Johnny Carson is the standard by which all talk show hosts are measured -- PBS referred to Carson as "the king of late night" in its 2012 documentary on Carson. Short comedy routines were an important ingredient in Carson’s bag of tricks. People in the business refer to the comedy routine as a “desk piece.” It gets its name from the fact that the host performs the comedic skit while sitting at his or her desk. Carson followed in the footsteps of Steve Allen and Jack Paar, who pioneered the talk show format in the 1950s.
A desk piece starts with an idea. The desk skits are funny because they appear to be more or less spontaneous. The truth is that they are fully scripted and rehearsed. Generate a variety of ideas so that you have material to work with. Current events are always a useful topic for desk pieces, with major online news outlets and newspapers a valuable resource. Celebrity quirks are also a comedic gold mine. When you have a few ideas that could be the genesis of a funny skit, jot them down. The typical length of a desk piece comedy skit is four or five minutes. Creating a character for a talk show host or adding a regular routine is a popular technique for desk piece skits. Carson's "Carnac the Magnificient" is one of the best examples of desk skit character. Carnac was inspired by Steve Allen's "Answer Man." David Letterman's "Top 10 List" is a variation of the desk piece skit.
Knowing What's Funny
Comedy writers know that something that seems funny in the moment may not resonate after a little reflection. This is why you want to make a list of potential ideas and them give them a little time to breathe. In a 2010 PBS documentary about Joan Rivers, the infamous comedian is shown honing her act. She tests out jokes on her staff, and Rivers and the staff go back and forth as they decide which ideas are actually funny and which fall short. A successful desk piece writer has to develop the knack of recognizing what will get laughs.
Narrowing the Field
Write two or three scripts. This gives you options rather than putting all your eggs in one basket. Some writers sketch everything out a summary before writing the actual script. The summary might include the basic idea for the skit, a sample joke or two and a list of props for the script. The props should be minimal since the idea is that the TV host is able to perform the skit sitting at his desk. The basic plot of a desk piece is setup and punch line. A desk piece can have several setups and punch lines or the skit can build and build until it delivers a big punch line at the end. Read and reread the script several times after it is written. It should be funny every time. Try it out on friends and colleagues and gauge their reaction.
Keeping It Evergreen
In his book “Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV,” Joe Toplyn offers some important advice and tips for anyone interested in doing this sort of work. One piece of advice concerns the shelf life of a joke. Joking about current political events or celebrities often works as the basis for a comedy skit, but the problem is that as the references fade from memory the joke loses its impact. Toplyn refers to comedy that has a longer shelf life as “evergreen comedy,” which favors pop culture themes rather than topical themes. As a consequence the comedy skit has a longer shelf life. Anyone interested in submitting examples of their work to television comedy shows should always include topical and evergreen bits. The latter stay relevant longer, while the former demonstrate your ability to keep your comedy on the pulse of current events.
Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.