Romantic Comedy (Reese's Book Club)
Weekly Schedule for The Night Owls
Monday 1 p.m. pitch meeting with guest host
Tuesday 5 p.m. start of all-night writing session
Wednesday 12 p.m. deadline for submitted sketches
Wednesday 3 p.m. table read of submitted sketches
Wednesday 9 p.m. preliminary show lineup posted internally
Wednesday night–Saturday morning rehearsals; scripts revised; sets built; special effects designed; hair, makeup, and costumes chosen and created; pre-tapes shot
Saturday 1 p.m. run-through of show
Saturday 8 p.m. dress rehearsal before a live audience
Saturday 11:30 p.m. live show before a new audience
Sunday 1:30 a.m. first after-party
Monday, 1:10 p.m.
For the meeting that marked the official start of that week’s show, I planned to pitch two sketches. But I had three ideas—you could write and submit more but pitch only two—so I’d play by ear which ones I went with, depending on how the guest host reacted to the pitches preceding mine. About forty writers, cast members, and producers were crammed into the seventeenth-floor office of the show’s creator and executive director, Nigel Petersen. Nigel’s seventeenth-floor office—not to be confused with his office on the eighth floor, adjacent to the studio where the show was filmed—was both well-appointed and never intended as a meeting place for anywhere close to forty people. This meant that Nigel sat behind his desk, the host sat in a leather armchair, a few lucky staffers nabbed a place on the sole couch, and everyone else leaned against the wall or sat on the floor.
Nigel started by introducing the host, who, as happened about once per season, was also that week’s musical guest. Noah Brewster had twice in the past been the musical guest, but this was his first time hosting. He was a cheesily handsome, extremely successful singer-songwriter who specialized in cloying pop music and was known for dating models in their early twenties. Though he looked like a surfer—piercing blue eyes, shaggy blond hair and stubble, a big toothy grin, and a jacked body—I’d learned by reading the host bio we were emailed each Monday morning that he’d grown up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He was thirty-six, the same age I was, and had been famous ever since releasing the hit “Making Love in July” more than fifteen years before, when I was in college. “Making Love in July” was a paean to respectfully taking the virginity of a long-haired girl with “glowy skin,” “a pouty mouth,” and “raspberry nipples,” and it was one of those songs that had for a year played so often on the radio that, in spite of finding it execrable, I accidentally knew all the words. In the time since then, Noah Brewster had won many awards and sold more than twenty million albums, a figure I also had learned from his host bio. It was not a coincidence that his tenth album was being released the following week; hosts, musical guests, and the combinations therein were usually either celebrating newfound fame or promoting imminent work.
After Nigel introduced him, Noah Brewster looked around the room and said, “Thanks for letting a musician crash the comedy party. Hosting TNO has been a lifelong dream, ever since I was a middle school misfit sneaking down to the basement to watch after my parents went to bed.” He smiled his big smile at us, and I wondered if his teeth were real or veneers. After nine years at TNO, I was as accustomed as one could be to interacting with high-wattage celebrities, though it often was surprising to discover who was even better-looking in person (most of them), who was an asshole (not many, but definitely a few), who was shockingly vacuous (the lead from a popular police procedural stood out), and who you wished would stay on the show forever because they were so great in the sketches and also just so fun to hang out with in the middle of the night.
Nigel glanced to his left, where a writer was sitting at his feet, and said, “Benji, why don’t you kick things off?”
Benji pitched a sketch about the former FBI director, James Comey, writing the memoir he’d just published, dictating Dear Diary–style girlish reminiscences. Then a cast member named Oliver said he was working on an idea with Rohit, another writer (it wouldn’t become clear until the read-through of the sketches on Wednesday if this was true or an excuse on Oliver’s part). Then a writer named Lianna pitched a sketch where Noah Brewster would play the token hot straight boy in a high school chorus, then a writer named Tony pitched a sketch where Noah Brewster would play a preppy white guy running for office and guest-preaching in a Black church. Henrietta, who was one of the two cast members I worked with the most, said she and Viv, who was the other cast member I worked with the most, wanted to do a sketch about Internet searches made by dogs. I went sixth.
“I think of this one as The Danny Horst Rule,” I said. “Because it’s inspired by my very own officemate, whose big news I trust we’re all aware of.” Everyone clapped or hooted. Over the weekend, after seven weeks of dating, Danny and Annabel Lily had gotten engaged, as revealed in a post on Annabel’s Instagram account showing a close-up of a ring on her finger, her hand resting atop Danny’s. Celebrity gossip websites immediately reported that the diamond was an emerald-cut halo with a pavé setting, and estimated that the ring had cost $110,000. Although I myself had been married briefly in my twenties, I had no idea what emerald cut, halo, or pavé setting meant—my ex-husband and I had both worn plain gold bands.
As the cheering died down, Danny, who was sitting on the floor two people to my left, said, “Thanks, everyone. And, yeah, pretty f***ing psyched that I get to be Mr. Annabel Lily.” There was another round of cheers, and Danny added, “If you’re wondering, Sally did warn me that she’d be exploiting me to advance her career.”
“I’m trying to convince Danny to write it with me,” I said. “But we’ll put a pin in that for now. Anyway, I want to write about the phenomenon where—sorry, Danny, I really do love you—but where men at TNO date above their station, but women never do.”
There was widespread laughter, though laughter at the pitch meeting could mean you’d revealed your punchlines too early. For this reason, some people pitched only decoys, though I took the risk of sharing my real ideas in order to lay claim to them in case anyone else was considering something similar. And anyway, to a surprising degree, laughter was never the ultimate determinant of a sketch’s fate; Nigel’s whims were. Of the forty or so scripts that would be submitted for Wednesday’s read-through, about twelve sketches would make it to the dress rehearsal Saturday and just eight to the live show. Sketches featuring the host had a better chance of surviving, but beyond that, it was impossible to guess what Nigel would decide. All of us in his office at that moment, cast members and writers alike, had had our hearts broken many times.
“Obviously, Danny should be in the sketch in some capacity,” I added, “either as himself or as someone else. And, Noah, it could work really well if you’re a guy who gets arrested for somehow breaking the rule, like you’re on a date with either Henrietta or Viv made up to look less gorgeous than they are in real life.” Though I was close to Henrietta and Viv, I wasn’t just flattering them. They really were both gorgeous, which wasn’t unusual for female comedians, and they were both so funny that their funniness often obscured their beauty, which also wasn’t unusual for female comedians.
“Just so I understand—” Noah Brewster said, and the confusion on his face made me wonder if he’d turn out to be one of the ding-dongs. I’d never previously spoken to him. The first time he’d been the musical guest had been before I worked at the show, and the second time, I hadn’t had any reason to interact with him. Occasionally, musical guests appeared in sketches, or you could watch them rehearse their songs on Thursday afternoons if you weren’t otherwise occupied, but that didn’t mean you’d meet. “In this sketch,” he said, “I’d be breaking the law because I’m so much better looking than a woman I’m dating?”
There was some chuckling, and a writer named Jeremiah said, “The bail for your hair alone would be a billion dollars.”
Noah’s expression was agreeable as he looked at me and said, “No, I’m really asking.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Basically.” I was seated with my back against the west wall of Nigel’s office, about ten feet from Noah, and many of my co-workers were between us.
Noah’s voice remained cheerfully diplomatic as he said, “I’ve always thought it works better when the host is making fun of himself—or herself—instead of mocking other people, so I’m inclined to pass on this one.”