The barriers to entry for L.A.’s comedy scene are fairly low: If you want to learn improv, there are hundreds of classes for that, at schools from iO West to the Groundlings. Ditto for sketch comedy. Want to perform stand-up? Show up to an open mic, dozens of which are held every night at bars and cafes across the city. But if you want to learn how to write and workshop monologue jokes for late night television, you're mostly on your own.
A new comedy show at UCB aims to make the medium more accessible — particularly to women, who account for just a fraction of all writers on late night talk shows. Called Late Night With Jimmy Fallopian Tubes, the monthly variety program solicits pitches from writers and performers every month, then curates that material into a live show that might include monologues, video segments, slideshows, sketches, stand-up, interviews and games that require audience participation. Essentially, it imagines what The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon might look like if it were written, directed, produced and performed entirely by women.
“We see it as a workshop show, so if you are a female writer and you want to write for late night, how do you learn? You have to practice,” host/co-producer Erika Abdelatif told the audience on a recent Saturday night before breaking into the show's opening monologue, which included plenty of jokes aimed at Donald Trump. “We want to give women an opportunity to try things out and we're going to see how it goes.”
The show is designed in part to give women experience writing late night–style jokes, but Abdelatif also sees it as a platform where comedy writers can gain access to women who are staffed in the writers' rooms of late night TV shows. During September's Late Night With Jimmy Fallopian Tubes, for example, Abdelatif interviewed Conan writer Jessie Gaskell — who earlier in the night performed in a sketch about a bachelorette party from hell — about how she got her start and what her day entails, from pitch meeting to show taping.
Gaskell said she worked her way up from a production assistant at The Soup, where the head writer let her contribute monologue jokes and, even more rare considering she was still a P.A., gave her feedback on the jokes. That gig led to writing for The Dish, or what she jokingly described as “The Soup for girls,” and eventually landed her a job on Conan, where she's currently one of just two female writers on staff.
“When I was hired, it was the only time we had more than one woman at a time [on the writing staff]. But the other [L.A. comedian Laurie Kilmartin] is on the monologue side, so they keep us separated,” says Gaskell, who writes sketches. “I think I'm just constantly aware of being female and having to speak for other women.”
Being the only woman on the sketch writing team also means Gaskell misses what is sometimes the first pitch meeting of the day: in the men's restroom. “A male co-worker recently told me that he pitches the head writer in the bathroom sometimes,” she told via email. “I certainly don't think it's a regular thing, but it was a laughable example for me of some of the inadvertent access barriers for women in heavily male workplaces. It just hadn't even occurred to me that they talked about work in there.”
Gaskell's experience of being one of the few women — if not the only woman — in a late night writers' room isn't uncommon. When Mother Jones analyzed the credits on 11 of the most popular late night sketch and talk shows last year, it found that women were less than 18 percent of all writers. The percentage of women writing for late night, it noted, is significantly lower than the percentage of women writing for broadcast and cable television shows overall.
Late night TV's diversity problem, of course, is nothing new. A little more than a decade ago, there were zero women writers staffed on Late Show With David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show or The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien, according to a 2009 Vanity Fair essay published by former Late Show With David Letterman staffer Nell Scovell.
The responsibility of creating more diverse writing rooms falls on the industry itself, but Abdelatif says it doesn't help that “women aren't necessarily always as bold as men to go for those opportunities unless they feel really confident in their ability.” Even on a show like Jimmy Fallopian Tubes, which specifically seeks to promote female talent, she says getting women to submit material and pitch their ideas has sometimes been a challenge.
“That's an interesting thing in starting the show: As we've been opening up stuff for submission, it's been really clear that when women are pitching, there is a lack of confidence and a lack of knowledge as to the structure of a monologue joke or how to pitch a bit or something,” Abdelatif says. “So it's been really interesting trying to see some of those blind spots and realizing this is a way bigger problem than I had even realized.”
Abdelatif hadn't considered late night TV writing as a skill or even a viable career path until she attended a panel at UCB about two years back that featured Gaskell and other women writers. After that, she ended up meeting with some friends on a weekly basis to workshop monologue jokes and put together submission packets.
“Doing that made me realize how challenging of a specific writing form it is,” she says. “Even if you write a packet, how do you even know if something you put in your packet is going to be funny if you don't have a place to test it out?”
She hopes Jimmy Fallopian Tubes will provide just that.
The show is held the third Saturday of every month at UCB Sunset's Inner Sanctum Cafe, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Jimmy Fallopian Tubes is taking a hiatus in October and will return in November.