Doug Abeles has been writer and producer at Update for the past ten years. I met with Doug to talk about his experiences writing for television, what makes a good joke, and what's up for Weekend Update this season.
Maybe you prefer your jokes Chevy Chase style, or maybe you like Jane "you ignorant slut" Curtin and Dan Aykroyd the best. Maybe your tastes are closer to Dennis Miller or Norm MacDonald, or maybe you prefer the snappy chemistry of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon. No matter which incarnation of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update you remember best from the past 35 years, its iconic status is well-earned in an age when satire and fake news have almost more relevance than the real thing.
How did you get started in comedy writing?
I took classes at Chicago City Limits, an improv theater in New York. That was really fun, but the more advanced I got the more I realized I wasn't cut out to be a performer. Someone told me they offered sketch writing classes so I took one, and from the first day I was like that's it, this is what I wanna do. Justin Stangel taught the class and asked me to be part of his sketch group, and looking back on it in hindsight, it was a very good crop of wannabe writers who all ended up making it in television. Rodney Rothman (currently a producer for Apatow Productions) was one of the guys in the group and had been interning here at SNL when Norm MacDonald was the anchor of Weekend Update. He had been writing some jokes for Norm, and then Justin and his brother Eric started getting jokes on, and I just figured oh, that's how you break into television, and I asked if I could do that too. I'd never written topical monologue jokes at that point, so I had no idea what I was doing. Rodney arranged for me to write for Letterman. I started writing jokes every day and faxing them in, and week after week, I got nothing on. Rodney said "You know, reading your jokes, they actually sound like they're more in the voice of Norm MacDonald, so maybe that would be a better fit." He arranged for me to start submitting jokes to Norm, but first I would watch, record, and transcribe Weekend Update so I'd have the scripts. I really made it my business to study Norm's style and voice.
Six weeks later I was watching SNL and, lo and behold, Update comes on and Norm does a joke that I sent in word-for-word. It was the greatest feeling in the world. Like looking back all these years writing in television, it still ranks as the greatest moment, or one of the greatest moments. It was so exciting, because it was such a huge validation, you know. Then they used another one, and through the rest of that season and the next they used a bunch more. And then that sort of gave me some street cred as a writer I guess, because Norm was very popular among comedians, and that helped me get my first full-time writing job, which was not at SNL. It was out in LA working on a syndicated talk show with Magic Johnson called The Magic Hour. In the history of bad late-night TV talk shows it was like the worst. It was so bad that for the brief period it was on, all Howard Stern's show became was replaying clips from the previous evening's Magic Hour and then goofing on how bad it was. Five weeks into pre-production, the producers called me in and said they were cutting their budget and had to let me go.
A friend of mine at Politically Incorrect knew he was about to be fired and gave me a heads up, so I put together a submission packet. I actually had submitted to that show before, but I hadn't written jokes specifically in Bill Maher's voice. So this time I did, and they liked it, called me in, and hired me. I worked there for nine months. Then Bill Maher called me into his office - and I had a feeling this wasn't gonna be good news - and as gently and as nicely as one can tell someone that they're being fired, he told me I was being fired. And to this day, I totally give him credit for it, because a lot of guys in his position wouldn't even meet with the writer to tell them "so sorry we have to let you go," so he was an upstanding dude in my opinion for doing that.
Later I was hired for Martin Short's daytime talk show. I worked there for the one year it was on TV. That was a fantastic job. I got to work firsthand with Martin Short. I became in charge of putting together the monologue he did at the start of every show, so I would meet with him and we'd go over jokes, and it was just so much fun and super thrilling. He's just the funniest dude to work with, unbelievable. But then that came to an end, and I kind of did some freelance things in LA hoping something full-time would come along. My friend Hugh Fink was a staff writer here at SNL and he gave me a heads up that there was gonna be a spot open specifically on Weekend Update, so I put together a submission. They kind of knew me here from years earlier when I had been faxing in jokes for Norm MacDonald, so I wasn't a completely unknown commodity to Mike Shoemaker, who was helping produce Update. He brought me in and I met with Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, who were the anchors of Update, and Mike Schur (creator of Parks and Recreation) who was also a producer, and they hired me. Ten years later I'm still here. They haven't figured out yet how to fire me.
Could you do this until you die?
Oh my God. Do you know something I don't?
Well ten years is a long time.
I probably could. I love the job, and I love working here. It's been so much fun with each regime change in the anchor seat, you know - when Jimmy left and it became Tina and Amy, and that was super fun, then Tina left and it became Amy and Seth Meyers — a dream team — and then Amy left and it became Seth Meyers solo — who's been amazing — and it's been fantastic in each permutation, each incarnation of the segment. It's been really fun and different, different energy and different sensibilities, but I've always been lucky to be able to work with super funny, super smart anchors. It's been great.
Which Update anchor who you haven't worked with would you have loved to write for?
I was just too young, but Chevy would be kinda awesome. Dennis Miller was really good when he anchored. And you know, I really enjoyed a lot of them. Colin Quinn was really good for his stint. And Kevin Nealon...all good. But I feel like I'm lucky that I've really had great anchors to be writing for. It's been pretty awesome.
What many people don't know about Weekend Update is that anyone on the SNL staff can submit jokes. How has that worked out for you as writer and producer of the segment?
It makes our life easier because the more jokes we have to look at the better. The other writers on the staff kick in jokes, and then some of the interns and PAs kick in jokes. One of the current Weekend Update staff writers, Jessica Conrad, she started as an intern and then got hired at the reception desk and was giving us Update jokes and we used a bunch. Then we had a spot open and she submitted, and we looked at all these other really good submissions - there were like four or five great ones - and it was a tough choice, but we picked her. It's worked out great. She's been fantastic, so you never know where the next great full-time staff writer is gonna come from. And Alex Baze, our head writer, started in a very similar way to me - faxing in, and a lot of his jokes got used, a spot opened, and we called him in and hired him, based on the fact that he was a really good faxer.
So Alex is the head writer?
Alex is head writer, I'm producer, and Jess is a staff writer, but she's dedicated to Weekend Update. As far as the segment of Weekend Update, the other staff writers, usually for the features that we do, like when a cast member comes on in character and does a piece with Seth at the desk, those are usually written by the other writers on the staff, and that's a huge part of the segment.
Nicholas Fehn is my favorite.
Oh my God, yeah. Fred Armisen - that's all him.
Weekend Update's dress rehearsal is fascinating because there are certain jokes that when you first hear or read them, you know they're great jokes, and then it goes in front of the audience and sometimes there's just not that reaction, or there's awkwardness, or it's too soon or something. Why do good jokes get cut?
I have to say, after all this time, it's pretty unpredictable. There are times when even collectively we all love a particular joke and are very confident that it's gonna kill. It's not even that it's like it's a comedian's comedian kind of joke, it's like no, this is a joke that will kill with everybody, and then it will just die, and it's inexplicable. Then other things that you didn't have as much faith in sometimes end up doing really well, and it's like well, you know, that was a pleasant surprise.
It might be easier to say what doesn't make a good joke, which is relying on stock premises, or a predictable retreading, or using a joke rhythm or set-up that's been used a gazillion times before, like "Today is Daylight Savings Time, or as so-and-so calls it, Friday!" There's that sort of structure. That's not to say we aren't guilty of that ourselves sometimes.
To me the most pleasing jokes are ones where the writer has created something, a phrase or a concept or something that no other person is going to come up with. It would probably be really good if I could think of concrete examples, but literally I couldn't repeat one of my own jokes to you. That's probably why I'm not a performer. I cannot remember jokes, but I know a good joke when I see one.
How much of comedy writing would you say is something you inherently have as opposed to work on and learn?
That's easy, it's a 53/47 split. I can only speak for myself, but I know there is a deep part of my personality that is able to view things in a certain way and find, like, the weird comedic twist or whatever, then that has to be paired with the craft of writing. Depending on who you're writing for, you have to tailor your own comedic instincts into someone else's voice. So that part can be learned.
SNL's been doing fake news for over 30 years, and now it's huge with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on top of the late-night talk shows. Throughout the week these shows get multiple opportunities to joke on current events, then you guys have to come in and do something new.
Right. With so many different outlets it gets a little harder because all of these shows have very talented writing staffs. So often someone will think of a joke then find out it was done, you know, Wednesday night on such-and-such show, so we can't do it. I'm sure there are times when we've done a joke that's already been done or something very close, because I know there are times when we watch other shows and it's like "Hey, we did that Saturday! Weren't they watching us?" But it happens. It makes it more challenging. That's why when a story breaks on a Friday it's so great for us, because we get the first crack at it.
There's a lot of SNL news lately...Will Forte leaving, some new cast members coming, some other people may be leaving. What's up for Update this season?
Betty White is going to be our full-time anchor. Actually, no change has been made in Update, though we're looking forward to featuring some of our new cast members.
Sounds good. So what are you watching on TV right now?
This summer I started watching Mad Men so I'm still catching up, but it's fantastic. I love Modern Family. But then I love other shows like I Shouldn't Be Alive, or Locked Up Abroad - which I think is one of the greatest shows ever - and the Tennis Channel whenever possible, that's something I spend way too much time watching.
How's your tennis practice going?
My tennis practice is...oh my God...God almighty, see that's what I'm getting stumbled on. Tennis is great. I love tennis because one moment you think hey, I think I'm playing like guys I see on television, and then the next day you go out and it feels like you've never picked up a tennis racket in your life. It's incredibly frustrating, but so much fun, and I love it so much. I was at the US Open yesterday, and the fun part is you can walk around and there's like 40 courts, and you can just walk up right to the side of the court and you're standing right there next to the players, so it's fantastic. These are players that are fighting for their lives to stay on the pro circuit.
What do you say to someone who is interested in writing comedy, someone who wants to be you one day?
I tell them to keep a notebook and write down every funny thought they have, and to somehow find a community of other people that are trying to do the same thing so that you're not in a vacuum, you're all moving together down that path. Then you help each other and share notes and so on. I think that's really important, it was for me.
I definitely tell them that writing is a skill you can improve, you can work at it, and you can get better at it. I still work at it, and hopefully I'm improving. You just have to work at it and kind of become a student of it. You will be thwarted at various points along the way, and you can't let that stop you. If you believe that what you're writing is good enough to be on television, then you should not let yourself be thwarted. Because I do believe that, in the end, on a certain level it's a meritocracy - that talent wins out over everything else - and that if you have the talent, you'll make it.
Saturday Night Live's 36th season premieres on September 25th on NBC with host Amy Poehler and musical guest Katy Perry.
Megh Wright is a writer, master food wrangler, TV addict, and Harrisburg native. When she's not watching reality competition shows, writing letters to her friends, or craving a caramel Frappuccino, Megh can usually be found on the streets of Soho running errands. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York and is available for even the creepiest inquiries here.