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My Interview with Bill Scheft, David Letterman's Head Monologue Writer

Several months ago, I had the chance to interview Bill Scheft, the head monologue writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, and author of Everything Hurts and The Ringer. Scheft has been Letterman's monologue writer for the last 18 years.

A typical day for a monologue writer is the kind every comedy writer would like to have.

"I wake up, then I have some coffee and six Vicodin, and then I go," said Scheft. "No, that's not true."

Scheft has a pretty humane schedule, given the typically rigorous schedule a late night writer goes through. He works on his fiction writing in the morning, and then goes into work around noon, and works from noon to 8.

"I start writing jokes, and Dave's already gotten a good packet of them from the other guys who work on the monologue," said Scheft.

Around 2:00, Letterman has a bunch of jokes in hand, and he has 20 - 30 jokes put on cue cards. From there, they whittle it down to the best 10 ideas for the opening monologue.

"That comes from the 300 jokes we came up with. That's the nature of everything written on the show," said Scheft.

Think about that: 300 jokes gets whittled down to 10. That's a 3.3% acceptance rate. Or if you're playing baseball, a .03 batting average. Guys get booted out of baseball for a .120, and yet some of the best comedy writers in the business are considered successful for hitting one-fourth of that.

"Then there's more writing, cutting, and editing," Scheft continued. "There's a whole lot to deal with on the show that I don't deal with, guests, taped segments. We tape the show from 4:30 - 5:30.

"Then at 5:30, you go up to the office, take a couple of deep breaths, pat yourself on the back, and then you start working on the next day's show."

I asked Scheft how writing for the Late Show compares with writing for Saturday Night Live. SNL writers do 20 shows a year, and the Late Show does 200. I figured he would scoff at their lightweight schedule.

"That show is an absolute grind," said Scheft. "It's a grind in a different way. Nothing carries over, because it's a different show each week. A lot of their stuff gets thrown out each week."

In other words, jokes don't get reused, and material may not even carry over. Current events that break on a Monday may be dead on Wednesday. And while Scheft got three days of material out of it, the SNL cast has to come up with new ideas each week, and may pass on something that happened early in the week for something that happened later.

Monologue writing is not the only thing Scheft does though. He gets to spread his comedic wings from time to time.

"I get to work on some guest segments and on daily assignments as needed, or some of the guests doing comedy pieces, like Bruce Willis." Scheft said sometimes it's just a matter of the head writers sending a note saying "we need Bruce Willis ideas," and he'll be drafted into coming up with something funny for Bruce to do.

Not a bad gig, really. The other Late Show writers come in at 9:00 to work on the taped and edited pieces. The head writers come in at 9:00, and stay until 10:00 p.m. That's because they tape four days a week — they tape Friday's show on Monday — trying to get ahead with taped pieces and other remote pieces.

"It's like putting out a newspaper every day and a magazine every day," said "Scheft. "Because you're working on that show, next week's show, and shows 2 months in advance, trying to get sweeps week, and put stuff in production."

But despite the long hours, being a Late Show writer is a highly-sought after gig. The writing staff has been together for five or six years, which is a really long time in late night show land. What typically happens is that guys get let go, or they move on to sitcoms where they become producers and make a lot more money. ("How I Met Your Mother" was created by two former writers on the show.)

"So do the writers keep track of the jokes that make it in?" I asked, thinking of the big box of newspaper columns sitting in my garage. I could picture each writer having a little clip file of every joke they wrote that made it on the air, tallying the totals on a big board. The guy with the most jokes gets a bonus, and the low guy gets the boot.

That doesn't happen at all. The pace is so intense among the writers, because "we're just trying to put a show on. What happens is that for every monologue joke or Top 10 item, there are 10 that didn't make it. So you're just trying to make mounds and mounds of cole slaw to get one good serving."

"So rejection is not a big deal then?"

"You get used to it really early," said Scheft. "When I was writing 50 - 60 jokes a day, on a good day, he'd put 10 on cards, and do 5. And not every day was a good day I'd give him 50 and he wouldn't take any, or he would only take 1. But you're still a writer. That's the gig."

Even the new writers are expected to produce from the time they show up.

"When they come on, they have to be able to generate a lot of material. You can tell by a submission if a guy is capable of generating the content. They look for somebody who can contribute to the show, understands the sensibility, and can add something that we don't have. They're looking for somebody funny, a little bit of a different voice, but understands the show," said Scheft.

But it's vitally important that you look like you watch the show. Write for the show you're submitting to. It's not enough just to show that you're funny, you have to show that you're funny for that show.
"You don't want a guy who turns in 6 pages of Larry Bud Melman ideas. Larry Bud Melman has been for dead for 10 years. That's a writer you're not going to hire, because he stopped watching in 1994. If a guy turns in a bunch of 6 minute sketches, that's a guy who doesn't watch the show."

Do you get those? I asked.

"Sure, we've even had people turn in a bunch of funny greeting cards," said Scheft. "They want to show they're funny, but you have to submit to the show you want a job on. It's like if you want to be an accountant and you turn in ceramics."

Bill is now writing his own blog at Click on Ablog the Author.

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  1. Hi Erik,

    Mr. Scheft's self-review mechanism and its acceptance rate tells us that it isn't easy to be objectively creative (creative with a specific objective in mind:)

    Thanks for sharing the interview. It was very insightful.



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