Recently I had the chance to attend one of those creative panels sponsored by the Writers Guild, East. It was featuring the writers of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The guild does these things often, to share and teach the craft of writing, to allow members to meet and mingle, to draw us away from our ink-stained hovels and get out in the world...
The red flag should have been the email confirmation of my reservation. “Arrive 90 minutes before the panel.” Ninety minutes? The panel was only an hour! It went on to declare there would be no shopping bags, backpacks or luggage permitted. No lockers or coat check provided. There would be metal detectors to pass through and handbag searches. NO PHOTOS. So, “plan accordingly.” What? Show up early and naked? What is this, LaGuardia Airport?
I got there at 6:30 and checked in with the WGAE people in the lobby. This, as it turned out, was only the first check in. From the WGA table we were directed upstairs, and once we climbed those stairs, we entered the 30 Rock security grid. There was a greeting desk of NBC Pages with a list of names. I was checked in again, only this time I got a wrist band and a numbered ticket (#54? #59? It was handwritten in magic marker on back of a standard TV show ticket). We had to pass through metal detectors (made it on the first try! Woo-hoo!). All so we could safely arrive at…the Peacock Lounge, which is a fancy name for the waiting room. There were monitors all over the walls with slideshows of Tonight Show photos playing as we waited. Surprisingly, you’re left there long enough to realize there really aren’t that many photos. Weird, right? Oh, and NO PICTURES! Seriously, the staff was quite vocal about not taking photos of the waiting room. Good thing my dentist isn’t as touchy about that. At least there was plenty of seating; fancy benches with cushions. Also, the last bathroom we would see for quite some time. I noticed a fancy curtain set-up where they could close off the Peacock Lounge/waiting room into separate sections with a strangely shear curtain which would seem to defeat the purpose of closing a curtain.
We were forced to cool our heels there for about 30 minutes, then more NBC Pages, on duty even for this extracurricular activity, started calling out the ticket numbers. Once summoned, we were directed to the elevator banks, to wait in lines for another 10 minutes or so. There was a taping of Maya & Marty going on as well, so it was pretty active up there. We were taken up to the 7th floor in groups and then we waited in the anteroom of studio 6-B with the pages. Some chit-chat was attempted and failed. The standard “where you from” line used by the pages for the usual groups of tourists there for a taping just didn’t work under these circumstances. While waiting for the elevators felt like being on line for the Tower of Terror ride in Disney World, waiting in this anteroom was more like The Haunted Mansion. Finally, around 7:45, they opened the studio doors and directed us to seats. They had quite a squad there, making sure groups were together and every seat was filled. I definitely recognized this as standard show taping behavior, despite the fact that it was a special (and technically private) event. I would note here, they could have used a bit more of the procedures employed by their sister entity, Universal Studios, on getting audience members into their seats quickly and efficiently, like at the Terminator Attraction, or the Monster Make-Up show; multiple doors, send everyone down the row, all the way to the end. And more pre-show entertainment, videos, automatons singing, character autographs. Something.
Once the bulk of the crowd was in, they started playing the highlight reel on the overhead monitors, Tonight Show clips from which many of waiting room photos were culled (Will Ferrell dressed as Little Debbie. Duh!). All the while security is watching us like we’re escaped felons. They would yell and charge at people who took out their phones/cameras to snap pictures. The people were asked to delete any pictures they did take. I guess they don’t want Fox or the CW stealing any of their late-night technology secrets (The way Jack Burns stole them when he hosted SNL and a few months later “created” FRIDAYS! For ABC. Lorne Michaels has a long memory).
Then the warm-up comedian came out. Warm up comedian? Here we are, supposedly all industry professionals (hey, back off, I’m in the guild!) and the comedian comes out and works the crowd the same way they do before a taping. Speaking of taping, they had a full camera crew in place to tape this thing. I know the guild has taped these panels before, but usually, it’s one of the secretaries with a camcorder.
Next, they introduced the guild president (Pres. What’s His Name) and he brought out the six senior writers of the Tonight Show. Then he brought out the moderator, Jimmy Fallon. Oh, right. Jimmy Fallon was moderating. I’ll admit, this was something that made me want to attend. I would live to regret that.
Having Fallon moderate may have been a mistake. It kinda turned the panel into the Jimmy Fallon hour, as he did the bulk of the talking. He decided to allow questions throughout, just shout BINGO! Immediately an old guy seated in the front row did. He asked how you get a job on staff. So we got that out of the way early. Essentially Fallon and his head writer said they’re always open to submissions through agents. Seems late night has a pretty high turnover.
One thing I picked up on was an inference that a lot of the writing goes on off-site. They mentioned that when they get the list of guests several weeks in advance, they blast out a note to the writers. The writers are told which guest is open to doing a skit or bit and open it up to suggestions and pitches. Then, as Fallon said, “I come in open my email and it’s like Christmas morning.” I was a little disappointed that so much of the process seems to be done from home. Which is something I’ve kept running into throughout my so-called career. There is no clubhouse. There is no writers room. It’s all tele-commuting now with the jokes being submitted by shut-ins.
The writers were asked what their experiences were and how they used it to get to where they are. Essentially they said to get your material out there; stand-up, writing for sketch groups, YouTube, just get it out. Keep churning out material, because that’s what the job involves, writing 40 monologue jokes a day. One unique bit of advice, if you can befriend a future late-night host in high school, that’s a good way to get a job (one of the writer supervisors is Fallon’s high school buddy).
The security team was eyeballing us the entire time.
The only real time Fallon stopped talking was when they showed a clip. There were four. One interesting tidbit; when a politician appears in a skit, to avoid any problems with the “equal time” rules, the sketch has to be some variation of an interview or Q&A. They showed a clip of Hillary on the phone talking to Fallon’s impersonation of Trump. Trump would ask Hillary a question, she’d answer it with a joke and then Trump would let her know she’s wrong.
At the hour mark, it was over. One hour, much shorter than these things usually run. No mingling, no meet & greet. We were led out and exited through the gift shop.
So take aways: The show has 5 hours to fill each week, at 200+ days a year. Nothing is too precious to not be used. They are not trying to be cutting social satire, they are trying to work everything from a place of “joy.” They want to ensure the audience and the guest that they will not look bad on the show. Guests are given the opportunity to participate in a game or bit, but are not required to. Fallon gets the criticism that he comes out like he likes everyone, is excited by show business and thinks everyone is great and he responded, “I kinda do.” He roots for the guests, and their projects, because if it works, that means they get continued guests and things for the show to use. There was a lot of that; Fallon expressing his love of the show, the bits, his staff. He did praise them mightily, which I got was the reason for the panel existing. But most of all, the show had to be funny. It’s the last night a lot of people watch at the end of the day. They are part of a larger Tonight Show tradition. It’s feel-good TV.
It was interesting and I enjoyed it, but they could have used someone from the outside to run the panel. And it should have been longer.
And, as usual, I’m always amazed at how small the stage and set of a TV show is.