Question: How difficult is it to consistently write funny material for the show?
Bill Scheft: First of all, thank you. I’m glad that the question is phrased so that it’s assumed that I write funny stuff everyday. I appreciate that. I think if you write for a strip show, which is what Letterman is, a show that’s on 5 days a week, you don’t think about it in terms of funny. If I ever thought about what I had to do at the beginning of everyday, I don’t think I could do it.
With comedy writing, especially writing on a daily basis, it’s a muscle that you work and, if you keep working it, you can do it. What Woody Allen once said about joke writing is, “If you can do it, there’s nothing to it,” and I believe that.
Mostly, with the Letterman Show, I’ve been a monologue writer. I just write jokes for the most part, though I work on some other stuff on the show. When I first started the show in 1991 and they told me I have to write 15 jokes a day I thought, “How am I going to do this?”
I just tried to get through that day, and then within about 6 months I wasn’t writing 15 jokes a day—I was writing 25 or 30. It got to the point where I was writing 50 or 60 jokes a day, and they’re not all great. Actually, very few of them are great ,but that’s the thing about comedy—you have to make mounds and mounds of coleslaw to get one good serving. That’s what we do on The Letterman Show. We just create a lot of content and ideally the best content gets on the show.
Question: How much does Letterman himself contribute to the show's material?
Bill Scheft: Here’s the thing about the writers and Dave Letterman. We write a lot of stuff that’s funny. We write a lot of stuff that’s pretty good. We write a lot of stuff that’s lame. But invariably, night after night, the funniest moments in the show are Dave reacting in real time to his surroundings. It’s something that you can not write in preparation for the show, but all he wants when he goes out there is to feel like he has enough of a life raft.
I want to say that again: when Dave comes out at the beginning of the night, the writer’s job is to put him in a situation where, if he needs it, it’s there—the monologue is there if he needs it, the top 10 is there if he needs it, couple of good tape pieces are there if he needs it, and then he can just relax and react in the moment.
I have a friend, Kelly Rogers, who I started with, who was a great comic that people don’t know about. She said something so profound: “Your act is for the nights when you’re not funny.” That’s what the writers supply to Dave. They supply him an act for those nights when he doesn’t feel funny—and I have yet to see a night like that.