When comedy Web site Splitsider reported last week that Colin Jost was no longer a head writer at “Saturday Night Live,” the news got certain comedy-obsessed circles of the Internet buzzing.
Jost is still a writer for the show, which returns next weekend with Donald Trump as host, and an anchor for the high-profile Weekend Update segment.
— Saturday Night Live (@nbcsnl) October 24, 2015
Splitsider noticed that he wasn’t credited as a head writer when Tracy Morgan hosted on October 17. Vanity Fair took it a step further, reporting that Jost was last credited as a head writer during last season’s finale, hosted by Louis C.K.
If our collective conversations about the staff changes at “Saturday Night Live” revealed anything it’s that few people know exactly what a head writer actually does. In fact, our best reference for a head writer on a late-night comedy show like “SNL” might be entirely fictional. We’re looking at you, Liz Lemon.
When Elliott Kalan became head writer on “The Daily Show” in 2014, he often found himself explaining his job.
“When I would say ‘head writer’ I think they thought I was the just the most senior writer, or maybe a writer who got to get more jokes on the show,” Kalan said in an e-mail. “Most of the questions were like, ‘Hey, that’s great! But you’re not, like, in charge of anybody, right?’ And I’d have to tell them that yes, I was in charge of a whole bunch of people.”
Kalan, who left “The Daily Show” in August (his last day was also Jon Stewart’s last), said that as head writer his job “was about 80 percent management and 20 percent writing.” That meant overseeing a core staff of 11 people, a task that included everything from handing out assignments and setting deadlines to facilitating communication between the writers and Stewart.
Kalan had a number of roles during his 13 years at “The Daily Show,” starting as an intern in 2002. He said the transition from writer to head writer was “stressful, but exciting.”
“I went from an individual creative worker responsible only for my own output to someone responsible for the work of myself and 11 other people,” Kalan said. “I had to carry about 10 times as much information as I was used to in my head, and also pay more attention to things like the mood of the writers room and how long a meeting should go off-topic before it had to be reined in.”
Kalan, who co-hosts “The Flop House,” a biweekly podcast about bad movies, noted that a show like ‘SNL’ would be inherently different from a late-night show hosted by one person, who tends to drive the structure and subject matter. “At the same time, I assume the ‘SNL’ head writers also have to deal with general management of the writing staff,” he said.
Over at “The Soup” on E!, K.P. Anderson manages a team of five writers. In a phone call last week, Anderson, who is also showrunner and co-executive producer of the show, said that he doesn’t do as much of the day-to-day writing on the weekly show, hosted by Joel McHale (who is also an executive producer).
“I’ve been very lucky to have a very good team of people around me who write a lot of funny stuff,” said Anderson, who has been head writer since the show started in 2004. “By and large, my job is vetting through that, figuring out how it all fits together as one cohesive show, putting it into an order and then adding my own writing on top of it, if and when appropriate.”
Anderson, who, prior to “The Soup,” was a head writer for ESPN’s “Mohr Sports” and Wayne Brady’s daytime talk show, said that he leads weekly meetings — called punch-up sessions — with McHale and the writers to go over the show as it’s coming together. Anderson said that while he still writes for the show, he tends to do more “secondary writing” — tweaking jokes that don’t quite work and correcting any inconsistencies or redundancy.
Given its legacy and large cast, “Saturday Night Live” likely differs from other late night shows in terms of staff structure. For one, Jost was part of a three-person team of ‘SNL’ head writers, along with Bryan Tucker and Rob Klein.
As mentioned by Vanity Fair, Tucker described his role earlier this year in an interview with Co. Create, noting that, ultimately, many of the show’s higher level decisions are made by executive producer and creator Lorne Michaels. “But as co-head writer, I am part of a group that includes the other co-head writers, a producer, and usually people in talent, and we all talk together about those decisions,” Tucker told the Web site.
Tucker also alluded to the unique nature of writing for ‘SNL.’
“Each host has such a different voice. Writing for Kevin Hart is a whole lot different than writing for Blake Shelton, and you have to adjust your style to fit what they do well, which is something unique in terms of late night comedy writing,” Tucker told the site. “I don’t think there are a lot of other shows that have to do that.”
“People are just starting to barely discover who I am in some ways,” Jost told writer Kevin Fallon. “When I started on ‘SNL’ I was lucky to start early. So now starting on ‘Update,’ I am the age when most people are when they start doing that. It feels like a different world and capacity, like starting over in another challenge.”