Pursuing a career writing TV comedy is a competitive, challenging, and oftentimes uncertain path for the college graduate. Unlike other industries, there is no clear approach to getting hired on a late-night TV show, and your efforts are stacked against hundreds of other funny, eager creatives. Although there may never be a direct strategy for television success, “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” writer Django Gold provides some useful insight and perspective for aspiring comedy writers:
Where did you go to college, and how heavily were you involved in comedy at your university?
I went to Boston College, but I actually didn’t do anything related to comedy during this period. BC has a sketch team that at one point was holding auditions for new members, but all I did was briefly fantasize about taking the sketch world by storm before getting distracted by something else.
Where did you work after graduation? What was your path from that job to the “Late Show?”
I worked as a caterer and as a server for a concert venue sporadically, also pursuing various unpaid internships and languishing in my squalid Allston apartment. At the time I was more into music, and I would go to open mic nights to play my acoustic ditties. Comics would frequently hit up the same open mics, and after seeing them a few times, I decided to give it a shot. So that was my start point when it comes to comedy. And then, when I was 25, I moved to New York, and the first thing I lined up there was an internship at “The Onion,” which I had always idolized. And after you do the internship, they let you apply to be a headline contributor, and I got in on that. So then I spent the next two years working at a legal news publication during the day and basically spending my creative energies doing the best job I could freelancing for “The Onion,” eventually getting more and more opportunities. Until I was selected for the fellowship program they offer, which led me to move to Chicago and start working there full time. And then when “The Colbert Report” ended, I applied to be a writer on the new show, and here I am.
What is writing for a late-night show like remotely compared to in a writer’s room?
More regimented. You can’t really riff around like you could in a physical room, otherwise people (and their Zoom boxes) get drowned out. So it’s much more like, “Okay, you go first, then I’ll go.” Also, I no longer have access to free cereal in the break room, which is a genuine bummer.
What makes a late-night TV writer successful at their job?
Writing original jokes that make the people listening to them laugh. Don’t just fall back on old saws about dumpster fires or whatever. You should try to be original, while still honoring the voice of the show. Also, listening to other people and riffing on their bits to take them to new places (and being receptive to the same). Also important is the ability to generate a lot of material quickly, and not be too precious about it, because most of it is getting thrown out.
What can a college student do in their four years to better prepare themselves for a career writing comedy?
Watch lots of comedy. Read a lot, have interests outside of comedy, go on walks and stuff. People who are obsessive about comedy as an art form tend not to be very funny, because they don’t have life experience to draw on. So focus on being a well-rounded person who does comedy, not just a comedian. Also, be aware that your comedy “career” will almost certainly not begin within the confines of the comedy industry. You’ll probably be a busboy who does open mics at night, etc. The goal is just to get your foot in the door, which means starting in the mailroom of a place you want to work for. And then prove that you’re a reliable mailroom employee, and gradually climb the ladder. But getting your foot in the door in the first place might be the hardest part.
What’s something you wish you knew when you were in college pursuing your career?
I’ll just transpose that question to my first four years in comedy, as I wasn’t doing it in college. I think it’s important to prioritize doing and making things. That “thing” can be a video, or a pilot, a weekly show you put on at a bar (eventually), etc. Something that requires you to commit to a challenging task and see it through to the end. Gain new skills, meet new people, end up with a tangible product you can point to — so that when someone asks you what you do, you can point to the thing, as opposed to just saying, “I’m funny, trust me.” And do whatever you can to stand out in what is an incredibly crowded field. Thousands and thousands of comedians roiling in a stormy sea, you’ve got to demonstrate that you offer something different. So, develop a unique voice, and, again, avoid the dumpster fire stuff.