Late Night Comedy Writers (and Alumni) Slay During Panel Discussion

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May 16, 2017

The panel discussion was an aspiring comedy writer’s dream — to learn from, and laugh with, some of the biggest heavy hitters in the genre today. This was the case on Friday afternoon when Jill Leiderman, Jenny Hagel, Jen Spyra, and Rob Cohen assembled at Annie May Swift Hall’s Helmerich Auditorium to take part in a late-night comedy forum attended by students and faculty.

Leiderman (C93), executive producer on Jimmy Kimmel Live; Cohen, a writer and director from Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons; Spyra (GC12), a writer on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; and Hagel (GC09), a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers spoke about a variety of issues from the atmosphere in the writer’s room to having to pitch dozens of monologue jokes on demand.

“I’ve been wanting to have a panel like this for years,” said moderator David Tolchinsky, chair of the Department of Radio/Television/Film and director of the Writing for Stage and Screen MFA Program at the School of Communication. “Late-night comedy is both funny and serious, and here at Northwestern we’ve been expanding our offerings in the comedy arts, from improv to scripted comedy classes.”

Three of the panel’s guests are Northwestern alumni, including Spyra and Hagel, who both earned their MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage and Leiderman, who was a School of Communication undergraduate. The School of Communication recently launched a new Comedy Arts module that melds Northwestern’s rich history in sketch and improv with an innovative, professionally driven curriculum and real-world experiences. Visits such as these are essential for students to see how this focused form of education plays out in the industry.

Leiderman encouraged all Northwestern students to take advantage of the rich resources they have at the University. “Northwestern is such an amazing launching pad,” she told them.

The panelists also talked about the intimacy of late night, and how viewers often use late-night monologues and comedy shows to help us make sense of the day’s news, especially in politically tumultuous times.

“Late night is the most intimate space you can have in television,” said Leiderman. “In this space—11:30 to 12:30— people are typically winding down from their day. As a viewer, you get to process the day’s events through a filter of this host that you admire… It’s a sacred space.”

Political jokes have been increasingly popular on late night shows and some panelists said audiences demand them.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been this kind of hunger from an audience for political satire,” Spyra said.

Tolchinsky showed clips of the panelists’ shows throughout the presentation, including one featuring Seth Meyers doing a bit Hagel wrote about “other jobs” Neil Gorsuch held before the Supreme Court, including being featured in the photo that comes inside a new frame.

“Thank you for applauding my bravery in making fun of someone’s appearance,” Hagel joked to the audience as they laughed. “But, this bit really came about because I was just looking for a way in,” Hagel said. “I mean, he could’ve done worse as a Supreme Court nominee. I mean, the guy went to law school. So, I was just looking for a way in.”

Hagel also talked about how she came up with that piece in a very short time, since as a divorced mom, she sometimes only gets to work while her toddler naps. “I’d spent hours working on other pitches, polishing them, honing them, but this was the first one that got picked, and I did it literally in an hour,” she said. “I didn’t have time to second-guess myself.”

The panel also discussed Jimmy Kimmel’s recent moving monologue about his baby who’d been born with a congenital heart condition. Leiderman said he wrote that entirely himself, and she also discussed how much his pain was shared by everyone who worked on the show.

“We all know that working on these shows, we’re family,” Leiderman said. “I don’t mean to get all Oprah-esque on you, but it’s true; 218 people work for Jimmy Kimmel, and we were all waiting to see what would happen with his son, hoping that everything would be okay. The kind of work we do makes you feel connected. If you see a guy or gal who has their name on the marquee, remember that they have so many people working for them behind the scenes.”

The panel also gave advice to budding writers or performers in the audience. Cohen suggested the best way to get hired on a show is to just be yourself.

“If you want to be a writer, your personal experience is your best asset,” he said. “Whether you’ve spent a summer in Australia, or you’re from Canada, your point of view, how you approach a joked, will be your best skill.”

Spyra, who worked at The Onion before getting a job working on The Late Show, advised students to “go deep” in their interests. She said that she works alongside many Star Wars fans in Colbert writer’s room, but that she had no interest in the franchise and had never even seen it. She worried at first, she said, that this would be a drawback, but it turned out to be a strength.

“I was able to pitch jokes from the perspective of someone who’d never seen it… Show runners want diversity in a room, they want people who are going to come at the same material with a completely different viewpoint,” she said.

Elodie Edjang, an MFA in Documentary Media student who is focusing on documentaries, said she found the talk fascinating. As an aspiring documentary filmmaker who wants to focus on immigration and immigrants, she said she was keen on hearing how the writers dealt with topical issues.

“It was really interesting to get a perspective on how things work on the inside,” Edjang said. “They write comedy, and I want to do documentaries, but we’re both interested in the news and what’s happening now.”

Cohen led a writing a workshop for students earlier in the day.

- Cara Lockwood