Writing Jokes with Jill Twiss (Last Week Tonight)

Where did you grow up?

I grew up all over. I was born in Redmond, Oregon and then moved to Utah, Idaho, Montana, back to a different place in Idaho, back to a different place in Oregon, Minnesota and Virginia. That was all before college. I went to 11 schools in 12 years.

To the best of my knowledge, we were not running from the law.

Generally speaking, what are some things you’ve learned about comedy writing since joining Last Week Tonight?

I’ve learned that you can write an infinite number of jokes on a topic, so don’t get too precious with your own work. When I started, I would think “I did it! I found the joke!” as though it were some sort of secret buried treasure — and if I found it, then I won and was finished searching.**

And then, of course, it would be cut for any one of a zillion completely great reasons and I would be devastated. Jokes, it turns out, are an entirely renewable resource and I can always make more of them and it really makes my day go by a lot easier if I remember that.

**Incidentally, as a child I also thought this was true with Easter egg hunts. My parents were never able to get across to me that there was more than one egg hidden, and that finding a single egg and screaming “I WON” did not mean I had, in fact, “won” the Easter egg hunt.

What advice would you give someone who wants to write for a late night show?

Write jokes every day. Like, a lot of them. More than you think. Lots of people watch a TV show and think “I could do that.” I get it. I think that when I watch the luge in the Olympics. (I am objectively wrong about this.)

But if you actually want to write comedy for a living, you have to write jokes constantly. And then you will get better at it. I used to sit and write jokes for two hours every day well before I had anywhere to submit those jokes. Then when someday you have the chance to submit jokes for a late night show, presto, you will already have a lot of jokes! More importantly, you will be able to write jokes on command, something that is exponentially harder than writing jokes when something inspires you — and something that is really important when comedy is your job.

Jill as Roz in 9 to 5: The Musical

Why do you think comedians become comedians?

I think one thing most comedians have in mind is feeling like an outsider — which by the way, isn’t a bad thing. Outside is the best place to observe. And it’s hard to see society’s quirks when you’re in the middle of them.

If you weren’t working in comedy, what do you think you’d be doing?

wasn’t working in comedy for most of my life. I was doing theatre, singing, auditioning, tutoring SATs and LSATs, waiting tables, and…writing comedy. If I weren’t working in comedy, I would still be writing comedy. Just no one would be saying it out loud on a television show and my grocery lists would be super witty.

What makes a joke funny?

It helps if it has penguins. You’re welcome.

Also funny jokes, I think, are this weird Venn Diagram with an overlap between “References The Audience Understands” and “Things The Audience Hasn’t Thought Of Yet.” If no one gets the reference then it’s not funny. And if everyone gets the reference and made exactly the same observation you did, then it’s not funny. So it’s a very tiny overlap of “Thoughts I Understand Yet Have Not Had Yet.”

Oh my god I just read what I wrote and it is the least funny thing anyone has ever said. New advice: To be funny, do whatever the opposite of whatever I just did in that last paragraph. Penguins.


Jill is a writer for HBO’s @LastWeekTonight with John Oliver and she hates mayonnaise. Yes.


 

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