For the past decade I’ve been writing the comedy sketches for the NFL on FOX. This employment ended last week. Here is the whole story.
Let’s start at the beginning. I was doing a sports segment back in 2000 for FOX sports radio nationally syndicated morning show where I would come in once a week and do a comedy segment based on topical subjects. For those of you that listen to the Bob and Tom Show it was kind of like what Bob Zany has done, but with sports. (Yes, to be more specific, more like what Costaki Economopolous started doing on Bob and Tom, a few years ago.) This help established me as someone who was good at writing topical sports comedy, which I used to branch out by doing many sports stations when I was out on the road.
Not long after this my friend Frank Caliendo replaced Jimmy Kimmel on the NFL on FOX pregame show, when Jimmy got his own talkshow. The show had hired a writer to help him with the sketches who pretty much sucked at it. He was writing punchlines about the NFL that fit better for some show like Chelsea Lately than it fit for the average professional football fan. I should mention that this guy has written and appeared on the Chelsea Lately show since it’s beginning, so he’s in the right job now. Well, Frank was feeling pretty desperate having basically no help, so he asked me to write for him. He paid me a little on the side and I blasted stuff out, which he brought to the table each week. By the end of the season a lot of my stuff was ending up on the air, the writer was let go and I was put on the payroll.
This would be a good place to mention that writing for Frank Caliendo is awesome. We were able to use almost any male celebrity that Frank could physically resemble. I have been able to write for the voice of Pacino, DeNiro, Nicholson, etc. I wrote material for talkshow hosts like Leno, Letterman, Limbaugh, Jim Rome. I was able to create jokes for Presidents Dubya and Clinton. Where else could I get a chance to do this? I understand Frank’s style of comedy better than anyone from working with him on and off-stage. I know the silly style of comedy he enjoys. I learned the monologue style comedy that my first FOX producer preferred. I always thought it was just as important as being silly and topical to be true to the character we were doing, as well. In my standup it’s easier to write because you you just go with what you think is funny. When serving 3 masters, Frank, producer, the character Frank is playing, it’s gets more complicated, but that puzzle gave me an instant mechanism to rewrite jokes which generally made them better.
The second year I was joined by K.P. Anderson, who is a really talented writer. Now at the time, how each week worked was the producer and Caliendo would come up with a character he would portray, then we would have a conference call on Monday to hash things out. From there we would blast out topical material to try to fit the character and the situation. It worked pretty well, as the sketches really started taking off, consistently getting lots of great feedback. They became so popular that FOX put them on late in the show when they would get the highest viewership. At the same time we were writing together, K.P. was working as a coordinating producer for the Wayne Brady Show. After a couple years, K.P. left to do some other things. For the past 6 years he’s been the executive producer for the hilarious The Soup, on E! I told you the guy is good.
Before I go into the next stage, let me give you a little insight how I did the job, as a lot of people are curious. As I mentioned, the producer would tell me who Frank would be that week, with some suggestions on topics he wanted to hit. I would then sit down and read every NFL website I could find that had info that would help me. The first place I used to go was benmaller.com, who ran a site like the Drudgereport of sports. I would then hit up Peter Kings Monday morning column he has done for SI.com. I would then wind up at Yahoo Sports. This was before Twitter, so you had to look around a little more, then. Over the past few years I still hit up Peter King, yahoo sports, but have added Pro Football Talk and Deadspin to my research places and definitely subscribe to all the NFL insiders on Twitter.
From this info, I would then write between 40-70 jokes per week, depending on how the segment producer was feeling about them. On average, I would suspect I would put in 20 hours a week between researching and writing. It’s pretty daunting to write that many topical jokes about just football 20 weeks per year, but you start to learn a joke formula that they are looking for, which helps a lot.
Now I know you are curious about what kind of money I was making. Well for a regular job, it paid pretty great per hour, but for a Network TV job it paid shitty. Plus, since it was not a full-time type job, I couldn’t get writer’s guild status, as the whole time I’ve been classified as a creative consultant. (Translation: No benefits, no insurance) As the years have went by I will admit I felt underpaid, but I never felt like I had any bargaining position, since I lived in the Midwest and never saw the producers, as I was always at home or on the road doing standup, while simultaneously writing the material and then emailing it in.
After K.P. left, Jeff Cesario came aboard. If you don’t know Jeff, he has a great career as a standup and a TV writer/producer. Check his IMDB page out, if you don’t believe me. Some highlights include writer/producer for the Larry Sanders Show, Dennis Miller Live, Talkshow with Spike Feresten, The Marriage Ref, and Brand X with Russell Brand. He also had his own Comedy Central standup special among many other TV appearances. For 5 years Jeff and I wrote for the show. Here is where I should mention that there was no real collaboration with the writers I worked with. We would email or phone each other occasionally to discuss the sketches, but the producer preferred us to just blast him with ideas/jokes, which he could choose to put into the sketch. I doubt this style would work for a half hour sitcom, but for 3 minute NFL related sketches, it seemed to be a good formula.
Year 8 and 9, another writer, Jeff Rothpan was added to our staff. He is another super funny guy, who has done standup on the Tonight Show a number of times. He also has written/produced for a number of TV and radio shows. At this same time, there was a change in segment producer, as the former segment producer got the big promotion to become the NFL on FOX’s executive producer. The formula changed with that, as the new segment producer had a different sense of humor. He was more visual in what he wanted to do with comedy.
Now it should be mentioned that it is crazy amazing that Frank Caliendo could do these sketches for 9 years at FOX. Coming up with a comedic spin on the NFL each week is really hard. All the other pregame shows have tried and have never had success. Frank’s ability to be a different person week after week brought a surprise element of “who will he will be this week.” It also gave us writers a way to put his characters in a different position each week. I’m not going to claim for a minute that they were all good, we had some clunkers. But considering our limited subject matter we could hit, I’m proud of how often the sketches were good.
Here is a good place to discuss misconceptions people might have about what my job has been like.
- I don’t have any control on what jokes get used. Some weeks I would send in stuff that I thought was great, but what was chosen was what I considered my weaker stuff. Unless you have Louis CK control, it’s rare when you get to have your artistic vision realized.
- Why didn’t I write a bunch of jokes about Bret Farve showing his penis? Because it’s a show that comes on after people get home from church. It has a family audience. The NFL doesn’t like for you to be edgy. In all the years FOX pregame has had comedy, they have never gotten in trouble for any of their sketches. You have to be careful. Look at ESPN with Rush Limbaugh or the Super Bowl halftime show with Timberlake and Janet.
- How about using more of a Daily Show type joke? Well, the majority of viewers for the NFL pregame show aren’t exactly looking for the Mort Sahl of the gridiron. Over the years we’ve had a lot of smart jokes in the sketches, but keep in mind, it’s not like our comedic focus was centered around the Middle East or tax reform. Sketch TV jokes need to be short.
- Why so many jokes about Terry, Jimmy, Howie, etc? If you want to make a bunch of ex-jocks/coaches laugh, make fun of them. They’re used to locker room humor. They are used to people paying attention to them. It’s important for the sketch to seem better if the guys aren’t sitting there stone-faced after it’s brought back to them.
The past year Frank Caliendo left and his replacement was Rob Riggle. Rob is a guy who plays the asshole in many top movie comedies. He’s got great energy and was the host of the ESPY’s this past summer. During his diverse career he’s been a cast member of the Daily Show, SNL, and The New Girl. He’s a pretty hot commodity in Hollywood. Energy is a big part of being good in our sketches, as they are short, requiring jumping right in and jumping right out. That is a huge strength of Rob’s. Having said this, I don’t envy Rob since Frank has a big fan-base from his nearly decade of work at FOX. I think he’s done as well as he could considering how hard it is to be 1 person trying to make the sketch seem fresh week after week.
With the change, I had no idea if I was going to be part of the team this year or not. While the communication between FOX seemed to be like I would be on board, FOX decided not to use me the first few weeks. Week 5 they brought me back! Besides really liking the job and the extra paycheck, I felt it validated me to some I know who believe the only reason I did the job all this time was because of my friendship with Frank. To that let me say, you don’t know Frank or TV well, if you think that is why I kept this gig. Frank is not someone who ever lets friendship get in the way of production. He would fire his own sweet Mom, if she didn’t do the job. TV is not known for keeping writers, unless they produce more than what they are paying out for it. This year, I was the only writer of the one’s I listed that they brought back. I say that more about proving my credentials then it is an shot at them. I’m not a better comedy writer than they are at most jobs, but when it comes to writing football stuff, I’m confident I can out-achieve and out-work anyone.
**Fuck you if you don’t like Humble-bragging. I LOVE IT!
So this season I have worked hard, week after week, and I was getting very little in. I don’t know if Rob was writing most of the sketches himself or if he had friends helping him, but I was not getting stuff in. I’m not saying it wasn’t frustrating, but I just kept plugging away, staying positive, and NOT flaming anyone about not using my stuff. It makes me think of the story Larry David tells about spending his 1 year at SNL where they never used anything of his, then he finally was going to get a sketch on and it was cut during dress rehearsal. He went ballistic at everyone then said he quit. When he got back home, he realized that he liked the money they were paying him and the job title, so he showed up Monday like nothing happened. During my first few years, I would have went off on someone, but I learned after a few years that the only way I was going to be in the game was if I took things in stride.
Last week, I got the call that they were taking me off the payroll. I never used it as a chance to throwback at them my grievances, instead just thanking them for the opportunity. I mean for nearly a full decade I have written for a network TV show. I did it from Indianapolis. I don’t know anyone who writes for Network TV that doesn’t live on the Coasts. I somehow made that work.
I did have some ideas that I pitched that became sketches that I’m proud of how they turned out.
- One idea I pitched was where Frank would play Terry Bradshaw on the show, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader. Since it was a FOX show, we had Foxworthy help us and it was hilarious.
- Another was Frank playing Jay Leno doing Jaywalking where at the end he goes up to interview someone who happens to be the real Jay Leno. Jay then rips him up and down.
- My favorite of all-time was a sketch from the NFL on FOX was one that Frank and I wrote before the season at his house. Frank had played all 4 guys on the pregame show at the time and blew people away. (see below) The twist this time was going to have Frank playing them opposite of what they were best known for. This appeared in the first Super Bowl sketch Frank ever did. Unfortunately I can’t find any online video of it, but let me promise you, it crushed.
Here is the first time we did the pregame sketch parody of the guys on the set. Frank blew our viewers (and obviously our guys minds)
I wrote for 3 Super Bowls. Considering the size of the audience, no one has ever written sketches for as many people at one time. (No humble in that brag) Let me leave with the most interesting one. The last Super Bowl we did (Packers vs Steelers) the producer was contacted by Shaquille O’Neal about being involved with the sketch. Now we had people like Regis, Dr. Phil, Trump, etc in our sketches, so we had bigger names, but no one of bigger size than Shaq. His interest had come about because of the great sketches we had done with Frank as Charles Barkley and Aires Spears as Shaq. When the impressions are that good and that funny as when those guys do them, you don’t have to write anything that hilarious to make them good. Well the caveat was that Shaq had to approve the sketch. My idea was chosen: Let’s have Shaq play Terry Bradshaw. All we would do is to have him wear a bad blonde baldcap and throw out some Terryisms. I thought the juxtaposition of Shaq Bradshaw sitting next to Aires O’Neal would be hilarious. Well the reviews were great, as it was the most praised part of the pregame show. Since it aired right before the game and the this game drew over 100 million people, it has to be the most viewed sketch of all-time.
That doesn’t make me a rich man, but when I started almost a decade ago, I could never of imagined of writing for 3 Super Bowls, 2 of them which are ranked in the Top 5 most watched shows in TV history. I wish I would still working for the show, but I’m grateful I held on as long as I did. Who knows, I might be back next year and I can add another chapter.