Today's interview is a story about modern humor writing. I became acquainted with our interviewee when he sent me a nice Tweet about this interview I did with Brian Stack about the sketches on Conan and we exchanged messages about how much we enjoy his work. Turns out that Jeff, who is a writer and sometimes-actor on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, had a very rapid immersion into the comedy writing field thanks to a gig he got with the Onion while he was still in college and comedy videos (like "Wes Anderson Spider-Man") he made for fun. He offers lessons on putting yourself out there, taking chances, pursuing your dream and doing what you like because you never know: a few years after college you might be getting career advice from Harrison Ford. Here please find an abridged version of the interview but if you'd like a lot more fun stories and details, including the amazing story of how exactly he became a writer for Jimmy Kimmel and what it was like to work with Jason Schwartman after parodying him, go here.
What happened during your first day working at Jimmy Kimmel's show?
I was 21 when I got the call that they liked my packet and I was getting the job. I was throwing out a box of pizza into a dumpster at the moment. The next week I was in a room with Jimmy Kimmel. And his writers. And it was my 22nd birthday. And I felt like throwing up.
Truthfully though. I cannot think of another late night host who would take a chance like this: to blindly hire a writer whose experience consisted of Youtube sketches and a scant amount of Onion material. He single-handedly gave me a full-time career in television. He likes taking chances and trying new things, and that's what I think is going to make him a fixture of late night TV for a long time to come. He experiments. And I'll always be thankful for that.
There isn't much separation at the show. Writers write both monologue jokes and sketches. I like that style. It keeps you fresh. If the sketches aren't coming one day, just focus on the jokes. I didn't get a sketch on the show for a month or so. Which was a problem, but I was able to get monologue jokes on, and that kept me alive until my first sketch with Harrison Ford went on.
What's an average workday like at the Kimmel show for you?
We get our topics in the morning, and we're also encouraged to find out own. We'll turn those in. Jimmy creates an outline - and we'll have additional rounds of jokes throughout the day. A large portion of our show revolves around clips or interactions with Hollywood Blvd pedestrians, so we work as a group on those.
If you get a bit approved, you're in charge of chugging that through towards the end with the field-producer and director. It's a huge relief to have them there, because I'm terrible at organizing field shoots... and I'd probably end up weeping in a bathroom somewhere.
Aside from adhering to standards, how is writing for TV sketches different from writing your own internet sketches?
Definitely a lot more hoops to go through. With internet sketches, I pretty much just had to convince my friends to make it, and then find someone willing to hold a boom pole for the weekend.
On television, obviously there are a lot more factors. I remember writing a sketch with William Shatner that had a short jab at a certain men's clothing store's late-return fees, and it was shut down, because that company was a sponsor. That makes absolute sense. They pay for us to be on the air. But it showed my obliviousness to the way things work.
I'll never exactly understand copyright and trademark infringement laws either. One time I made an internet sketch about Amtrak, and I received a strongly worded cease and desist Youtube message from their lawyers, demanding I take it down. You'd think Amtrak would have better things to do with their time.
But in general, I've tried to keep that "Youtube mentality" if you will, meaning that I have tried to write sketches the same way I would if I was still making Youtube sketches. Tried to keep the same voice... only now I get to play in a bigger sandbox.
Several of your Kimmel sketches incorporate the guests: how does it come to pass that they participate? Do they make it known that they're game or does your team reach out to them? How soon ahead of time are they shot?
It's a mix. Michelle Obama's sketch was shot insanely fast- within an hour of her appearance if I remember correctly. It was right before the election, so her schedule was quite busy. She needed a quick, simple idea to promote voter turnout, so I pitched her blowing an airhorn to waker lazy voters up. It was blunt, surprising, and out of character for her. She was great. I couldn't see any other First Lady doing that...maybe Dolly Madison.
In many cases, their teams will reach out to us that they'd like to do comedy, and we'll pitch ideas accordingly.
I've always been fascinated by Harrison Ford's late night appearances, and his notoriously selective attitude towards how and when he discusses Star Wars. He has amazing focus, rage, intensity, and comedic timing - and we heard he was interested in doing comedy, so I thought I'd pitch an idea that gives a reason he's been hesitant to talk about Star Wars. That turned into this fun 2 part sketch where it's revealed he and Chewbacca had a falling out years ago.
Part one:Part two:
Part One was my very first sketch on the show, and it probably saved me from being fired... so I'll be forever grateful.
I feel late night is very ephemeral and of the moment. It's meant to be something seen that day, and the shelf-life doesn't go much further than a few internet blogs the next week. But it was a lot of fun to tap into something with Harrison Ford, and carry that over into the next year when he appeared. It'd be great to make a trilogy of it... but we'll see.
The Ellen 'Nice-Off' was a fun opportunity to do a long-form sketch. Usually with late night bits, you start to sweat when it goes over 3 minutes, but I'm proud of how we were able to craft a narrative out of it. One of my favorite moments of being with the show was when Ellen dropped her nice facade for a moment and whispers into Jimmy's ear, breaking his soul completely. And Andy Fisher directed the pants off it; he deserves a boat of Emmys for all he does on the show.
Usually guests come to us, but occasionally we'll reach out to them. Right when we moved to 11:35, I pitched an idea for Will Ferrell to come on the show, not knowing that we had changed timeslots and being upset because it interfered with his existing reservation of the studio space. I believe I originally pitched Ferrell teaching a Bikram Yoga class in our studio, then Tony Barbieri, one of our veteran writers, pitched that it should be a QVC knife show. Tony and I wrote that together, and on the day of the show, Molly McNearney, our co-head writer pitched having Ryan Gosling come on as well. That was a fun sketch to write because it was a nice, three-headed team effort. I had the premise, Tony had the great (way better than Yoga) angle, and Molly put the Gosling cap on top of everything. That was a fun day to write for a late night show.
In that vein, who have been some of your favorite guests on the show?
Obviously, having Harrison Ford deliver words I wrote with the intensity and commitment that he did was an out-of-body experience. But there's a moment after his first appearance that always sticks with me.
We had just finished shooting his altercation with Chewbacca. The crew was filing out, and I nervously approached him, and whimpered out a thank you for being in my first sketch on the show. He looked straight at me and said "You're pretty young, huh?" - I nodded. He said "But you got your foot in the door? Good. Keep getting your foot in the door and don't let these bastards get you down"--and then he LEFT. I had no idea where that came from, but I doubt I'll experience a cooler moment in my life.
Another weird story I cherish involves Dean Cain. I adore Dean Cain. I only had two or three TV channels at home, so Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was my absolute favorite show growing up. When I left the old childhood mountain town for college near LA, my friends would jokingly ask what celebrity I'd love to run into, and I'd unironically say Dean Cain. I truly wished to meet him. I consumed comic books growing up. I'm more of a Marvel guy, but it all boils down to Superman, right? He's Superman.
Four years of school went by, and I kid you not, during my last week of school, I was grabbing a sandwich at Subway, and in walks Dean Cain. I like to think I play it cool if I see celebrities in the wild... but not with him. I got a picture and I talked his ear off about how much I admired his portrayal Clark Kent, all while holding my Five Dollar Footlong Black Forest ham sandwich. I probably looked like a crazed fool.
A few years later, my girlfriend at the time called me in a weird tone. "I don't know how to tell you this... but... Dean Cain asked me out today." Apparently he had seen her on TV (she's a reporter) ...made a few calls, and tried pursuing her. I was his biggest fan, and he betrayed me. It turned out to be a funny, weird story, but at the time, I felt crushed by irony. It's an odd feeling when Superman horns in on your girlfriend.
So this year, when Man of Steel came out, I pitched a sketch where nobody told Dean Cain there was a new Superman movie, which meant Jimmy had to break the news to him & break his heart. But on the day he agreed to do the sketch, I was in Hawaii officiating my best friend's wedding, so I never got to meet him and have an awkward "So... uh... did you ever ask a reporter out from TV?" moment. I envisioned us laughing about it, having a beer, and .... I dunno... being adopted as his son. It didn't happen. But all in all, I love Dean Cain. And this might be my favorite sketch on a personal level. It's weird, and I got to write something for the guy who instilled a sense of wonder in me as a kid.
How does it feel to be the 358th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
... am I not the 336th? I was promised that over G-Chat. Duped by Zulkey, again...