In the recent movie Late Night, Mindy Kaling plays a naive young comedy writer joining the writing team on a late-night US chat show. The staff are exclusively white, male, expensively educated and surly – a running gag is that every one uses the women’s restroom to defecate because no women work in the office. Kaling, as a perky “diversity hire”, shakes up the show and drags it into the 21st century. It’s a wish fulfilment comedy: what would actually happen, with just one woman or person of colour in the room, is that the lads would carry on being sexist and racist but would then swivel their heads at her like ventriloquist dummies to check that she was “cool” with it.

US writers’ rooms have a feral romance to them, as seen in shows such as 30 Rock, which was inspired by Tina Fey’s real time as head writer on Saturday Night Live, when her male peers would pee into jars on their office window sill and call it “sun tea”. In the UK, we’re a little more embarrassed at the idea that comedy is “written”, and feel it should be hidden away, shamefully and quietly. (When a writing partner and I asked for an office at the BBC in which to write our radio series, we were grudgingly offered “The Jill Dando room”, an 8ft sq office in TV Centre featuring a King-Kong-at-the-window-scale mural of the tragically murdered TV personality. We laughed. Writers are horrible.)

Recently, ITV announced an initiative to aim for gender-balanced writing teams on its comedy shows, which came as a shock to some people who claim to passionately love comedy but don’t know how it is made. People who think Morecambe and Wise came up with all their own material, and Angela Rippon just started doing all that mad stuff with her legs on the day. You know what though? It’s sort of OK – comedy writers feel deep down we are doing our job properly when you don’t know we’re there, like God. No, not like God: we don’t have that level of self-esteem. We’re like … people who pump out the toilets at music festivals. That’s it. Gag writers are like the portable loo people, quietly keeping your entertainment entertaining. We know that no one at home cares if Simon Cowell is being genuinely spontaneous, or if his quip about David Walliams’s trousers was crafted by a sweaty nerd on a 600th of his salary. We’re just happy to be in showbiz.

I love my job. I’ve worked in more than 50 writers’ rooms, not including the shows I helped develop that never made it to air. Some days I pinch myself that I’m being paid to laugh my head off. On Horrible Histories you get free lectures from historians – it’s like being paid for school, only you’re actively encouraged to make fun of the lesson afterwards. Some shows I’ve proudly worked on for decades, some were just a fleeting engagement in a production company office that smelled of pizza and ambition. Food is vital to the workings of a writers’ room. If a producer offers to buy lunch, everyone will immediately order the most expensive thing possible, because comedy writers are tiny children, and also because you know a free lunch means you are working through lunch.

The job has changed a lot in 10 years, but some writers’ rooms do still feel loud and gladiatorial, as in Late Night. Often in the UK they are dominated by male Oxbridge-educated caucazoids (some of my best friends are male Oxbridge-educated caucazoids, etc, etc). Writers are generally sensitive and insecure. If you put us together in a room we will overcompensate – like the advice given to someone on their first day of prison, punch the biggest bloke in the yard.

There was one pop-based panel show writers’ room so notoriously toxic, the survivors talk as though it has been entombed in concrete like Chernobyl. A half-formed idea would get cut short with a “That’s shit” or “Not funny”. The writers’ assistant would get sent out with a complicated sandwich order and a grave warning that the star would “lose his shit” if she got the order wrong. (Of course, the sandwich shop didn’t exist. She was terrified! Lol!)





Tina Fey, Keith Powell.



Tina Fey in US sitcom 30 Rock, which was inspired by her time as head writer on Saturday Night Live. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

These rooms are “raptor pits”, according to Andy Riley, co-creator of Year of the Rabbit, who has compiled a glossary of writers’ room terms on his website How to Talk Comedy Writer. There is loads of secret lingo, such as “Die-dia” (from Kat Sadler), an idea that you feel dying in your mouth the second you start pitching. A bad room will crush a die-dia dead (“that’s not funny”), a good room will toss it around a bit to see what other ideas it shakes out. A die-dia is from the same family as “the bad version”, which is a much derided term that a higher-up might use when pitching the shape of a joke, but not the joke itself. “We need a funny reveal for what the dog is chewing. The bad version is … a dildo? I dunno, you’re the writers.” Honestly, pitching “the bad version” is actually really useful, but it’s a thing that producers say so writers make fun of it. We don’t often get to feel lofty.

Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show, says: “Comedy writing rooms should be like improv – ‘Yes, and … ’ Rather than ‘That’s shit.’” When a room is good, it’s heaven, a sort of sexless flirting where colleagues bat ideas back and forth and nothing is off-limits. A certain amount of inappropriateness is actually vital to the health of a room.

Executives who pop in can be startled by the filth and off-topic banter. It’s our way of getting to know each other. Jason Hazeley, co-creator of Cunk on Britain, calls this “doing scales” – the practice gags that warm you up for the real work. I’ve also heard it called “clearing the pipes” or “getting the poison out”. It’s not pleasant, but it is funny, if dead-baby jokes before 10am are your thing. Quite why we’re allowed to get away with this I’m not sure, there’s no other job where it’s expected that you need to be appalling before you can do your job properly. “Sure I’ll bring in this 747, but I just have to snap the legs off this heron first. It’s my process.”

When the Time’s Up movement hit Hollywood there was concern that some people wouldn’t feel comfortable with the “anything goes” approach. There was a famous lawsuit where the writers’ assistant on Friends (the only female and person of colour in the room) sued because of the eye-wateringly inappropriate conversation among the chief writers (including speculations about a female cast member’s genitalia). The decision went in the show’s favour, with the judge referring to the Friends room as “a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes”.





Sarah Morgan.



‘I’ve been in situations where later I’ve pondered the weird nature of my employment’ … Sarah Morgan. Photograph: Karla Gowlett

I’ve never felt unsafe or intimidated at work, but I’ve been in situations where later I’ve pondered the weird nature of my employment. There was a day in a small room where the head writer delivered a monologue about inserting Cadbury Mini Eggs in the non-traditional orifice of a lady friend. I didn’t feel especially harassed (I almost certainly “yes and”-ed with egg puns) but I can’t speak for the young woman whose job it was to sit and take notes all day. Crucially, I’m not sure it was a super-productive way to write in-house sketches for the website of a luxury car brand.

While no one wants to think about how the sausage is made, it’s a fact that most shows have writers’ rooms – panel shows, award shows, sketch shows, topical news shows, a chat show for a popular fake TV judge … they are all team written. Though you’d be forgiven for not knowing that if you look at the credits. “Writers” aren’t much of a thing in comedy, outside sitcoms. They are credited as “programme associates” (or “additional material”). Programme associates are the modest heroes thinking of funny captions for a photo of a puffin, or writing questions about Boris Johnson’s hair, or coming up with sketch ideas a talk-show host could do based round a giant papier-mache vulva that had been commissioned by the production company for another show but didn’t get used. (These are all things that have happened on programmes I have written on, sorry, been associated with.)

But the title may not be around for ever. The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is starting a campaign to scrap positions such as “programme associate” and credit writers for their writing. “Writers should always be credited as writers,” says Gail Renard, former WGGB chair and member of the guild’s comedy committee, “or else they stand to lose their residuals, pension contributions, and other payments they’ve rightly earned. Why should we be hidden in the shadows like some dark comedy secret?”

Well, there’s lots of reasons why comedy writers should be kept a dark dirty secret – see above – but a reluctance to give proper credit isn’t one of them.

Late Night is showing in UK cinemas.


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