Jenny Hagel ’09 MFA has been nominated for multiple Emmy Awards for her work as a comedy writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers. She has also written for the Golden Globe Awards and shows like truTV’s long-running hit Impractical Jokers. Recently she became the inaugural head writer for and an executive producer of The Amber Ruffin Show, a late-night comedy show on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock. Northwestern Magazine’s Martin Wilson Zoomed with Hagel from her New York City apartment to talk about landing her dream job right after she quit trying, gaining the confidence to fail in comedy and how a late-night show comes together.
What does a writer for a talk show like Late Night with Seth Meyers actually do?
A late-night writer comes up with a constant flow of monologue jokes and pitches for sketches and desk bits for a host to deliver, inspired by the news. It is really a job of quantity. It’s like being in a batting cage where you just take swings all the time. Sometimes you connect a lot, and sometimes you absolutely strike out. Then every day you get back in the cage again and you just keep swinging. Also I have no sports background, so I feel confident this analogy is flawless.
There will be some days where I turn in 50 monologue jokes and none of them make it to air. Or I will have a day where two or three get on, and I’ll be like, “nailed it.”
To extend that metaphor, in baseball three hits every 10 chances is elite. Does a similar ratio for comedy writing get demoralizing?
When you’re new and nervous, it can be demoralizing, and then once you’ve failed enough, it is extremely empowering. When you first start out in comedy you think, “What if I say something and nobody laughs? Then I die?” And once that happens a few times and you’re still alive, you realize, oh, this has been a whole emperor’s new clothes situation. My friends still think I’m funny. Nobody even remembers 10 minutes later that I said the thing nobody laughed at. Once you lower the stakes of trying it makes you so much more empowered to try a million times.
Now I’m also the head writer at The Amber Ruffin Show. And I always say whenever we hire a new writer, “I do not care if every pitch of yours is funny. I do care that you are trying. I have been a writer on a staff, so do not kid a kidder. I know if you wrote this 10 minutes before the meeting on the back of a cocktail napkin, and I know if you put thought into it. As long as you put thought into it, I do not care if it ends up being a thing that we use or we don’t.” I just care that we’re all just taking swings because eventually something will connect.
What’s the typical routine for a late-night comedy writer?
At Seth’s show you come in every morning with what we call a Monday pitch: an idea for a thing that Seth could do, or another writer/performer on the show could do, based on the news of the weekend. We all go around the room and we each pitch one to the head writer. Then he and Seth decide which ones we’re going to pursue. It could be a few of them; it could be none of them.
Our show is divided into a sketch team and a monologue team. If you’re on the monologue team, you turn in a batch of monologue jokes every afternoon. The first sentence is a true piece of news, and the second sentence is the punchline. The setups would be like, “President Biden visited Iowa today…” or “A woman in Florida won $3 million in the lottery by playing her bra size…” and then you would add the punchline.
Then once a week we do what’s called a table read, which is probably my favorite thing of the whole week. Everybody on staff is invited to turn in a sketch or a desk bit. There’s no assignment, it’s just whatever is in your weird little heart. It’s kind of great because nobody knows what’s being turned in. We all sit down with Seth, who hasn’t seen them either, and it’s like sketch Christmas. It’s such a delight.
What’s a “desk bit”?
A desk bit is any type of piece that a late-night host does sitting at the desk where they lay out a premise and then fill it with a bunch of jokes. So for example, my friend Amber Ruffin and I do a piece at Late Night called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” Seth says, “hey, I’m a straight white guy. I can’t tell some jokes, so my friends are going to come and tell some with me.”
How did the “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” segment (or “desk bit”) begin?
I was pretty new when we pitched it. I was still very afraid to be at work every day. Not because of Seth, who is a wonderful boss, but because of my own impostor syndrome. So I wrote a bunch of monologue jokes my first week. There was some lesbian-related headline, and I rolled up my sleeves and wrote like 10 jokes off of it. Later I saw my boss in the hallway and jokingly said, “Let me know if you need more lesbian jokes!” And he was like, “We absolutely cannot use them.” I realized, “Oh, right, Seth can’t dump on lesbians!” I thought I was giving them the gift of my personal point of view. So I pulled aside Amber and said, “What if we did a sketch where we told jokes about our respective identities? [Hagel is gay and Puerto Rican, Ruffin is Black.]” We both kind of laughed, like, nobody will ever let us do that on television. But we needed something to turn in, so we turned it in. And then to our great surprise, they chose it. We thought they’d let us do it one time — and then to our even larger surprise, they thought we should do it again. And I think now we’ve done almost 50.
This seems like your dream job. How did you get the gig?
I think getting any job on a late-night show is a combination of skill and preparedness and luck.
I started out in the Chicago comedy scene. I did a ton of improv and sketch comedy for 10 years at The Second City and iO Theater. That taught me a lot about comedy and rhythm. Being a performer taught me about what works and what doesn’t in front of an audience, and to make adjustments to turn something that doesn’t work into something that does. It also taught me a lot about working with a group.
After that, I went to a little-known school called Northwestern University where I got an MFA in writing for screen and stage. I wanted to try TV writing, but there were a couple gaps between what I knew and what I would need to know, and the MFA program perfectly filled those gaps for me. After 10 years at The Second City I had learned a lot about how to write for a live audience, and my experience at Northwestern helped me translate those skills to writing for the screen. It was really practical and helpful.
When I graduated, I moved to New York and worked for a series of cable shows at different networks for six or seven years. But the whole time I really wished I could write for a late-night show. I submitted, I think, 35 [writing] packets to different late-night shows. They were all rejected at various points in the process.
I finally got to a point where I thought, “This is just not going to happen for me. And that’s fine. I’m making my living as a TV writer, and that is further than I thought this would ever go. I’m meeting really nice people. I get to make my living doing something creative, so maybe I just give up this late-night thing.”
And then right after I’d had [that talk] with myself, Amber — who already worked at Late Night With Seth Meyers — texted me and said, “Hey, I think we might be hiring. Do you want to submit a packet?” Honestly I only said yes because she was my friend and I felt too embarrassed to say, “No, I can’t because I’ve given up on my dream.” But in my head it was like the beginning of a cop movie where the cop says, “I’ll take this one last case before I retire.” I was like, “I’ll do this one last packet, but then I think we all know my dream will die.” And I ended up getting hired.
How do you balance writing for Late Night with Seth Meyers and executive producing/head writing for The Amber Ruffin Show?
First of all, I have the same bosses at both jobs — Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker — so that helps me adjust my schedule as needed. But also, weirdly, the pandemic and working remotely has made it possible because I’m not physically running from office to office to take different meetings. I’m just in my kitchen with no shoes on, clicking between things. Obviously I don’t like to talk about positive outcomes of a pandemic because a pandemic is an objectively awful thing, but the new and more flexible workflows that have been discovered have allowed me to have two jobs at once.
And how are those two jobs different? Do you like them the same or do you prefer one over the other?
I like both jobs equally because they work different parts of my brain. At Late Night I write as many jokes as I can, and I set them free like a baby bird from a nest and hope they fly. Then at Amber’s show I get to think big picture. Do these five sketches create a well-balanced show? What order should they go in and why? I still get to write jokes, but it’s neat to be part of comedy problem-solving.
I also get to help other writers revise. It’s not something everybody enjoys, but I like when a writer brings in a sketch that’s three-fourths of the way there and I can tell what they’re trying to say. It’s something I never would have thought of, and I see if I can help them say it clearer.
What advice can you give to people who want to be a late-night comedy writer or TV writer?
The good news and the bad news about a writing career is that there’s no one way to do it. If you want to be an attorney, you take the LSAT and you go to law school. I don’t mean to say that’s easy, but the path is not a secret. I wish I could say, “Here’s five steps, and they’re going to be hard, but if you do them, you’ll end up writing for a living.”
But the good news is, there’s no wrong way. The thing I encourage you to do is, at every juncture in your writing life, do what actually interests you. There are people who’ve made an entire career because they made a Tumblr or played comedic songs on a ukulele. There’s a million weird paths. And they’re not linear. One thing that seems like a setback could years later prove to have been the best thing that happened to you.
You talk about some of your identities, as a woman, as a lesbian, as a person of Puerto Rican descent. Do you feel a responsibility to represent those groups or people?
Responsibility is probably not the right word. In my comedy writing I try to be funny and I try to be honest. And I think that’s the most that I can do. I wrote a really piece silly piece for Seth four months into the pandemic talking about the proper way to wash your hands, and then it’s revealed that I have skeleton hands. That was just how I was feeling that week when I needed an idea. I looked at my hands and thought, I’m not going to make it to the end of the year; these are going to be bloody stumps. So I wrote that sketch. But I’ve also written sketches about homophobia and anti-Latinx racism. I feel like my approach isn’t so much about what’s my responsibility in the world. It’s mostly, what’s a funny, honest thing I can write based on where I am today?