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Panel Nerds: A Pleasing Late-Night Comedy Roundtable

Who: Eric Stangel (Letterman), Justin Stangel (Letterman), A.D. Miles (Fallon), Steve Bodow (Daily Show), Barry Julien (Colbert), moderated by Jason Sudeikis (SNL)
What: The New York Television Festival’s “Long Day’s Journey into Late Night
Where: 92 Y Tribeca
When: September 22, 2011
Thumbs
: Up

This perennial panel, which is part of the annual NY Television Festival, brings together host Jason Sudeikis with some of late-night’s great comedy writers. We attended and greatly enjoyed this event two years ago, but worried that it could be repetitive. After all, the same questions tend to come up time and again with these panelists (“How do I break into comedy?” “What’s your average day like?” and so on). Thankfully, Sudeikis had our best interests in mind and kept things moving in new and interesting directions.

This became most clear when an audience members asked how long it took for the panelists to feel they’d gotten good at the craft of comedy. A the panel began to answer a different question – namely how they got their start – Sudeikis quickly interjected and restated the audience members’ question. Everyone was better off for it.

For those who did want to hear about the basics behind these shows, the panel acquiesced. Interesting tidbits included: Fallon’s show brings in NBC touring groups to test the show’s material each afternoon; Colbert writers work in pairs, and everyone has a stint working on everything and with everyone else; SNL actually has those crazy hours you hear about, but partly because of tradition at this point. When Sudeikis answered questions – whether the audience, the panel, or he himself posed – other members of the panel moderated the discussion, asking followup questions. They all seemed to be genuinely interested in what Sudeikis had to say about his show and his field.

What was most interesting was to compare what bonded these different guys, despite having different networks, approaches, aims, and audiences. A.D. Miles separately said that you can’t focus on ratings and you have to just move on once a sketch crashes and burns. In both cases, the rest of the panel nodded accordingly. On the other hand, though, they all gave remarkably different answers about what drove them into comedy – for some it was a bad TV show, others it was a great one.

For most of them, it took a while from the time they were hired until they felt they really had a handle on how to do their jobs well. With the exception of Miles who was hired to be head writer, the rest of them all had to work their way up the ladder to get to the top. Now, they say, they’ve grown from those experiences and continue to hustle to gain the approval of their higher-ups.

What They Said
“We just Google what the trends are and start writing jokes.”
– A.D. Miles jokes that his writing team’s process for finding inspiration (although we suspect it’s at least half-true)

“We know it’s good when we hear the sound operators in the back laughing.”
– Justin Stangel wants to get real laughs from outsiders, not just pats on the back from fellow writers

“[We try to] get the arguments just right as well as the jokes just right.”
– Steve Bodow has a lot to think about when writing a segment

“Ultimately the idea and the piece are what dominates over personality.”
Jason Sudeikis outlines what makes for a great sketch

“It was like a magic trick; I didn’t know how they were doing it.”
Barry Julien describes his first exposure to The Onion

What We Thought

  • We liked how casual this panel was, and how obvious it was that these guys actually liked each other. They all work in the same industry and must see each other as competition, but they do all seem to value what the others do for a living. They’re clearly all humbled that they get to do this for a living day in and out.
  • Discussion several times turned to digital media. Miles mentioned he considers what could go viral, the Letterman writers check Twitter to see who’s being funny, and Sudeikis encouraged people to get online and make their own stuff if they wish to pursue a career in comedy. The Internet has clearly helped shape the future for the industry.

PANEL RULES!
Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Inspirational Seekers
Whenever we cover comedy events, we encounter the same questions over and over: Who inspired you to go into comedy? In reality, the true answer to this open-ended question is more than likely the comedian’s childhood cracking people up. And he chose to stick with it long enough to make a career out of it. But he’s obliged instead to name others who came before him. We’ve heard the same names mentioned a lot over time – Richard Pryor, George Carlin, David Letterman, Eddie Murphy – and rarely does this question ever lead anywhere other than just lists of famous comics who broke barriers and boundaries. This panel quickly glossed over it in favor of talking about which late-night hosts let the first guests stick around on the couch for the show’s second act.

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