If you ever wondered what it’s like working for Jimmy Fallon, there’s no better person to talk to than Jon Rineman.
The Emerson graduate and New Hampshire native has been crafting jokes for the late-night host for six years and is now the head monologue writer on The Tonight Show.
We spoke to Rineman about what it’s like working on one of the most popular talk shows on the air, what he thinks about his alma mater offering a major in comedy, and more.
You said in a recent interview that there’s a big difference between writing for late night and writing for stand-up. What is that big difference?
I think that for Jimmy, it’s just that we’re different people. We’re very different personalities in that he’s everyman. He’s the guy that you want to hang out with, he’s the guy you want to be your neighbor. His point of view is a very everyman point of view, and that’s why he’s so good at the job… Whereas with me, I’m a lot quirkier. I’m a lot more peculiar. I think that I’m more comfortable being the butt of the joke. For Jimmy, he can make fun of the situation, he can make fun of a story, whereas with me and stand-up, it’s just generally my story, trying to figure things out and not necessarily fitting in. Not in a bad way, but kind of being that guy who says, “I don’t get it. I don’t get why everyone thinks this is so good.’’
The difference is, one is very just observational. I think that’s the late-night monologue. Whereas, I think for me for stand-up, it’s more personal. It’s not autobiographical, just kind of genuine, the way I kind of see things. That’s kind of the big difference.
Louis C.K. once talked about how he tried to sneak in edgier jokes while writing for Conan O’Brien. Have you ever tried to push the envelope with the jokes you write for Fallon?
Yeah, but it will never make it to air. We’ve done it before with Jimmy’s stuff, but he’ll say when he does it, “I’m only doing this in rehearsal’’ or “I’’m only doing this for you guys.’’ Everyone will get a laugh but he won’t do it on air. It’s usually not that it’s too offensive, it’s just too stupid. We push it, but I think at the same time, we don’t go too far because we all know we have a pretty good thing going. We don’t want to offend anybody. It’s one thing if a stand-up comes on or a guest does something, but as far what Jimmy says, it’s not that he doesn’t try to be offensive, it just doesn’t fit the character. We do some pretty heady jokes. We’ll do some things that are pretty edgy or kind of hard jokes and stuff. But you can kind of tell if it’s a joke that’s just being dirty for the sake of being dirty. It’s like, is it fair to bring somebody in or is it just a cheap shot? Jimmy doesn’t really like cheap shots. We’ll try some things, and every now and then something will get through, and it’s a fun moment as a writer, like, “Oh I got that one by.’’ But you don’t want to tell something that throws the whole show off the rails. You want everything to fit. So, we try but Jimmy is a really smart guy. He’s not going to see a joke and say, “That seems fine to me,’’ and not get it. He’s going to be like, “Come on.’’
Have you talked to Jimmy since his recent spill?
I haven’t. I sent him and e-mail just saying I hope he’s doing well. But no I haven’t. That was the day before our vacation. I had a wedding to get to right after work that day so I didn’t get to check in or anything. I hope he’s doing OK.
Does it take a toll trying to write jokes pretty much every single night of the week? Are you constantly under pressure?
I think that’s how, it’s just the pressure of it. That’s how you do it. It’s knowing you have to perform. It does wear on you. For me, it’s been six years. I think the longest anyone has gone [as a monologue writer] except me was three or three-and-a-half years. I’ve been there a long time and, you don’t notice it, but it does. I’m not always the most fun person to be around when I’m writing jokes because whenever I’m in a great, happy mood, my jokes are terrible. They suck. It’s whenever I’m in a cynical, kind of grouchy, cranky mood that they are a lot better. I think that’s when you’re more real, more honest. Also, you’re harder on your work when you’re that way. You pay attention more… I come across as grumpy or not in a good mood when I’m doing this, but really it’s because I’m focused. You’re on a deadline and you’re doing the best that you can, and it’s a terrible feeling when you don’t get jokes on the show. It’s pretty rare for me to have a goose egg. For me, knock on wood, it only happens every few months. But when I was starting out it happened more frequently and it’s just a terrible feeling.
What’s it like coming back to the New England area when you perform?
The interesting thing is, when you come back to New England or where you grew up, you start one of those jokes and then you look into the crowd and you’re like, oh crap, there’s one of your relatives. Can I still tell this joke? I think probably the scariest example of that was when I did a show up in New Hampshire and it ended up being kind of a rowdy crowd, in a good way. For crowds like that, you acclimate and maybe you work a little bluer too because the crowd’s going this direction. That’s kind of how the set went and it was really fun. So I get done and, I knew my parents were there, and my dad afterwards says, “Hey, you got to come say hello to someone.’’ And I’m like, “Who?’’ He says, “Father Moe’s here.’’ Our priest was at the show the whole time and it was that classic example. You go back in your head and you’re like, “Oh no.’’ But, fortunately, he had a good sense of humor about it, and that kind of freaked me out. I was like, “You’re not supposed to think this stuff’s funny!’’
How did going to Emerson impact your comedy career?
I kind of went there with the idea of what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a sitcom writer or, more importantly, a sketch writer or sketch performer. If you watched like Saturday Night Live, that’s the ultimate goal. And if you watch over on Conan, they did a bunch of funny sketches with Brian McCann and Brian Stack, I thought that was so cool. While I was there, though, that’s where I kind of discovered that I was good at writing jokes. You got to remember, this was before Twitter so there was really no outlet for that at all. But that’s kind of where I found myself. Somewhere there finally said, “You’re a good sketch writer, you’re a very good sitcom script writer, but you’re a great joke writer. If you want to break into this business and have a good career in your 20s, this is what you have to do.’’ That’s kind of how I fell in and started doing that. There’s all different kinds of comedy, all different genres, and Emerson is good because it teaches you A.) if you belong, if comedy is good for you and B.) what your strength is and what you should be focusing on.
Emerson is going to start offering comedy as a major. If you could go back now, would you major in comedy and do you think you can teach someone to be funny?
If you could teach someone to be funny, I think my wife would want me to go back and do a redo I think. My first reaction was, “Can I pull a Billy Madison here?’’ Can I go back because I know I would get a much better GPA. Comedy, I can nail it now. I don’t know what the rules are, there might be some kind of NCAA eligibility thing that blocks me from going back as a professional. I think it’s a good idea. I wish they had it when I was there. I know Martie Cook, who set it up, and some other people who are doing it. They have really good people putting it together. My first reaction, honestly, was kind of surprised, in a good way. I was surprised they were able to do it. I was afraid of getting some ribbing from my friends like, “Oh, your school has a comedy major now. You’re going to make comedians and everything.’’ But really, it was very positive just because, I think, as someone said, “Well, you can major in philosophy.’’ Nothing against people who major in philosophy, but with comedy, that’s the thing, we know what you are trying to get for a job.
I think making comedy a major helps to legitimize the craft as a serious artform.
Yeah, it’s also like, they are going to be graded. I remember thinking—like an idiot when I was there and I was writing my last term paper for Emerson—this is the last time someone will ever be able to judge whether my work is an A or a B or whatever. And now, I’m like, “You idiot, that’s your whole life!’’ Your whole life is writing jokes and hoping the head writer likes them and hoping the host likes them. Or writing scripts and hoping they don’t get torn apart. That’s your whole life and it’s on every level. If Larry David wanted to write a new sitcom, he would get notes. I think it’s good.
Have you put any thought as to what you want to do post-Tonight Show?
As time goes on and I do more and more, there’s going to be a point where I have to decide what direction I’m going in, maybe even sooner than later. I try not to think about it. For right now, it’s a job that’s been very good to me and I’m very lucky I got it and I feel lucky that I’m good at it.
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