EVAN WAITE ON BECOMING A STAGGERING JOKE WRITING MACHINE
Evan Waite is an executive story editor on NBC’s Sunnyside and has previously written for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Showtime’s Our Cartoon President, Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History,and Comedy Central’s The President Show.
Besides his television writing career, Evan Waite is also a prolific prose humorist with credits including The Onion, MAD Magazine, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and The American Bystander.
ALEX BAIA: Besides writing for television—which we’ll get to in a minute—you’ve written a variety of humor for The Onion, MAD Magazine, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The American Bystander, etc. How did you get into comedy writing, and what’s the lure for you?
EVAN: Prior to comedy writing, I was an ESL teacher who worked at an international elementary school overseas in China. My only prior comedy writing experience was doing a comic strip with my friend for the school newspaper in college. It was a blast and I got very into it. It was by far the most meaningful thing I did in school, but afterwards, my friend wanted to pursue other things, so I figured that was the end of my comedy “career”, and went into teaching, which I had studied for.
But later down the line, I got the itch to get back to it, and had enough money saved up to give myself a year or so to live in NY and pursue the comedy thing in a more serious way. I decided that I would focus on trying to get into the Onion, since it was a comedy outlet I’d loved for many years (and still do!). It was a huge gamble. But I had thought it through to the extent that I could, and approached the process in a methodical way by reaching out to people in the orbit of the publication, writing a ton of headlines every night for several months, and sharing some of that work on Facebook. (Due to China’s blockage of FB at the time, I had to buy a VPN, which masks the website you’re using by running it through a third party site.) As evil as Facebook has become, the access it gave me really helped me get my foot in the door.
Anyway, some of my material caught the eye of a features editor at the Onion and he reached out to offer me a tryout. A tryout for the Onion at the time consisted of pitching headlines for 4 weeks, and if you got stuff in, then you’d get to stay. It was the thrill of a lifetime to get in with them, and it definitely set the table for the rest of my career.
The lure of comedy writing for me is that it’s just extremely fun, and comedy is the lens through which I naturally see the world, so it feels like a language I understand. Finding the core of what really makes you laugh and exploring that is pure joy. But comedy writing is also a great fit for me because I love comedy, but don’t particularly like performing. I’m much more of a behind-the-scenes person, so comedy writing feels like a safe and creatively fulfilling place to be. I’m extraordinarily grateful that I get to do this, because I remember being on the other side of the fence and hoping I might be able to one day jump over it.
You’ve been a television writer for Showtime’s animated Our Cartoon President and previously for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. How did you get into writing for television? And what specific comedy writing skills have most helped you in becoming a TV writer?
I got into writing for TV by doing a ton of submission packets, which is where you write material tailored to the show you’re applying to, as a way of proving that you can write for them. If they like the material, they may ask you to write another round, or call you in for an interview. Basically, I kept knocking on the door with these packets until I was able to break through. It’s a pretty exhausting process, but it only takes one packet to hit for it to change your whole life and career. The first TV project I was brought onto was Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History, which was really fun. Then a few months later The President Show came around, and that was the greatest job ever. It was so fun that it didn’t even feel like work to me. It was a joy, and I got to meet a bunch of amazing writers who have since become friends and partners in crime.
Another thing that helped me get in the door was consciously making an effort to expand my network by meeting other writers in the business and making friends. It can be tough for introverted writers to do that, but it’s really important to have a crew. You look out for them, and they’ll look out for you. I’m very much a “rising tide lifts all boats” type of guy, so I don’t approach this in a cutthroat way where I feel like someone else’s gain is my loss. That feels short-sighted and creates a lot of bitterness that I’d like to avoid. But jealousy is definitely something comedy writers must manage because otherwise it will eat you up.
I’m pretty introverted too, so I like this. What helped you meet other comedy writers? Any advice to the introverted comedy writers out there on how to find good collaborators and people who have your back?
I tried to create my own events so that I could build the kind of culture I wanted to see, and make it comfortable for myself by only inviting good people with good energy into that space. In writer’s rooms, you tend to organically drift towards working people who you click with, so I don’t think there’s any reason to force that. Being friendly to people is a must in this business, but it’s the right thing to do anyway.
Your reputation is your greatest asset, so you should do your best to protect it by being good to people and helping your friends. Plus, many people helped me (and still do!) so I feel an obligation to pay that forward. I do think that making an effort to reach out has helped my career immeasurably. Plus I genuinely enjoy speaking with other writers who are doing cool things. I think writers are generally very smart and interesting people, so it feels quite natural to me. Doing humor reading shows and getting out there can help you link up with likeminded people and find collaborators. Also, sketch and improv classes can be good because you may just find a great collaborator that you end up working with through that experience.
When you got your first “Yes” on a television packet, was anything different about that specific packet? Were they just better jokes in the packet, or did you have a better idea of what they were looking for on that specific (Kevin Hart’s) show?
I do feel like when you’re genuinely having fun when doing a packet and you connect with the show, those tend to turn out really well. I had an absolute blast writing my President Show packet because I really connected with what Anthony Atamanuik was doing, and so I felt really good about what I’d turned in. The upside of doing a lot of packets is that you get better at doing them more quickly, and also you can take elements of previous packets and rework them, which gives you more to draw from. To improve packets, one helpful thing is if you can get ahold of samples from strong writers that have been hired, because that gives a sense of the kinds of material that got them the job. Also, watching the show you’re writing the packet for helps you get a stronger sense of the voice. Sometimes you can have great jokes that don’t fit the voice of the show, and that can work against you.
You’ve also been writing for The Onion since 2011. You’ve written tons of headlines and jokes. How has writing so many compact little bits of humor helped you as a comedy writer, especially when it comes to crafting your longer pieces, or writing for TV?
It has helped in several ways. First of all, The Onion is very much a volume business. The churn of ideas there is staggering. So you constantly have to come up with new ideas, structure them properly, and present them to a very exacting group of people. And the Onion is not a place that gives you a pat on the head if the material isn’t good. Your lame joke will be met with exquisite silence, which is a terrible feeling. So it forces you to step your game up, and quickly. The people there are extraordinarily talented and have great judgment, so it makes you dig deeper to come up with more original material.
Writing in late-night bears some resemblance to the Onion, in that it’s about coming up with a compelling concept, fleshing it out, then dropping it and moving on to the next thing. It’s like an assembly line where you pump out discrete bits of comedy every day. So when I got my first staffing job on the President Show, it very quickly felt like something that was in my wheelhouse because I had been doing things not too dissimilar at the Onion.
Narrative is a whole other beast however. What’s different about narrative is that you’re writing through character, as opposed to through concept. The Onion can be kind of clinical in that it’s a dispassionate presentation of ideas. So that was certainly an adjustment that I had to make very quickly, in that my first narrative job was with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That group was full of geniuses who are incredible at what they do, and the learning curve was steep.
Prose comedy can be character-driven too but in a narrative TV show, it feels mostly character-driven. Is the main shift, from writing concept to character, taking a pre-established character on a show and writing for that character’s voice through multiple episodes? Do you do that just by studying the characters really well, or do you have techniques like asking, “okay, where is this character from, what does she want? etc.
If you can understand the character’s point of view, it makes things a lot easier because you have a sense of how they would react in any given situation. The jokes hit harder because they’re connected to the character. Often, you’re hired on a show that’s already been going, so they’ve taken great pains to develop their characters. You need to respect that by not trying to blow it up for the sake of a random joke.
Do you have any rules that you abide by as a writer? i.e. A personal code you follow.
Don’t forget that comedy writing is fun! The business end of things can be quite stressful, and imposter syndrome can be tough to tame when you’re in a new situation, but ultimately, it’s pitching jokes and telling stories!
I heard you read your humor piece “When You’re Looking for the Very Best” at An Evening of Humorous Readings. Hilarious! I also peeked at an earlier, rougher draft on your website. What’s your method for taking a piece of humorous writing like that and sharpening it from pretty good to freakin’ hilarious?
It’s about analyzing the piece and trimming away anything that doesn’t get a laugh or further the narrative. Good editing will always be your best friend, and I can’t emphasize enough the value of spending a lot of time on that stage of the process. Also, having the strength to cut a joke you love if it doesn’t serve the larger piece and not try to shoehorn it in.
Bouncing ideas off friends I trust and respect has always worked for me. They can see things about the piece that you may miss because you’re too close to it. I bounced that particular piece off my pal River Clegg (who for my money is one of the best prose humor writers out there), and he helped me sharpen it. At times, it can get down to the micro level of switching the placement of one word. The conversations can get absurdly small, but I enjoy the little details so it suits me.