Chris Kelly,

       Jay Leno does about 25 monologue jokes a day. Letterman does about six, sometimes more, but of those six, three are throwaways: Times Square contains hookers, foreigners have odd names, a cab driver sold a squirrel crack. Conan O’Brien does three, I think. At Politically Incorrect we do five. I mean, Bill Maher performs five. We write about 250.
       Writing a daily monologue is easy when bad things happen. Right now it’s 12:15 a.m., Monday, May 4, and nothing is happening. The lead stories in the New York Times are about Dan Burton, affirmative action, and cocoa beans. Newsweek’s cover story is “Building a Better Boy.” No one knows who Dan Burton is, so we’re screwed there. Affirmative action isn’t funny. The cocoa bean story is useless. That leaves us, and Letterman, and Leno, and Conan with the guy who killed himself on television on the freeway last Thursday, Al Gore overseas, and NATO expansion. Luckily it’s only midnight. There’s still plenty of time for something horrible to occur.
       Sometimes, just when things are at their bleakest, Bob Dole will fall through a railing, or a mansion full of Star Trek fans will kill themselves to rendezvous with a comet, or a Scotsman will clone a sheep, or the president will turn out to be a flasher. Sure, then it’s easy. Then anyone can do it. The man who’s worthwhile is the man who can smile when the lead stories are about Dan Burton, affirmative action, cocoa beans, and better boy building.
       As the Fox TV network points out so gleefully, there are only so many magic tricks. There are also only so many monologue jokes. The job is dressing them up differently. I’m not making an elephant disappear, I’m making a hovercraft disappear. It’s not a Pee Wee Herman joke, it’s a George Michael joke. The art–well, the art should be making a truly beautiful and searing observation about current events. But the craft is making the same old jokes about new subjects.
       Lenny Bruce used to talk about replacing Mort Sahl’s newspaper. (Sahl would work off that day’s paper, carry it up onstage with him, flip through it, and riff off the stories.) Bruce’s idea was to get to all the newsstands anywhere near where Sahl was playing and replace that day’s papers with really old copies. Sahl buys the paper, gets onstage, says, “Let’s see what’s happening today … Well, it looks like the Hindenburg exploded …”
       Challenger jokes were Hindenburg jokes. Flight 800 jokes were ValuJet jokes were Challenger jokes were Hindenburg jokes. Dead Chris Farley jokes were Dead John Belushi jokes were Dead Lenny Bruce jokes.
       Even on a new, fresh subject, Leno can do the same joke for a week. Or maybe it just feels like a week. (Premise: Someone, anywhere on earth, does anything that has anything to do with marijuana. Punch lines: Monday–they get the munchies for Doritos; Tuesday–munchies for pizza; Wednesday–munchies for doughnuts; Thursday–munchies for the release that death will bring.)
       At Politically Incorrect we’re not allowed to hit the same news story twice. And that’s a pain, because we have to put all that extra effort into tricking Maher into thinking the story has advanced so far in 24 hours that it’s new again–“Terry Nichols’ lawyers say they’re closer than ever to a plea bargain” … etc., etc.
       Maher also makes our job difficult by the jokes he won’t do:
       No Teddy Kennedy drinking jokes. (Teddy Kennedy drowns people jokes–considered on a case-by-case basis.)
       No Boris Yeltsin drinking jokes. (Making Russia, as a subject, almost impossible–the fall of the Berlin Wall was also the fall of the great Russia Premises: You wait for a long time in line for a potato, the Yugo is a piece of crap, and the KGB watches everybody at all times.)
       No matter how cleverly it’s phrased, Al Gore is neither a tree nor a robot. (Al Gore visited flood victims and got his hard drive wet. Or: Al Gore visited flood victims and, when a local levee broke, allowed some to take refuge in his upper branches.)
       Sports are off-limits, as a rule, and in particular, jokes where a team on a losing streak is used as an all-purpose punch line. (Newt Gingrich is never going to be president–know whom he just hired for his campaign strategists? The Nets!)
       Maher has a deep antipathy toward jokes involving the deaths of obscure celebrities and funerals that mirror their lives. (The inventor of the refrigerator light bulb died, and mourners spent three days opening and closing his casket to see if he stayed that way.)
       Of course, like a Ted Kennedy temperance pledge, these rules were made to be broken.
       A Letterman writer explained to me once that his boss’s comedy “advanced glacially.” For example, right now, and for the next six months, half of all monologue jokes will end with the word “intern.” Sooner or later another subject will emerge, some advertising phrase like “Godzilla: Size Does Matter.” This will, slowly, drive “intern” out. Leno’s monologue is more timeless than that. Leno knows that politicians are a bunch of blowhards; that O.J. Simpson was accused of murder, John Bobbitt had his penis cut off, and laxatives make people go to the bathroom. He has that to fall back on, the way, in Islands in the Stream, Thomas Hudson can rely on the sea. It’s what he has instead of God.
       I’m not going to say what we fall back on; that would be giving it away. But if we do a Dan Burton joke this week, it will somehow play off on the idea that Ken Starr is insane. If we do affirmative action, it will hinge on there being very few black Republicans. Newsweek’s “Building a Better Boy” = Michael Jackson. And it always will.
       No monologue writer alive is better at what he does than Gerard Mulligan, who writes for David Letterman. One day some other writers were working on a “Chyron Quiz”–a piece that requires writing printed jokes over videotape footage of average people. Mulligan walked through the meeting and, without pausing, gave the right answer, the exact winning punch line to the footage that was frozen on the monitor. It doesn’t matter what. It was a great joke, and an old joke, and everyone knew it would be the joke performed on the show that night. Jeff Stilson, who’s also a terrific monologue writer, said, “Gerry, don’t you ever feel like you’re in a rut?” And Mulligan told Stilson, “It’s not a rut, my friend, it’s a groove.”