Over the last four years, I’ve judged 300 late night writing packets for a major network. As a writer myself, I know just how difficult it is to write a strong comedy packet. I’ve spent many sleepless nights sweating over topical jokes as I bounce between feelings of pride, self-loathing, and a fear that no one will even read my work.
So I get it. And as a reader (albeit one of many), let me assure you: I’m actually reading. After years of reading your packets, I keep seeing the same mistakes and bad habits over and over, so I decided to keep track of common packet writing problems. Keep some of these in mind as you sit down with a large Red Bull to submit to that hot new show.
Writing Packet Tips
1. Desk bits should take place at a desk. Not on the street. Not at a carnival. Not in Cuba. At a desk.
2. Desk bits should be refillable. That doesn’t mean refillable for the holiday season, or refillable just for the government shutdown. Think Jimmy Fallon’s Thank You Notes refillable.
3. Do not rely on audience members to make the show funny. You can’t randomly pull someone from the audience and expect them to inject the comedy you couldn’t think of yourself.
4. Long monologue jokes are a turnoff. Cut, cut, cut! I don’t think they should be over four lines, and even that can be stretching it.
5. Related: When I open a submission, it hurts my soul to see an ugly packet. Think of your packet the way contestants think of their meals on Chopped: part of the sell is the presentation. Would you want to read monologue jokes in Courier font? Would you want to read a mess of text crammed together, with random underlines jutting beyond the text and multiple fonts on the same page? Would you want to read sketches written in a Word Doc? If the packet looks sloppy, it’s literally harder to read and makes me frustrated from the get-go.
6. Also related: if you’re serious about writing for late night, you have to learn how to format a sketch. This doesn’t necessarily mean shelling out for Final Draft. There are plenty of free script writing programs and websites you can use, such as WriterDuet, which allows you to work alone or with a remote partner. Watch YouTube tutorials to learn how to properly format your scripts.
7. Grammar matters. When I see sentences without punctuation, it distracts me from the jokes. These simple errors make me wonder how long this writer spent on their packet.
8. If Trump is going to make an appearance in your sketch, it better be a damn good sketch. Everyone is writing Trump sketches right now (which I get), and most of them portray him as a one-dimensional imbecile (which I also get). But I’m itching to read a funny, smart take on the president. Just because our president is dumb doesn’t mean your sketch has to be. I know this one in particular is easier said than done, and I personally won’t be attempting a Trump sketch anytime soon. ☺
“Just because our president is dumb doesn’t mean your sketch has to be.”
9. Respect my time. I get paid per packet, not per word you write. I’d much rather read one page of strong monologue jokes than two pages that are a mix of strong and mediocre jokes. Don’t skimp on the requirements, but this is not a good place to impress readers with lots of extras. It’s also not a good place to “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.” Edit, even curate, your material. I want to see tightness, not a 20-page packet with a few strokes of genius. A well-edited packet makes the reader happy and is better for you in the end.
10. There’s an overwhelming trend to sexualize female politicians in sketches. It’s such a bummer. In a perfect world, I’d never be forced to read another sketch about Nancy Pelosi’s love life.
11. Anyone who writes a ‘borrowing a Netflix password’ joke in 2019 should be kicked out of comedy. I know this is harsh, but that joke has been done for years in comedy specials and on Twitter. It’s over. No more jokes about stealing your ex’s uncle’s password, please! Your job as a comedian is to find a new and creative way to talk about Netflix.
12. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation: There are a lot of Shark Tank parody sketches happening right now. Just an FYI. You always want your packet to stand out!
Writing Packet Tip: Less Shark Tank
13. Similarly, there are a lot of desk bits about children reading the news. So many, in fact, that I’ve taken my “children reading the news” pitch out of my own list of desk bits. (Yep! I’m guilty!)
14. End on the funniest thing. In a lot of sketches and monologue jokes, writers have a tendency to blab on past the punch. It shows a lack of confidence in the punchline—and that’ll happen sometimes—but watering it down won’t help.
15. To that end, make sure your sketches heighten. A lot of sketches I read use the same punchline over and over, except characters go from whispering it to screaming it. That’s not heightening. A sketch should have plenty of jokes in it, not one joke louder and louder. And always end on a laugh line.
16. Play with the format of your monologue jokes. There’s a certain rhythm to monologue jokes and it goes like this: “A new study shows FACT, which is crazy because TWIST.” The format isn’t bad, but if you can sneak a joke in that defies the format, it’s more likely to surprise the reader and make us laugh. It’s why, “Take my wife, please” was so funny. You think it’s going to be a longer joke, but it ends up punching where you least expect. It’s usually these surprising punchlines that make me laugh out loud, and I always record and recommend packets that actually made me LOL.
Submittting writing packets makes you stronger
Scoring packets has unexpectedly helped me as a writer, and I hope this list helps you, too. Even though topical packets can be frustrating and feel fruitless, remember that every one you complete makes you a stronger, better candidate, even if it doesn’t yield you your dream job right away. Happy writing.