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Jen Statsky on the art of the one-liner, writing for late night, and comedy with ‘heart’
‘You write the joke in the morning and by 4 o’clock that day, it’s either dead or alive.’
Jen Statsky’s resume is impressive. At age 29, she’s written for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Parks and Recreation, and Broad City. Now, she’s a staff writer on Maria Bamford’s new Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, produced by Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz.
Throughout our interview, she tells me again and again, “I feel super lucky to be where I am today.” Garnering success in the entertainment industry is, of course, somewhat based on luck, but Statsky’s comedic skill and intelligence is evident.
While most comedy writers came up through stand-up or involvement with UCB and Second City, Statsky had a more 21st-century path: She got noticed on Twitter, where she now has more than 77,000 followers.
How much time do you guys spend worrying people think you’re annoying? For me it’s only every waking moment and 1/4 of the time I’m asleep.
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) April 21, 2015
I wonder if when Jay Leno hears about a story like HBO getting Sesame Street he does a ‘lil monologue in the garage for his cars.
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) August 13, 2015
Here’s what she had to say about her Twitter stardom, fundamentally nice comedy, and her experiences on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Broad City, and Parks and Recreation.
How did you get your first TV writing job?
I went to NYU for film and TV, so I had an interest in writing when I got there. When I graduated, I worked in a coffee shop and did stand-up and random little gigs. I was an assistant at The Onion as well for about a year and a half, and during that time Twitter was getting popular. I signed up for it and started writing stupid, dumb jokes, and I did that until 2010. Basically what happened was that A.D. Miles, the head writer at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, was following me on Twitter and he messaged me and asked if I wanted to submit a packet to the show, and that’s how I ended up getting the job.
Did you build a following organically or did it happen all at once?
I don’t know exactly how it happened. I think I got lucky, and there were a few people with big Twitter followings at the time who retweeted me, like Rob Delaney and Seth MacFarlane, and I think that helped, but it was pretty gradual. Nothing happened overnight.
How do you feel about the fact that you came up through Twitter?
I don’t think about it a ton at this point. It’s never been something that I’ve never felt is negative or something I should be embarrassed about. From my friends, I’ve learned that you have to do the thing that you’re having the most fun doing, and the thing you have the most fun doing is usually the thing that you’re the best at. For me, as I was coming up in comedy, I realized that the thing I like doing the most is writing quick one-liner jokes, and Twitter was the perfect medium for that. I feel super lucky that I happened to be starting my career at the time that Twitter was taking off. I don’t quite know how it is now. I think there’s probably an oversaturation. Like there are so many funny people on Twitter now. Sometimes you’re just capturing a moment in time where something all comes together and I feel like that happened with me when I joined Twitter.
YOU MUST GET MARRIED AND YOU MUST POST ABOUT IT ON SOCIAL MEDIA THESE ARE THE RULES AND IF YOU DO NOT OBEY YOU ARE OF NO USE TO OUR SOCIETY.
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) May 22, 2015
What was your experience on Fallon like?
It was great. Late night is truly like comedy boot camp because you’re doing a show every day. You don’t have time to think about the last show, you can only think about the show ahead of you. And I was a monologue writer, so I think for me, it was a great way to get trained at churning out a lot of material under a deadline. Every day you had to produce four or five pages of jokes. It’s really intense. The most challenging, and ultimately the most rewarding part of it, was being able to write jokes under a tight deadline and just getting better at churning them out.
Were you also working on your own projects at that time?
I stopped doing standup when I started writing professionally; standup just fell to the wayside because the job was so time-consuming. The second you’re done writing one monologue you have to start thinking about one for the next day. It was a pretty time-consuming gig.
Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to not have to list my credits in my Twitter bio.
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) June 8, 2015
Why did you leave Fallon?
The goal had always been to write for sitcoms. I grew up loving them. Late Night was a great first job, but it was never really the end goal. After two years, I wanted to try something new. I moved to L.A., and a couple months after moving I wrote on the show Hello Ladies, which was on HBO for three months. Right after that, I went to Parks and Rec. I was there for the last two seasons.
How was writing for Parks and Rec different from writing for Fallon?
When I first got to Parks and Rec, I was like, I might have well been a plumber before this, because the writing process was so different. When you’re writing for the monologues, you’re looking for the quickest possible punchlines, and when you’re writing for a half-hour show, so much of it is talking about story and character. You’re obviously trying to think of funny stories, but the jokes don’t come first. And at Late Night, that’s all it is. It was my first real time thinking about story, and it was awesome. I feel like I lucked out in the biggest way because it was the best show with the best cast. It was my favorite show before I got there, so getting the opportunity to write for it was a true dream.
You’ve also written for Broad City.
Yeah, I wrote for season 2 and season 3. I wrote “Mochalatta Chills.” Usually Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer] write about half the episodes, and the rest are divvied up amongst the writers.
We GOTTA raise the stakes on how funny your text conversation needs to be to post it.
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) July 17, 2015
How was writing for Broad City different from writing for Parks and Rec?
One thing I thought that was a cool similarity between both shows is that both of them have a lot of heart. This is something I very much appreciate in the stuff I work on and watch. The characters on Parks and Rec have always gotten a lot of credit for being so funny while being super kind to each other and never mean, and I feel that with Broad City too. It’s a love story between Abbi and Ilana, and they’re never mean-spirited, and that’s something that I really appreciate.
The shows are obviously so different in tone. You know, Parks and Rec is this creation of this fictional town, Pawnee, and Broad City is based in this heightened version of New York, but coming from a super real place of New York being the best and worst place in the world. The similarity between the two is a lack of mean spirit, which I appreciate because I think comedy can so easily drift over to being a little harsh and mean, which is always a bummer to me.
Jimmy Fallon is also so fun to watch because he seems like such a charming, nice guy.
Totally. People always ask me: Is Jimmy really that nice? And he really is! He’s such a genuine kid in that he’s so excited about things and so positive, and I do feel that I’ve been super lucky in that I’ve gotten to work for things that have been positive.
Which U.S. president do you think had the worst bacne?
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) May 4, 2015
Tell me about the new show you’re working on, Lady Dynamite.
It’s on Netflix, and it’s Maria [Bamford] playing a version of herself. The show is told in three different time periods: before she had a mental breakdown, during her mental breakdown, and then in the present day in Los Angeles. It’s an interesting experience: working for Netflix and working for Maria, who I have loved for years and years.
Still chasing the high of that time 5 years ago I watched Shallow Hal and then the first person I walked into outside was Gwyneth Paltrow.
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) June 2, 2015
A lot of times, one-liners are so much about delivery. What is it like to write those for the Internet and also for people like Jimmy Fallon?
I guess for the Internet it’s awesome because you get such an immediate response to your joke. If I did standup, that would be another way to get an immediate response, but aside from that, if you’re just writing one-liners in a vacuum, you’re just wondering: Is this funny? Will this get a laugh?
The immediate response from Twitter was super helpful when I first started to write jokes. And then I transitioned to writing for Fallon: writing one-liners for someone else. What I learned was, the shorter, the better; it’s punchier. I improved at it so much. I can go back and look at jokes I wrote for Fallon when I first started, and I’m like, that’s 60 words too long. The more you do it, when you write for someone else—and we had the benefit of Jimmy rehearsing the joke in front of an audience—and you hear it come out of his mouth, and you’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t work, that’s clunky,” or you’re like, “That’s perfect and succinct and great.” The response from the crowd is super helpful.
What could be sadder than when you save a tweet as a draft late at night cause you’re like, “no this shit is TOO good, needs to be seen.”
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) February 14, 2015
So you obviously don’t have that with sitcom writing, but when you write for Parks and Rec or Broad City, do you have the actors rehearse so you can go back and rework it?
It goes through so many smaller test audiences. I think the first barometer is the writers’ room. If the room laughs, then it’s a good joke. Sitcoms are interesting because you’re pitching things in the room, and then it’ll go into a draft. Then you’ll do a table read. Sometimes when you hear the actors say it out loud at the table read, you’re like, “Oh, that’s bad.” Even if we laughed so hard at it in the room, it just didn’t work when it came out of the actor’s mouth. And it works the other way, too: Sometimes when you hear an actor say some small throwaway joke at the table read, it’s way funnier than you ever imagined, and you realize you should expand on that.
Even past that, when you’re on set and shooting the actual show, you realize that a scene is too long. A sitcom script is constantly evolving, whereas late night is quicker: You write the joke in the morning and by 4 o’clock that day, it’s either dead or alive.
Correction: Statsky wrote one episode for season 3 of Broad City, and was a creative consultant for that season.
Photo via Jen Statsky/Twitter | Remix by Jason Reed
Eve Peyser is a writer and comedian based in New York. She has published bylines in Esquire, the Washington Post, Gizmodo, and GQ, and she works as a staff politics and culture writer at Vice.