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Writing for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Alums reflect on working for late night TV’s most popular host

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Mike DiCenzo and Arthur Meyer, writers for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Emmy-nominated writers Mike DiCenzo (left) and Arthur Meyer help The Tonight Show dominate late night TV. Photo by Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

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.”

7 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

7 Comments on Writing for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

  • Sharon Zurcher on 04.03.2015 at 12:25 pm

    I alwaya admire the writers of the Tonight Show I think it takes great talent to come up with the sketches etc that they do it’s no wonder that they are always at the top of the ratings I know they inspire me to want to become a comedy writher

  • Richard Kemble on 05.08.2015 at 12:29 am

    The tonight show format is so stale it hasn’t changed in 40 years. Monologue- guest interview – ending music act

    I’d like to see something different each night like SAT NIGHT LIVE skits with many different personalities being used along with Jimmy Fallon. More like a variety show not predictable every night mix it up please please please. This would allow jimmys talents to rise to the top. Have ones like bill badder in a skit on once a week
    And other great ones too. Then stand back and watch the ratings go thru the roof.
    Yours rich

    • freddy Moonlight on 09.12.2015 at 3:34 pm

      uh…..yea, thats what Fallon does with his skits and games he plays with guests. Late night shows are going to have a format. But the reason he is absolutely killing it right now is because he doesn’t just follow that format in such cookie cutter fashion.

  • ken ciufo on 11.06.2015 at 12:48 am

    Did you know , that since the publicized Volkswagon emissions problem ; Orders have surged in China ? !!!

  • Jennifer Foresman on 12.10.2016 at 12:46 am

    I love the Late Night Show. But was sick tonight that Jimmy gave Duane Johnson rocKS with leather from Nordstrom (china). I’m a local leather worker and wasn’t even contacted for a bid. So much for all you criticize when you don’t support local.
    Hypocrites, like everyone.
    Jenne Leatherwork

  • mike rutherford on 06.15.2017 at 11:42 pm

    Jimmy, Shave the beard!!! It doesn’t fit your face and the fad is so 5 minutes ago.

  • Eric N. Jones on 09.22.2017 at 7:25 pm

    It would good to see a show with a video game skit of a video game with Trump and Kim battling each other. The game would be played by two member of congress. Second idea: a skit of someone going in a barber shop to get a hair cut and the person looks at a picture style chart and says give me a number one which is a picture of Trump’s hair style. The next person come in gets in the chair and says give me a number five and it is a picture of Kim! I what a laugh. I hope you use my idea.

    Eric N. Jones

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