Luke Cunningham is back in town to help Carl Boccuti, Chip Chantry and Johnny Goodtimes ring in the new year TONIGHT for A Motown New Year’s Eve at La Stanza (2001 W. Oregon Avenue). After that, he’s off to his new job writing for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he’ll be hanging out with The Roots, writing his ass off, and—fortunately for Philadelphia comedy—living in closer proximity to his sketch group Bird Text, which means we can expect a lot from them in 2013. Luke chatted with WitOut a bit about what’s gotten him to this point in his career, and what advice he has for comedy writers coming up in Philly.
WitOut: What was the process like for getting hired on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon?
Luke Cunningham: The process is long but simple. You submit by invitation. The producers reached out to my agent and asked if they had any writers who would like to submit. My agent asked if I’d like to do it again—this was the third time I had submitted for Fallon—and I was put into the packet pool. For the next four days, I had to submit my ten best jokes every day by 5PM EST, 2PM for me because I was living in LA. The previous times I had submitted, I only participated in the initial four days. This time, I submitted for a total of twelve consecutive show days. It was like The Hunger Games but for jokes. People were getting eliminated while I got to stay. After twelve days, they flew me in for an interview. I flew in Sunday, interviewed Monday and was back out on a flight that night.
The interview was cool because I was in a room with Jimmy and the producers. When I said, “I’m from Philadelphia,” that got a round of applause. They love hiring people from Philadelphia because The Roots love having people from our hometown on the staff. Though after my interview, I was convinced I did not get the job. I had spent most of the time in the room listening to A.D. Miles and Jimmy riff on the Lakers.
I’ve gotten to the “In the room…” interview a few times. At that point, they want to make sure you’re not crazy, unwashed, violent, etc. Tina Fey described it as “Hire who you want to see in a hallway at 3AM.” Luckily, I am at my peak in hallways at 3AM.
WO: Will you get to meet The Roots, and if so, which member are you most looking forward to meeting?
LC: I know a few other people who worked on the show and they say The Roots become part of your day during orientation. Like, “Oh, here’s the mailman. And this is the writer with whom you’ll share an office. And of course, here’s the world’s-one-and-only hip-hop band.” And ?uestlove. I’ve been reading his blog for ten years. They are the band I’ve seen in concert the most times. And now that will be a regular part of my afternoon. It’s surreal.
WO: Despite up until recently living in LA, and now moving to New York, you’re still connected to Philly comedy, primarily via Bird Text. What’s special to you about being part of that group?
LC: Tommy aka “Delco Fonzarelli” and I have been friends for 20 years. He was a star then. He’s a star now. John is a great writer, actor, and the best editor I’ve ever worked with. Though what’s special to me about being part of Bird Text is having an outlet for sketch writing.
One of the positives of working on Fallon will be the proximity to Philadelphia: to Tommy and John as well as Darryl Charles, Doogie, Mary Radzinski, Chip, Gerben and all the other comics we’ve worked with in our sketches. No longer being 3000 miles away from them means there will be far more Bird Text sketches in 2013 than 2012. I know we’d like to revive the live show.
WO: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned doing comedy in Philly and/or LA that you feel have helped you develop as a writer?
LC: The most important thing I’ve learned in the past few years is how to work. Cannot overstate how important that has been. Before I moved to LA to write on Sports Show With Norm MacDonald, I didn’t know how to work. Did not know that I need to approach it like a job. And a job requires dedicating forty hours per week minimum.
I still had to have a day job after Sports Show was cancelled. For most of the past two years I’ve worked as a rowing coach at UCLA. I’d coach every morning at 5AM. Once we were off the water, I’d start cranking on spec scripts, packets, etc. I made sure to put in the time every day. I took a course at UCLA. It was “Writing TV Comedy Pilots” with Phil Kellard. The course honed my process and taught me how to write for television. Not jokes like I’ll be doing at Fallon. But it taught me how to write a tight single camera comedy.
When I started in 2006, I thought taking an improv class every week counted as pursuing comedy. I was wrong. I needed to pursue it every day. Write during the day. Stand-up, sketch, or improv at night. Repeat.
WO: What advice would you give to aspiring comedy writers coming up in Philly?
LC: Write. It seems self-explanatory but it’s not. I told people for years that I was a comic and a writer. But the truth was that I wrote infrequently. You need to write every day if you want to be a writer.
I love Philadelphia and the scene here. In hindsight, I would have started in Philadelphia rather than New York. It is easier to get quality stage time here than in New York or LA. If the Comedy Cellar is the best showcase club in America, Helium is the best headliner club. The Grossmans do things really well and run great clubs. Talk to pro comics, they love the Helium chain. It’s a gift that their flagship is in Philadelphia. Comics at Helium have gone from their first open mic to hosting for a national headliner within a couple years of starting. That almost never happens in New York or LA.
PHIT and Philadelphia’s improv scene would be more vibrant with a dedicated space. It seems like momentum is building toward that end. In short, stay in Philadelphia and keep killing here until you have so much work available in New York or LA that you have to move.
Also, Sara Schaeffer’s recent post about writing for TV packets is a must-read if you want to pursue this as a career: http://thecomicscomic.com/2012/12/30/advice-for-submitting-a-late-night-tv-writing-packet-from-someone-who-has-been-on-both-sides-of-the-hiring-process/
Books you should read if you want to write:
Writing Movies For Fun And Profit by Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant
- Members of The State who have been WILDLY successful writing TV and film give insight on what it’s really like.
You’re Lucky You’re Funny by Phil Rosenthal
- The Showrunner (Executive Producer) of Everybody Loves Raymond breaks down how network TV shows are made.
My Seinfeld Year by Fred Stoller
- Great stand-up comic spent a year as a writer on Seinfeld. He explains the daily pressure of writing comedy very well.