Joe Toplyn on writing for Leno, Letterman, Chevy and more

For millions of students and teachers, it’s time to go back to school this week.

For a handful of lucky comedy students, it’s also the start of a very specialized schooling, as Joe Toplyn leads a new group of would-be TV writers in his Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV class at The PIT. It starts Wednesday and runs for six weeks.

If you’re not enrolled, don’t worry: Now Toplyn’s teachings also are preserved in a textbook of sorts, with the publication this summer of his book of the same name. You can read an excerpt of it here.

comedywritingforlatenighttv_book_coverThe Comic’s Comic spoke with Toplyn earlier this summer. Toplyn’s credits include four Emmy Awards as a writer for Late Night with David Letterman, co-head writer of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, then head writer of Late Show with David Letterman, and head writer of The Caroline Rhea Show. He’s also served on the writing staffs of In Living Color,  Doctor, Doctor, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, ScorchCharlie Hoover, and most recently Monk. His name also is attached to the #20 (The Larry Sanders Show) and #98 (Late Night with David Letterman) best-written TV series of all time, according to a recent WGA ranking.

But first, I wanted Toplyn to tell us more about his time served on the writing staff of the short-lived late-night FOX offering of September 1993, The Chevy Chase Show. Chase lasted five weeks as a late-night talk-show host.

“People think it must have been a horror show, but it really wasn’t,” Toplyn told The Comic’s Comic. “He was very pleasant to work with. The writers were great. We got to try some new stuff. It just didn’t work. It is fun to see how many lists of the 10 worst TV shows it ends up on…I think it was #8. That’s kind of fun.” It showed up at 16th on TV Guide‘s list of the worst TV series of all time.

“One of the pieces we did on The Chevy Chase Show was one of the funniest I’ve ever done,” Toplyn said.

As shown above, Chase lets the audience in on a secret. “He goes to his second job, portraying a mannequin of himself. So it’s a hidden-camera piece. He’s sitting there with wax and makeup on,” Toplyn said. “We only had an hour and a half to tape it, and it worked out really well.” So well, in fact, that as you can see in the clip, Chase aired it a second time within the first couple weeks of his late-night run.

“At the time, I was in sitcoms,” he said. “It seemed like a fun chance to get back into late-night in a job other than David Letterman.”

Toplyn’s late-night writing career began with a big break about a year or so after Letterman launched Late Night on NBC in 1982. “It was challenging and kind of scary, because four or five of his writers had left at about the same time,” Toplyn said. “Sandy Frank came in. Matt Wickline. Chris Elliott. Jeff Martin. I think we were all hired within about a month or two of each other.” Merrill Markoe and Jim Downey were the two head writers back then, before Downey went back to work for Lorne Michaels. “That was a little intimidating, because a lot of us had never worked in television before…and the fact that Dave was so funny and the show was so funny and groundbreaking and cool. We didn’t want to mess it up.”

At the same time, Letterman virtually had the 12:30 a.m. hour to himself on TV, and all to himself in terms of comedy. “He was really open to a lot of fun, experimental ideas. We didn’t have to worry if it was too crazy. Or about ratings,” he said. “You could shoehorn it into Late Night, as long as it was six minutes long — and even longer.”

Of all of the topics covered in Toplyn’s book, relatively little, if anything, is mentioned of the old-fashioned “fax list” for freelance writers in late-night TV comedy, which still exists for some of the shows.

“I’ve asked about that, from time to time, myself,” he said. “I think it goes in and out of fashion. There’s definitely been a list of approved writers.” Who are these pre-approved people on the other end of the fax machine? “They’ve impressed the person who assembles the monologue that their jokes are worth reading,” he said. “They’re paid by the joke. I believe it used to be or still is $50 or $75 a joke.”

“It’s a gray issue for the Writers Guild. If a big-time Writers Guild signatory show uses someone’s jokes, that means paying them Writers Guild salary.” Or shows pay these fax-freelancers a small retainer. “All I can tell you is, it’s very hard to come up with TV-quality monologue jokes,” he said. “That’s why they hire writers.”

And to become a staff writer in late-night TV: “One of the keys really is a bulletproof submission packet.”

“One of the needs that I saw my class fulfilling was just to find out what a submission packet looks like,” Toplyn said. “You can find out exactly what the format is…but there’s hasn’t been a reliable packet available. I compiled a generic packet. Maybe the show was just starting up and didn’t know what kind of comedy it would be doing. That’s also the packet if you’re aiming for a talk show, that you can work on month after month. Test it out on all your friends, and then it’s ready. If an opportunity comes up, you can adapt it. Freshen up the monologue jokes.”

“There is a pretty standard accepted format for a submission packet. I make it very clear in my book what that is. If you have a new idea for a desk piece, there’s a standard way of putting that down,” he said.

A lot of these things are standard, whether you were working for Letterman or Leno. Toplyn knows that, having worked for Leno and served as his co-head writer just as the Leno-Letterman late-night “war” was at its peak. as the two hosts jockeyed for the top ratings night after night, week after week.

“The biggest difference in the process was, when I came to The Tonight Show, my main task as I saw it was to try and do different things on the show,” he said. “Freshen up the comedy, and do more comedy. I think the thinking was one way to differentiate Jay’s Tonight Show from Dave’s Late Show was to do more comedy. And because I was so familiar with the kind of comedy Dave does and wanted to do…”

“Our goal was to get to midnight before we brought out the first guest,” he said. “So that’s 22 minutes of new comedy, fresh new comedy a night. Equivalent to a sitcom! So we were writing a new sitcom a night. The wheels have to be really greased!”

He said he and fellow co-head writer Joe Medeiros found Leno to be really accessible. “He was really open to new ideas. He had to be, because Dave was doing so well in the ratings,” Toplyn said.

Churning out all of those jokes and sketches and field pieces five nights a week from 11:35 p.m. to midnight, combined with an equally busy prop department and talent department, helped Leno reclaim the #1 spot in late-night.

“The comedy was different enough, you wouldn’t find on the Late Show. Yeah, I do think it made a difference,” he said. “Imagine if you’re 18 minutes into the show, and Jay is doing a funny video piece where he’s out on the street, and you switch over and you see Dave behind the desk, talking to an actor.” Depending upon the actor, Toplyn said you’d probably go back to watch comedy. “The reason we tried to get to midnight: People were looking at the 15-minute ratings. When the first guest comes out…the ratings tended to drop.”

Toplyn said Letterman is a fantastic interviewer. “At the same time, there’s a visual sameness, of the host sitting behind the desk talking to a celebrity. There’s a novelty to seeing the host on a remote piece.”

Conan O’Brien certainly has figured that out. “He’s also pushing his staff to keep making things fresh,” Toplyn said. “They’re two steps removed from other things you’ve seen…The field pieces really can set a show apart. Dave, when he was doing field pieces, like the Taco Bell drive-thru…a lot of things early on got people talking. And when Jay started doing Jaywalking, that went over great with audiences.”

Of course now, just about every late-night TV show aims for a segment that can become a viral video the next morning.

“Has there ever been a study connecting the cause and effect of video and videos from a show going viral and ratings, more people watching the show? I think you could make the case the other way. If I can see the highlights online, why would I watch the entire show? And the ratings would suffer and reflect that,” he said. “If any show is doing funny pieces, any one of them could be excerpted and go viral. Any one of Conan’s remotes. Dave’s Velcro (stunt), wouldn’t that be viral? I think every comedy piece should be written to be viral.”

So his advice to would-be writers remains the same in the digital social media age.

“You still want to do those one-minute commercial parodies. Those five-minute stunts where the host is doing something funny on the street or with a guest. Those comedy pieces which involve a celebrity. I’d done a couple of cold opens with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those easily could have been excerpted online and would have done well,” Toplyn said.

In 10 years of teaching at The PIT, Toplyn said his course always has high demand and usually sells out. “Even the reason I started teaching the class, I realized there was nobody teaching the material. I realized there was a demand for this,” he said.

And a decade later, he turned his course material into the source material for this book. “Somebody’s eventually going to write the late-night book,” he said. “It might as well be me.”

But he says his book is relevant to any kind of comedy writing for TV, and not just in late-night. “So much of writing for late-night TV is writing for TV in general. Short-form comedy, which I define as a comedy piece that lasts less than 10 minutes,” he said. “Commercial parodies you see all over the Internet. Every comedian tells monologue jokes. It’s really about how to write short-form comedy, including topical jokes, parodies, hidden-camera pieces. It’s a source for learning how to write all those forms of comedy. People shouldn’t be caught up with the fact that the title is late-night comedy.”

Toplyn spent six years (twice) with Letterman, two years with Leno, and those five infamous weeks with Chase.

“I’m thrilled and honored to have been a part of it as long as I was. When it’s fun, it’s just so much fun,” he said. “I’m honored and thankful to have worked with everybody I’ve worked with.”

Buy Joe Toplyn’s “Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV” via Amazon or wherever books are sold. And keep an eye out on his next class at The PIT to sign up, if you’re in NYC.

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.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

3 thoughts on “Joe Toplyn on writing for Leno, Letterman, Chevy and more

  1. Highly recommend Toplyn’s book. Great read for any type of comedy writing. It’s straight-forward and practical with very specific guidance on writing any of the various standard formats within late-night. You can really flip to any section and get a step-by-step of how to put things together. One of the best parts of the book is how Toplyn dissects specific examples of monologue jokes, desk pieces, etc. so that you can understand why certain techniques work and others don’t–AND the jokes being referenced are actually funny, which is not always the case with comedy how-tos.

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