Laugh Track: Laurie Kilmartin

The subjectivity of humor keeps Laurie Kilmartin's world constantly spinning. Between writing comedy books, performing stand up, and penning jokes for Conan, she must balance three very different forms of writing, but it's worth it to be paid daily in belly laughs.

Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling dominate prime time comedy, but the late night circuit is still a man’s world. While late night comedy talk shows typically employ 10 to 20 writers, nearly all of the major shows including The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart only have one or two female writers on staff each.

Laurie Kilmartin is used to being the only lady in the writers’ room. A former writer for Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, Kilmartin is currently the only female staff writer for Conan. Honing her comedic chops by breaking into the stand-up scene in 1987, Kilmartin transitioned over to writing in 2003. For the next seven years, Kilmartin worked both circuits, taking on writing stints with shows like Too Late with Adam Carolla and The Bonnie Hunt Show and performing at comedy festivals worldwide. In 2010, she was one of the top 10 finalists on the reality series, Last Comic Standing, before signing on with Conan later that year. When she’s not writing jokes for Team Coco, Kilmartin performs at clubs and comedy fests and writes books. Her most recent, Shitty Mom: A Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us, is currently on shelves.

Get In Media: How does comedy writing [for a show] compare to writing and performing your own material?
Laurie Kilmartin: They’re super different. I work on the monologue team mostly, so I write in Conan’s voice. I write political and pop culture jokes, and then when I’m on stage, obviously I’m writing for myself, and I’m talking about my life, so they’re very different ways to go to comedy. They kind of use the same part of my brain but in different ways. It’s a nice mix. There are a lot of stand ups on Conan’s staff. I think we all kind of feel like whatever we do there doesn’t really transfer over to performances … .

GIM: Is there a difference in writing for yourself in your own voice and writing in Conan’s voice in terms of difficulty?
LK: … I guess it just takes a while to get Conan’s voice. You know, he has a specific rhythm that you have to kind of get into your head, but once you do, then it’s just as awful as writing for yourself. Writing comedy, it’s only satisfying when the jokes finish but during that process of crafting it, you’re like, “Aw, this isn’t working!”… That feeling permeates both kinds of writing, I guess.

GIM: How did you get the job at Conan?
LK: I had written several submission packets for them … I think I maybe had written one for when they were on The Tonight Show that had put me in the mix. Before all that stuff happened, I might have been on the deck for the next hire, I think. So, when TBS picked up their show, they said, “Do you want to do another submission?” and I was like “Yes.”

GIM: There’s such stiff competition in submitting comedy writing packets and in doing live stand up. Is one way better for getting discovered?
LK: They’re pretty different. Preparing to do a [live stand up] set on television is just completely different than preparing to get a job writing on TV… When you’re writing, you have about a week to put together all of your best jokes … from the day you start doing stand up is when you’re preparing for a TV set. It could be 10 or 20 years.

GIM: I hate to ask this question because it seems like nobody is asking men why comedy has historically been male-dominated, but is there a gender discrepancy in your profession?
LK: You know, I can only answer for myself. I don’t know why other women don’t have these jobs, and I don’t know what the problem is. I really don’t. I know when we look at writing samples, the names are taken off, so no one knows who wrote what, and they’re picked independently. This is true for every show. They want someone who can write in their voice. So, maybe there might be a little bit extra of a learning curve for a female to write in a male voice, but I don’t know that that’s 100 percent true. It also could be that there are a lot less women trying for these jobs … .

GIM: Do you think that that’s changing since we’re seeing so many female-driven comedy projects coming all mediums right now?
LK: Oh yeah, totally. The sitcom world has a lot more women writing for it … when I started, maybe five percent [of comedians] were female comics. So there’s a lot more women doing stand up and comedy now. It just seems like more of a viable option for girls that are funny … .

GIM: You’ve said that when you performed on Last Comic Standing, the message boards criticized everything including “the shape of your face.” Male comics don’t seem to receive that kind of criticism. Do you feel that female comics are judged on their looks as well as their performance?
LK: I think that’s just true in general of the Internet on women … That kind of stuff seems to exist more on the Internet than it does in real life. Any time there’s a story, whether it’s a female comic or an actress or a woman in a car crash [Internet commenters react] like, “Oh well, it was her fault.” They just seem to blame women in that Internet commenting culture [more] than they do guys. It’s a lot harsher and more personal and vicious. I now know that that’s kind of the Internet, and it’s not necessarily me.

GIM: Do you engage with that kind of criticism at all?
LK: I do engage if I feel like someone’s misrepresented something. I have a book out, and it’s called Shitty Mom, and it’s mostly good reviews on Amazon, but there are some who are like, “I don’t think it’s funny,” and I’m like “All right. I can’t disagree with someone who doesn’t think something’s funny because comedy’s completely subjective.” But one person said there’s a right wing agenda, and she quoted a joke that I wrote about Iran. I did comment on that saying there’s no right wing agenda. That’s just one joke of like 10 million jokes in the book, and they’re all over the political aisle, so if I feel like someone’s being inaccurate or misquoting a joke and then reacting to their own misquote, then I will come in and go, “Well that’s not correct. You’re inaccurate … .”

GIM: Is there any subject that’s too taboo to joke about?
LK: No. If you’re a stand up, all you have to do is get a laugh. That’s your basic obligation, and then after that, you kind of do it the way you want to do it … Basically your only obligation is to be funny and to be funny the way you want to be funny, so there’s no topic that’s taboo. The only taboo is bombing.

GIM: What is your writing schedule for Conan?
LK: We get in around 9ish, and we have a couple batches of jokes due at different intervals. We meet with Conan twice … The first time we look at the jokes we have and figure out, well, what jokes do we need? Do we need more political jokes? More pop culture? So we have a monologue that’s a little bit of both.

GIM: What do you do on days when you’re uninspired?
LK: That’s why we have five monologue joke writers. You’re protected, in case you’re just clunky that day. It’s weird, even if you’re writing bad jokes, every once in a while, you’ll accidentally write a good joke even on a bad day and get something in. You just hopefully will make up for it the next day. I mean you don’t really have a choice. You have to turn in jokes. Every once in a while, you have a bad day, but it’s usually because of lack of sleep or something like that.

GIM: Is there a specific number of jokes you have to turn in?
LK: No. No one counts … I think our show is kind of unique in that our jokes go directly to Conan, so we don’t have anyone doing any sort of cull beforehand. If you know Conan is going to read your joke, you don’t turn in your turds on purpose. You’re writing so quickly. At the end of the day, I’ve looked at jokes that I thought were good at 10 am and realized, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I let that one leave my computer.” Sometimes, you just can’t tell. You’re kind of in a flurry.

GIM: How much are you writing in a typical day?
LK: I guess a low day would be like 35 [jokes] and a high would be like 50.

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GIM: Comedy is so subjective; do you guys have conflicts in the writers’ room?
LK: No, not really. We will try to edit jokes and stuff, but even that, it comes down to the person who wrote the joke. If they like the joke the way it is, then it stays the way it is. We’re like the accountants; we’re not really a hotheaded bunch in monologues. We’re just trying to generate numbers.

GIM: What’s the greatest and hardest part of your job?
LK: The hardest part is combining it with being a single mom. The hardest part is getting home late and missing my kid’s hours when he’s home and ready to play. I think any working mom has that. Any working parent, I don’t want to say just moms. If you work a lot of hours, you’re going to miss some stuff. We actually don’t work that many hours compared to other TV writing jobs, so that’s my regret is I’m missing some of the fun stuff with my kid. The greatest part is I get to hang out with the funniest people in the world every day. I belly laugh hard every single day. Conan and Andy are hilarious, and they’re really, really funny offstage in a much darker way that I love. It’s great. All of the writers are funny in a different way. It’s fun to hang out with funny people. 

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