Growing up, Mike DiCenzo had a dream: reuniting the cast of one of his favorite shows, Saved by the Bell. As a senior writer on NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he not only was able to make that happen, but had a boss willing to star in a sketch that brought Zack, Kelly, Jessie, and Slater back together.
DiCenzo thought to cast Fallon as a Bayside High classmate of the four principal characters. He persuaded Saved by the Bell stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, Elizabeth Berkley, and Tiffani Ann Thiessen to take up their old personas and dress in ’90s duds. The eight-minute skit was an instant hit when it aired February 3 and since then has been viewed on YouTube 29.9 million times.
“My job is awesome,” says DiCenzo (COM’05), who admits he still has “holy shit!” moments when he realizes he’s writing for a late night show with millions of viewers. He was the first writer Fallon hired when he succeeded Conan O’Brien on Late Night in 2009, and he made the move to the Tonight Show when Fallon took over from Jay Leno last year. “Just the nature of the show and who you get to work with is amazing—I got to write lyrics for Paul McCartney,” DiCenzo says. The personal payoff is good, too: “My grandma’s definitely proud of me.”
Joining DiCenzo at the Tonight Show writers’ table each day is Arthur Meyer (COM’06). The two Emmy-nominated alums pen sketches and celebrity bits that have helped the show dominate competitors Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Late Show with David Letterman. During the recent February sweeps, The Tonight Show beat its competitors by more than a million viewers.
The BU scribes met only briefly in college before becoming coworkers. DiCenzo, who wrote for BUTV10’s now-defunct Overexposed as an undergraduate, went on to land a gig at the satirical news website The Onion before going to work for Fallon. He began to use Meyer, his neighbor in Brooklyn, in some of the Late Night skits, drawing on Meyer’s background in sketch comedy as a member of BU’s comedy group Slow Children at Play and then of Pangea 3000, a sketch comedy group he belonged to in New York for six years after college. His talent for sketch comedy helped him eventually get hired as a Tonight staff writer.
“It taught me how to collaborate with other comedians, and that’s a huge part of doing comedy,” Meyer says. “The only way you can write a good sketch is to collaborate and be open to other people’s ideas. We do that every day at Fallon.”
The Tonight Show is known for goofy humor, good-natured interviews, and skits like Michelle Obama “mom dancing” and Tom Hanks performing slam poetry. “It’s a very sincere show, a positive show,” says Meyer. “It’s not steeped in sarcasm. It celebrates more than it takes down.”
The two writers credit Saturday Night Live alum Fallon with setting the tone in the writers’ room. “A lot of the show’s best ideas are inspired by him; his mind works in a different way,” says DiCenzo, who describes his boss as a comedic genius. “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” Meyer says.
Fallon expects the same work ethic from his Tonight Show writing staff. “I’m thinking of ideas for jokes when I get on the subway at 7:30 in the morning,” says Meyer, who is still working on his laptop from home at 11 p.m. most nights, long after the show has finished pretaping. “You have to be pretty on top of news and current events so you can reach as large an audience as possible.”
Every morning, the show’s 17 staff writers are sent four pages of news summaries before their daily 9:45 a.m. meeting. There they pitch ideas for sketches inspired by some of those stories. These might end up in the show’s popular “Thank You Note” segment or in a skit starring a guest (Fallon has a separate writing staff for his opening monologue). The writers’ ideas are whittled down, and Fallon has the final say on what ultimately gets chosen. The job requires a thick skin: Meyer estimates that while he writes about 25 or 30 jokes a week, only about one actually makes it on the air.
The writers occasionally make cameo appearances on the show, sometimes for self-serving reasons. Meyer, who is single, recently starred alongside fellow writer John Haskell on the “Tonight Show Blind Date” skit. Fallon explained on air that the two needed girlfriends and flashed their email addresses on screen. By the next day, each had received more than 300 responses from potential girlfriends, and Tonight Show cameras followed them on a subsequent dinner date and to a bar with a mechanical bull.
Part of what made that particular sketch work was Meyer’s timing and awkward pauses, the kind of thing that takes time and hard work to master, says DiCenzo. “In college I would spend my Saturday nights writing sketches with my roommate in our dorm room,” he says. “The most important thing, if you want to be in comedy, is to just constantly write and keep practicing. You have to do it a lot until you shed the rough edges. You don’t magically wake up being as good as you want to be.”