Jimmy Fallon and a clutch of “Tonight Show” writers offered a rare glimpse into how the top-rated late-night series is assembled each night during a panel session Thursday night hosted by the Writers Guild of America East.
Held on the “Tonight Show” set at 30 Rock, Fallon served as moderator for the hourlong gabfest with head writer A.D. Miles and staffers Gerard Bradford, Mike DiCenzo, Jon Rineman, Albertina Rizzo and Caroline Eppright.
At a time when political humor is pervasive across late-night, Fallon emphasized that his focus is purely on entertainment rather than grilling political guests or offering opinions on the day’s headlines.
“I’m not Diane Sawyer and I’m never going to be. That’s not the type of interviewer I am,” Fallon said. “Our show is entertainment” in contrast to the “political stuff” served up by HBO’s John Oliver, Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore and others. “We end up doing the same jokes it’s just that ours are more family-friendly than others,” he said.
Bradford said they make a point of being bipartisan in their targets. “We don’t take cheap shots at politicians. We hit Democrats and Republicans. Politicians come on and they know we’re going to make them look good,” Bradford said. “It humanizes them in a way that they don’t get to be humanized” while in campaign mode.
Fallon said the key to the show’s ability to get guests to engage in wacky skits and bits is that fact that they try to never be mean-spirited. “No one looks bad on our show,” he said. “People trust us.”
The group talked about the origins of one of its most offbeat bits, last year’s “Two James Taylors on a Seesaw.” Fallon and the famed singer-songwriter — dressed in garb from one of Taylor’s 1970s album covers — rode a seesaw while singing the Taylor-esque tune penned by DiCenzo. The concept originated with Fallon but DiCenzo took the ball and ran with it. Fallon told the scribe: “You should get a Grammy for the line ‘I will see what you just saw.’ “
In a crack that would never have made it onto “Tonight Show,” Fallon quipped that Taylor told him that wearing a long-haired wig made him flashback to his reckless youth. “I have this sudden craving for heroin,” Taylor told Fallon.
Among other highlights from the panel:
- The workload on a daily late-night show is intense. “We put out so much content,” Rizzo said. “We basically put together a one-hour, fully-formed play every day, 240 days a year.”
- There’s an “anonymity” to writing jokes for the monologue that writers don’t get when they work on the longer sketches and taped bits, Eppright observed. When a joke in the monologue bombs, “you can just sink into your seat and no one knows you wrote it but you and God,” she said.
- Fallon likened the experience of hitting the stage each night to a boxer warming up for a bout. “It’s a like going into the ring,” he said. As he steps out from behind the curtain, his adrenaline pumps and he tells himself ” ‘All right, let’s go.’ ” He showed the crowd the lucky brass shamrock built into the floor where he stands for the nightly monologue.
- Miles’ advice for aspiring comedy scribes? “Do improv or standup or write for a sketch group or an improv group,” he said. “Get yourself or your writing up on stage. I think it’s ground zero for a successful comedy career.”
- Bradford had another career tip for writers just starting out. “Try to become friends with a future late-night host in high school,” he said.
(Pictured: Jimmy Fallon, A.D. Miles, Jon Rineman, Caroline Epright, Mike DiCenzo, Gerard Bradford, and Albertina Rizzo)