Today's email comes from Jason, who writes:
I live in Boston and have been a TV writer-producer for about 15 years, but only recently decided to try my hand at comedy writing for the various late-night shows (i.e. Letterman, Leno, Ferguson, etc.). Letterman's show was happy to receive my "unsolicited" packet, as long as I signed a release form. Craig Ferguson's show, however, won't accept anything that's unsolicited and doesn't come from an agent. Is it common for late-night shows to require that joke packets only come from agents?
Sadly, Jason the answer is yes: It is common.
There was a time, years ago, when late-night shows would accept unsolicited jokes or packets. In fact, The Tonight Show used to have an open fax line where anyone could submit monologue jokes... and the show paid you if they used your submission!
Unfortunately, those days are long gone.
In fact, it's not only common for late-night shows to require that script and packet submissions come only from agents, it's common for every show to require submissions come only from agents.
And even though a show such as Letterman may tell you they'll accept your "unsolicited" packet, here's what they won't tell you: You still have almost no chance of being considered for a job there.
While some shows may "accept" your packet, it probably won't get seriously read if it didn't come from an agent, manager, lawyer, executive, or close friend of the show. It'll probably — and I hate to say this — simply end up in a discard pile.
This is for a couple of reasons, and I've talked about them in other posts (like THIS ONE).
ONE: Accepting submissions only from trusted third parties, such as an agent or manager, protects the show legally… or at least offers some semblance or some level of legal protection.
TWO: Accepting, or least considering, submissions only from trusted sources such as agents, managers, lawyers, or friends also serves as a certain filtering or weeding-out process. These shows — Letterman, Ferguson, Tonight Show, The Daily Show … not to mention traditional scripted shows like Once Upon a Time or Two Broke Girls — receive thousands of submissions from writers vying to join of their staffs. So while you may be the most talented writer the producers of Ferguson or Letterman will ever read, they don't have the time or resources to read every single submission that comes to them; they need a filtering or weeding-out process.
Agents, managers, executives, and friends are one way to begin weeding out the riffraff.
If a submission comes to a producer from an agent whose tastes he knows and trusts, that submission moves higher in the stack. If a producer receives a submission from a close friend, somebody she knows and trusts, that submission moves higher in the stack.
Unsolicited submissions, such as yours, no matter how brilliant they are, don't usually have anything to move them higher in the stack — no recognizable stamp of approval.
So, it's not that you don't stand a chance of being considered because you're not talented … you may be the most talented writer ever … it's that without the recommendation, or validation, of a trusted contact, there's nothing to set your submission apart, or move it high enough in the stack that it will ever stand a chance of actually being read.
So, unfortunately, yes, it's common for late-night shows — and all other shows — to require that joke packets only come from agents.
Which is why I always say: If you don't have an agent, and you don't have connections in the industry (and when they're first trying to break, most people don't … unless they're the son of Steven Spielberg or Greg Garcia or somebody), it is imperative that you move to Los Angeles … or, if you want to be on a show like Letterman or The Daily Show, New York City. But you must, must, MUST be living in the city where you want to work if you truly intend to break into that city's industry.
If you want to write for Ringer or Revenge or Whitney or How I Met Your Mother — all of which are L.A.-based — you must be living in Los Angeles. If you want to write for Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, you should be living in New York.
In fact, I would actually say: If you want to write for any kind of television, you should be living in Los Angeles, because even though a handful of New York-based shows fish for writers in the ponds of New York, most of TV is L.A.-based.
(One little exception: Many late-night shows like Jimmy Kimmel, Chelsea Lately, Conan, etc. pluck writers from the world of stand-up and sketch comedy. So, if you're not ready to move to L.A. or NYC, I would at least try to get a stand-up career up and running. Begin performing in your local area. As you pick up steam, headlining venues and running your own rooms, you can begin touring … first as an opening act, then as a headliner. This is not only a great way to garner the attention of people in the late-night world, it'll: A) allow you to meet other comics and comedy writers, and B) allow you to actually write and perform material, so you'll become a much stronger writer of material.)
Anyway, Jason, I hope this has been helpful. Here are some other blog posts you may find valuable:
If you -- or anyone else -- have more questions, please don't hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook me at facebook.com/chadgervich, or Tweet me @chadgervich. And I'll be back next time with more of your great reader questions!