Inside the mysterious world of freelance TV show joke writers

Years ago, I remember the first time I ever heard someone randomly say that they wrote jokes for The Tonight Show, and thought, really? You can do that? You can sit at home and stick a piece of paper with your funny one-liner into a fax machine, and somewhere in Hollywood, this magic fax goes directly to people in television who can then tell your joke?! This is a thing that existed. And still does. Even if kids today have no idea what a fax machine is.

The Los Angeles Times wrote about the practice of freelance joke writing, pegging it to the Tonight Show transition from Leno to Conan and raising eyebrows over the whole legitimacy of letting non-union staff take part in writing for unionized shows. Of course, that's not how the industry views it. Show business has a tradition of letting new talent into the room via writing spec scripts, and inviting aspiring comedians to join their "fax lists" to submit potential jokes for Leno, Letterman, Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, and other shows. I know plenty of people now who belong to this club.

So I asked a couple of them what they thought of the LAT story, and about the freelance joke business.

One writer told me that everyone knows the rules of this game, including the show's full-time writing staff, who sign off on every freelance joke. It's about creating a farm system for new talents who are familiar with the show, this writer said, and there is a chance to get hired full-time.

"The problem with the LA Times article was it interviewed good writers, but implied they were nobodies in the middle of nowhere giving jokes to the big guys. That's not the case. I know freelancers who're successful, full-time comedians making a good living. I know freelancers for late-night shows that have literally done stand-up spots on those same late-night shows. I know freelancers that are six-figure-a-year advertising writers who just like having another out. To say we're all struggling bozos who can't cut it in the regular world seems a bit condescending. We're not comedy slave labor, as the LA Times seems to indicate."

Another writer said that the system demands a process like this. I know that when I started out in journalism, newspapers wanted to know how much experience I had before hiring me. Well, where was I supposed to get this experience, exactly, if not at a newspaper? You have to hustle, maybe sell your services for free via internship to get that experience. That's what I did. One freelancer told me that getting jokes onto national television at least gives this person something to show potential agents, managers and employers.

"Getting in to the WGA, like other performing guilds and unions, is such a weird Catch 22.  You have to have a work agreement for a show that has a WGA agreement to be considered for membership, but how are you supposed to do that if you aren't allowed to write if you aren't in the guild already? I really think this does nothing but help writers get a break in a ridiculously cut-throat line of employment, and helps them build a nice writing packet that can open the door for other work."

Does this process make sense? Is there a better way to do show business? And why does the LAT story treat writers differently from the many comedic actors and actresses who get hired for freelance sketch gigs on TV shows? It just kind of glossed over that part, didn't it?

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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5 thoughts on “Inside the mysterious world of freelance TV show joke writers

  1. It seems to me that using freelancers is the way it is. While writers do need a union, and I’m really pretty much anti-union, I don’t think people should be forced to join the union in order to work.
    I’ve been trying to get a joke on air for a year or so and haven’t been good enough yet to have that happen. When it does, I will scream like a girl!
    When someone is popular enough and good enough they’ll make money writing. Just the way it is, and as it should be.

  2. We did it for a while. I led (indirectly) to a radio writing gig and (indirectly, again) to many other odd gigs. And confidence. It gave us the idea that we could write network-quality material.
    And it also changed the way we approached gag-writing. In other words, it was a good exercise (when the stuff didn’t get in, it wasn’t a total loss).
    The union bullies in the story (and the writer who was “bothered” when she didn’t have a union gig (and the unnamed “staffer” who filed a union complaint) are all the good guys in any story published by a union newspaper.
    In cases such as these, supporting unions is more important than facts, truth, objectivity, etc. It’s important, after all, that the union mindset be supported and perpetuated.
    Brian McKim
    Editor, Publisher

  3. Hey, after Johnny Carson retired, he was faxing jokes to Letterman. Was the king of late night violating the rules too or did he keep his guild membership current?

  4. I have a joke to send in, but can’t figure out where to send it — the CBS site is scary, looks like their terms of agreement are they can steal any unsolicited ideas — not sure if it’s their idea of a joke.
    How do we send in the jokes (for pay, not for plagiarism)?

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