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Tuesday
Dec142010

INSIDE WITH: SARA SCHAEFER, HEAD BLOGGER/RESEARCHER FOR LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON

Sara Schaefer | Photo: Scott MoranBy: Meghan O'Keefe

One of the many things that makes Late Night with Jimmy Fallon so fun to watch is how the show uses Internet culture to connect with its audience. As head blogger/researcher, Sara Schaefer is one of the people tasked with finding new ways to accomplish this.

In addition to her day job, Sara’s also a successful stand-up comic who was profiled last year as one of New York Magazine’s 10 Comics To Watch. I recently got the chance to talk to Sara about her experience at Late Night and her work as a stand-up comic.

How did you get your job as Head Blogger/Researcher at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon?
My first gig as a comedian was hosting a show for AOL, called The DL. From there, I was hired at BestWeekEver.tv, and then from there I got this job. I've always wanted to work on Late Night in some capacity. Back in the summer of 2008, I read an article about how Fallon was going to start on-line with digital shorts, and the show was going to place an emphasis on interactivity. I immediately thought: how do I help them with that? I knew I would be perfect for it. But I had no idea who to talk to. I asked around, and nobody seemed to have an answer, and after about a week, I kind of gave up on the idea. But then, a few months later, within the course of a single week, 3 different people told me that had recommended me for a job running the blog at Fallon.  Soon enough, I got a call for an interview. In other words, 'The Secret' works.

A lot of people imagine late night talk show writers huddled around a desk working on monologue jokes all day. How similar or different is your job to that?
Well, I'm not a monologue writer for the show, so I don't huddle around a desk writing monologue jokes all day. From what I can tell, there's not much huddling. More like sitting at computers in shared offices joking and talking through ideas. Not all the writers sit in one room, but they gather daily for meetings.

As far as the blog goes, we are a tight little group. We often huddle around a desk watching a viral video. That's the equivalent I suppose. We sit in an office with no windows, and including a couple other staff members, there's 7 people sharing one tiny space. We call it The Cave, and we have a lot of fun in here. I'm very involved in the day-to-day of the show production as well, attending the writers meetings and doing backstage invterviews with our guests almost every day. It's a crazy, fun, big-ass job that exhausts me, but it's worth every second.

There seems to be a difference in tone between the humor on BestWeekEver.tv and what's on the Late Night blog. Broadly speaking, BestWeekEver.tv seems to be more satirical in its approach to pop culture, while the Late Night blog seems more celebratory. Was it difficult as a writer to shift gears between the styles or do you actually think they are quite similar?
There are parts of me that enjoy doing both. At BWE, I was really finding my voice when it came to pop culture. (Which, when I think about it, isn't all that different from the voice here at Fallon. I'm not into doing super mean comedy.) Anyway, at BWE, I had total freedom to write whatever I wanted.

But here, it's way more structured. The blog has to compliment and enhance show content. I have some room to do my own comedic ideas, but mostly, we are constantly coming up with new ways to connect our audience with the show via the internet. It's a completely different way of thinking.  I'm learning a lot about producing here. At BWE, I was learned a lot about writing. I think both go together and are necessary for anyone who's interested in writing for television.

You mentioned in a recent interview that it's only been in the last 2 years that you've gotten serious about doing more traditional standup. Could you elaborate on how your stand up has changed and why you made that creative choice?
When I first got to New York, I was terrified of just talking to an audience on stage. I would do songs, PowerPoints, weird sketch-like bits I had come up with. Not only was it about fear, but it also was about not knowing what to say. I think that comes with time.  I was feeling antsy to just say what I was feeling and thinking; to turn my everyday thoughts and life stories into jokes.

One other moment came when I was featured in New York Magazine as one of 10 comedians to watch. They asked each comedian for a typed "signature joke" to include in the article. We didn't have a lot of room. I didn't have something like that, and I felt really shitty about it. They ended up letting me link to a classic bit of mine involving a video from my childhood -- and it really IS hilarious -- but I still felt like, "I'm not a real comedian."

At that time in my life, I was letting certain situations and people in my life make me feel like I wasn't a "real comedian" because I didn't do traditional one-liners or strictly topical humor.  Then I spent one of my vacations watching DVDs of all my favorite comedians. It suddenly became clear that all my favorite stand-ups aren't doing one-liners. They're telling stories -- authentic, brilliantly crafted stories -- that have structure and jokes built in throughout. I realized -- that's what I've been trying to do -- and I shouldn't give up on that idea. So I stuck with it, performed almost every night, and things are starting to come together in my act. It's incredibly exciting. I'm addicted to it, 100%.

A lot of comedians will try out jokes on twitter or take a blog post and let it inspire their stand up (or alternatively, focus a blog post on their stand up). As someone who is known both for internet humor and stand up comedy, do you find your writing for one bleeds over into the other? Or do you prefer to keep it separate?
See above! I'm not terribly funny on Twitter (@), because my strength isn't writing short jokes. I really love expressing myself in every medium. I miss the free-wheeling days at BWE, where I could really express something funny in a blog post in a longer format.  My Twitter is more a mish-mash of personal self-deprecation, links to things I love or am working on, and commentary on TV shows I'm watching. Someone like Jon Friedman (@friedmanjon), however, is absolutely brilliant on Twitter. His jokes work amazingly well in that medium. My standup doesn't make its way on to Twitter usually, because it doesn't fit.

There's been a lot of hullabaloo in the mainstream media over the last year about the perceived dearth of women working for late night comedy shows. As a woman who does write for a late night talk show, what is the reality?
I can only speak for myself, and since I'm not a writer here, I can't properly answer the question. As far as the wider topic, I see everybody's points on both sides of the issue. From what I can see, a writing staff is a very personal thing (to a show). It's the heart and soul of a show, and building that staff involves finding people you trust, with enormous talent, and with unique abilities that go far beyond making a funny joke. It's weird for outsiders to do math on it and say it's "unfair." They have no idea what went into those decisions and neither do I, so it's silly to sit here and try to figure it out.

But what I do think a lot about is what it's like to be a woman in the comedy scene. I think it's an extremely complex issue, and it's hard to talk about publicly as a woman without being judged or misunderstood.

What advice would you give aspiring comedy performers and writers?
Work as hard as you can on your comedy as much as you can.

Are you working on any exciting projects or have shows coming up that you are bursting to talk about?
I have just started a new podcast with Nikki Glaser called 'You Had To Be There'. I am very excited about it. It will be launching sometime in the next few weeks. And in the new year there will be doing a solo stand-up show. Stay tuned!

--Meghan O'Keefe is a comic, writer, actress and research assistant living in New York City. You can follow her on tumblr or Twitter (@megsokay) and watch her perform stand-up comedy this WEDS, DEC 15 @ 8PM at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (75 St. Mark's Place).

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