ability for politicians to go along with the sketches they write. “Ted Cruz was giddy,” said Fallon. “I asked him if he was really okay with us doing a sketch [referring to a ‘phone interview’ Cruz has with Fallon playing Donald Trump]. “He said, ‘Are you kidding? This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened! I’m so excited to be in a sketch!’”
Nothing is too ridiculous to pitch to a celebrity.
When names like Neil Young or Madonna come to “Fallon,” they want to play. When the writers pitch ideas for what sketches they may want to do, the results can be surprisingly endless.
“We were thinking of ideas for James Taylor — he was down to do a sketch, and we’ve never seen James Taylor in a sketch before,” said Fallon. “Even his people were like, ‘What?’”
“So we’re sitting in the writer’s room thinking about and pitching what James Taylor could do on the show,” said Miles. “And [Fallon] out of nowhere comes up with, ‘what about two James Taylors on a see-saw?’ And our reaction was, ‘Okay, great, let’s think of a real idea!’ Then Jimmy starts singing, ‘I go up and you go down,’ and we start working on that.”
(Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC)
The process is incredibly collaborative on the part of the writers and the guest. Guests for “The Tonight Show” are determined usually two-to-three weeks in advance. The show’s writers all email in pitches for jokes and bits the celebrity can do — they submit them to Fallon, who then submits the ideas he likes the most to the celeb and their agent. Rarely do they ever get rejection or even hesitation from their guest.
“Last night we had Madonna perform ‘Borderline.’ You think she’s sung ‘Borderline’ enough in her life? But I asked her, I said ‘could you please perform Borderline?’ and she said, ‘sure, okay.’ I think people just trust us. We really love pop culture and embracing it. No one looks bad on this show. And I think people who come on know that.”
You go through hundreds of jokes a day, so you have to be all right with throwing some of them out.
Jon Rineman writes at least 40 jokes a day for Jimmy’s monologue alone. In the “Late Show” days, where there were fewer members on the team, that number was 80. And that’s just for the beginning of the show.
“The themes we do with a lot of variables are called gang writes,” said Miles. “Everyone sends in every idea they can think of, and we pick the best ones from there. it’s a total group effort.”
As a result, so many “Tonight Show” ideas are thrown out that the ones that stay feel miraculous.
“One of our sketch writers, Chase Mitchell, pitched us a bit about this new beer for dogs,” said Fallon. “They invented a beer for dogs, and we would ask some dogs who tried it. And they’d cut to these great photos of dogs passed out, going, ‘I’m hammered, you fetch the ball.'”
“It shouldn’t have worked,” added Eppright. “I admire the sketch team a lot. You have a lot of anonymity when you write a joke. If it bombs, you as the writer just kind of sink into your seat. Nobody knows you wrote it except you and God.”
Attention to detail is surprisingly crucial.
“Writers have a hand in every aspect,” said Gerard Bradford. “If there’s wardrobe then you’re in charge of what the wardrobe should be, if there are props you’re in charge of what the props should be. You learn all the different aspects of producing.”
When producing the James Taylor sketch, Fallon noted the specificity of Taylor’s wardrobe — the denim shirt and khakis were the same that had been featured on Taylors’ album covers.
“I learned from Lorne [Michaels] on ‘SNL’ that production design is essential,” said Fallon. “It’s all about detail. You may not notice it, but we do, and that’s what matters. If you see a sketch at a party, you’ll see a bowl of chips that are half eaten. Nobody at home thinks about that but we think that way about every single bit. Writers produce bits all the way through here and everyone helps them make it happen. If it’s just you it’s just an idea — if it’s Neil Young singing the ‘Fresh Prince’ theme song, it’s just an idea. But everyone on the whole staff and crew just works their asses off to make it real.”
Writing for “The Tonight Show” will never not be scary. But you get used to the stress.
“Because we put out all of our content in a single day, the next day we have to wipe the slate and start over,” said Eppright. “Every night you’re producing a one hour fully-formed play. Every single day, 200-plus days a year. It’s insane. So you have to be ready to say something isn’t working.”
Fallon and his staff discuss lack of fear as one of the strongest qualities of the job.
(Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC)
“It makes you a really good writer because you’re not married to your material,” said Rizzo. “The ability to write something and let it go will make you better.”
“I feel like if I don’t hit that first joke, I’m letting you guys down,” said Fallon. “I know how much time went into that joke. I rarely use the [retakes] though, I’ll leave in the flub. Nothing is perfect. One show I flubbed the first joke and an audience member booed. I said, ‘Really? You think it’s that easy to read? You read it.’ And the audience member came down and they nailed it. [shrugs] It was a great joke.”
In discussing advice for young writers — or for the many writers who attended the panel — “The Tonight Show” crew focused on repetition and faith as the paths to becoming a better writer.
“If any rejection comes, don’t say you’re done,” said Fallon. “That’s part of the thing. Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all part of the ride.”