Write Now with Gabe Abelson

How writing for late night television unlocked the secrets to writing jokes.

Write Now with Gabe Abelson
Photo courtesy of Gabe Abelson

Who Are You?

My name is Gabe Abelson. I’m a comedy writer/producer for late night television, a stand-up comic, and a teacher of both stand-up and late night for over 30 years. I’m based out of Los Angeles, but spent most of my life in NYC working as a comic, and later as the Head Monologue Writer for David Letterman.

What Do You Write?

Most of the writing I do consists of topical jokes. I sort of fell into the business through a series of circumstances after working solely as a standup for 14 years. It all started when I was hired to do audience warm-up as a comic for “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher”, back in 1994, when it was on Comedy Central. I asked the executive producer if I could submit jokes for Maher, and he told me he’d add me to a fax team of freelance writers. I started to get a lot of jokes on the air on a consistent basis, so they offered me a weekly stipend. Then when the show landed a deal with ABC and moved from NYC to LA, I started faxing jokes to Letterman. Within six months, I became the head monologue writer and stayed at the show for five years. Eventually, everything came full circle and I ended up moving out to LA when I got an offer to be a staff writer on Bill Maher’s ABC show.

I don’t avoid any topics in live, comedy club standup. I don’t think there’s anything “off-base”, as long as it’s funny. That changes dramatically when I’m writing for network television. Obviously, there are things you can’t go near. I always advise my late night writing students to avoid “first date subjects” when submitting a packet to a talk show — no death, disease, sexual orientation, race or religion. I let them know that once they’re on staff, not to be afraid to write some stuff that may be over the line, but when you’re trying to get the late night gig, don’t have your packet rejected because of CONTENT, because that’s something within your control. Only have it rejected because it’s not funny enough!

There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing late night jokes. First, half the joke (the setup) is already written. The setup is always a true, topical news story. So all the work is in finding the punchline. It’s like solving for “X”. To me, at least, a monologue joke is an equation waiting to be solved.

At this point, I probably enjoy teaching standup and late night even more than doing it myself. I have former students working on almost every talk show, and that is tremendously satisfying. And the more advanced the student, the more I enjoy working with them as I don’t have to teach them the basics. I work with everyone from beginners, to writers already on staff at various shows who still want two improve, and comics who already have Netflix shows, like Emma Willmann, who I work with almost monthly and have for 4 years. I come from a family of professors, so I think teaching’s in my blood, and I’ve been deconstructing monologue writing for so long, I have it down to an applied science.

Where Do You Write?

I write topical jokes in my kitchen. That’s my work area. It’s where I focus best, and I’m never too far from the fridge.

Stand-up, unlike monologue, is written by inspiration, so there’s no set time or place when I write. When the idea hits, I put it down immediately. Monologue is by preparation, because the setups (what’s in the news) are already there for you. Then it’s just a matter of finding a twist or turn to write the punch. 90% of monologue jokes are two or more distinctly separate ideas tied together in a funny and unexpected way. Finding the “handles”, then figuring out how they can be linkedtogether. It’s very mathematical and formulaic, and that’s a GOOD thing in monologue.

But as a standup, you never want to be formulaic. Late night monologue has a rhythm, a music to it. It is it’s own language. You need to write in that language. It’s why you hear a lot of the same words, phrases, etc. in late night. “Apparently…”, “Or, as we call it, ____” is languaging we hear all the time in late night, and there’s a good reason for it. It’s because it works. There is a set structure, as opposed to standup. There are no rules in standup. no network censors to worry about and most importantly, no set structure. Your jokes reflect your character, and everyone’s character is different. Everyone’s rhythm and timing is different. Stand-up is reflecting on the internal, and making your experiences universally relatable. With talk show monologue, the host is rarely part of the joke; it’s all external, observational, looking outwards at society. So in a sense, stand-up and late night monologue are opposite approaches.

When Do You Write?

I don’t have a set time to write, but my best work usually is done in the morning, despite me being nocturnal after all the decades in comedy clubs. The synapses fire better earlier in the day. The goal changes depending on the project.

Why Do You Write?

I write because I love the art form, and also because I have no choice. It’s something that’s driven me since my early teens. Ideas hit all the time, and formulating jokes is something I’d do for free, even if I wasn’t doing it professionally. Everyone has something that drives them; for me it’s comedy. Life’s little insanities inspire me, and of course, as a young comic, I had my influences, the three biggest being George Carlin, Richard Pryor and David Letterman.

How Do You Overcome Writer’s Block?

Well into my monologue writing career, I discovered a process that not only helped avoid writer’s block, but also allowed me to increase the number of monologue jokes I write by at least twofold: I used to take a topic from the news, put it in a document, and stare at it till I found a joke. But one becomes too familiar with the joke after looking at it too long, and that can cause writer’s block, because you can’t think of a new angle.

So what I do now is collect setups without writing jokes, then attack them like a game of speed chess. I go to various news sites and just look for stories that COULD lead to a joke, but I don’t even allow myself to think of one. I gather about 50 of these setups, because I know that I’ll probably only use about 1/3rd of them. Most of the stuff you write, you discard, and this is something a lot of novice writers don’t understand. Anyway, by “collecting” setups, I don’t have to stress about writing 50 jokes, because no work has been put in yet.

When I’m done with collecting setups, I now have 50 potential jokes, and I haven’t broken a sweat. Then, (like timed chess), I’ll look at my first setup and ONLY give myself about 2 minutes to think of a joke. If I can’t, I’ll immediately move down to the second setup. I do this till I’ve gone through all 50 setups, and if I don’t think of anything, I don’t stress, because I know I’ll come back to it as I cycle.

The quickest way to get myself in the “writing zone” is to teach. After reviewing students’ material, I get into a rhythm that makes me want to write more, create more. I’m in a writing zone I wasn’t necessarily in before the lesson.

Bonus: What Do You Enjoy Doing When Not Writing?

For about 10 years now, when not writing for television or teaching, I perform a mentalism act globally. There’s a lot of comedy in between mind reading demonstrations, but it’s not a standup act, and it’s as big a passion for me as writing is. Started as a hobby, then I published a couple of books of original mentalism material. I don’t use props, and to me, the most interesting area is that of the human mind. So I perform linguistic persuasion and psychology-based demonstrations. In my spare time, I also play piano and sketch.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!