Writing for the Super Bowl

Serious focus needed to produce the next great "Terry Bradshaw is so Dumb" joke.

One thing I am proud of during my career is that I’ve managed to keep a job writing for the NFL on FOX pregame show for 8 years without living on the coasts.  I have never met one person who has written for a Network show who didn’t live on the coasts, so I know how remarkable it is to have threaded the needle this long.  I often get the question, how did you get that job? The biggest reason was that the star of the sketches I write, Frank Caliendo, wanted me.  I also had done a weekly segment on FOX Sports radio.  These things helped me get in the door, but I know the reason I’ve done it for 8 years is because I’ve delivered.

The first 6 seasons I wrote with one other writer and the last couple FOX added another so we have 3 writers.  I have worked with 4 different writers for the segments during these 8 years and almost* all of them have been talented, successful people. The other 4 include people who have won Emmys, written for shows like Larry Sanders Show, Dennis Miller Show, the Marriage Ref, Last Comic Standing, Chelsea Handler Show, and have not only written but been the executive producers for shows like The Soup and the Jeff Dunham Show.  There is no shortage of people who would like this job, so I’m proud I’ve been able to produce enough quality material to keep the gig.

*Here’s why I say, Almost.  The first year with FOX I was brought in after a couple of weeks because the other guy was pretty dismal at the job. You don’t have to be a football expert, but you should have an idea for whom you are writing for. This guy seemed to watch way more E! Entertainment than he did ESPN.  He didn’t get a lot in that year.

Now I know a lot of you don’t care about sports, so let me mention that this writing job has little to with it.  I can guarantee you that I watch less sports than any guy who lives on my suburban block.  I’m usually traveling on Sunday, so I usually watch less than a half of a NFL game per week.  The sketch job I have is more like a topical writing job, as the producer of our sketches likes for Frank to tell one-liners about the NFL.  That is basically the formula and it’s hard to disagree with since our segment comes on towards the peak of the show, a show which is the highest rated pregame show on TV.

How I come up with material starts with me watching highlight shows on Sunday night. I write any ideas I get from that and then go the computer to see what other stories are in the NFL headlines.  I’m guessing it’s not much different than writing for Chelsea Handler except that I check Yahoo Sports and SI.com for my topical stuff, while there writers are trolling Perez Hilton and TMZ.  On Monday I usually get an email from the FOX producer telling me who Frank will be portraying that week and what subjects he wants to hit.  I try to come up with around 40 topical jokes a week over the next couple of days and then the sketch usually shoots Wednesday or Thursday.

This is where my job is different than most other topical writing jobs. Not only do these jokes have to be focused on the narrow subject of the NFL, but they can’t have the racier edge that a late-night talkshow uses.  The first reason they have to be more tame is that we come on after a lot of people are just getting home from church and that a lot of kids are watching them. Then when you throw-in that no network wants to piss off the financial gravy-train which is the NFL and that the show doesn’t want to go so far as to severely piss off potential star players and coaches that we want to interview; well I think it’s fair to say that it’s not like I have the freedom that one has on the Daily Show.  I don’t bring this up to bitch, I bring it up because people will ask why didn’t we hit this topic or offer up a joke they think we should use that would have no chance of getting on-the-air.  Hey, it’s not like I’m writing for the 700 Club, but there are different restrictions in writing for a Network sports show.

A lot of people forget that Jimmy Kimmel did the NFL on FOX picks segment for 4 years. I thought they were generally great, but I think some of the stuff Jimmy did wouldn’t get the green-light anymore, as the NFL became even more hands-on after the Janet Jackson nipplegate fiasco. For these reasons, I think there is no one better suited to do these sketches than Frank Caliendo. His ability to do so many different characters brings a “who’s he going to be this week” element, plus by being a character he can get away with a little more than just some guy who rants on a funny topic. (see the long list of failed people that the other NFL shows have tried to use and who have quickly failed at it.)

Now as any person who has written for a TV show will tell you, it’s very frustrating to not have more power over what ends up on-the-air.  Some weeks I feel like the sketch could have been stronger if they would have used more of my jokes, but after 8 years of the gig, I have learned to just vent for a couple minutes to my wife and then move on.  Our producer does a great job of shooting the segments, which I think a lot of other comedy sketch shows could learn from.  I think his background in sports gives him a different eye for them, making them pop more on the TV screen, unlike a lot of sketch shows which have a theatre stage look.  Being an impressionists is a lightning rod in the comedy biz, as a lot of comics don’t think highly of this talent, but I’ve always been a huge fan of impressionists, from Rich Little to Jim Carrey to Darrell Hammond.  Frank is the best there has ever been at the craft and he also happens to have great standup comedy instincts, which makes him rare. He’s a comedy impressionist, while most others who try to do what he does are more impersonators.

This Sunday will be the 3rd Super Bowl I’ve written for.  There is a lot of pressure with writing for one as you are reaching the biggest audience you will ever reach.  For example, the Super Bowl will get 3 times more viewers than American Idol.  There will be over 100 million people watching, where less than 5 million watch 30 Rock.  You do the math.  Everyone involved is a little more on edge during the process, so you can guess that it has been a stressful past couple of weeks.  The great part is that now the sketches have been shot, I have a lot of adrenaline looking forward to them airing.  I feel confident that the 2 sketches that we shot could be pretty great, but I don’t see what the final product will be until they air, since I’m not at the taping.  During the past 2 Super Bowls, I was really happy with the 5 sketches we aired, so I’m going into Sunday optimistic.  You could say the 2 hours before the big game is my Super Bowl.

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