UNC graduate Scott Jacobson is a writer and co-executive producer of "Bob's Burgers." He also previously wrote for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and has won six Emmys for his work in comedy writing.
Staff writer Eva Ellenburg spoke with Jacobson about his journey to success in the comedy writing industry.
The Daily Tar Heel: What sparked your interest in comedy writing?
Scott Jacobson: I remember being 13 and really loving "Saturday Night Live," and it was the years when Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz and all those guys were on. It was kind of a classic period of "Saturday Night Live," and I watched David Letterman too. Comedy was always something you had to stay up late for, and so it seemed like this kind of forbidden fruit that you had to get permission from your mom and dad to watch. I was really taken with the idea of there actually being people who wrote that stuff — whose whole job was to go in and come up with sketches for "Saturday Night Live."
I remember keeping a little notebook — I would keep a notebook of little topical jokes that were probably just horrible. I remember writing a lot of Madonna jokes at the time, who everybody on late night talk shows talked about. Even though I didn’t really find the Madonna jokes very funny, I was like, "Well, if I’m going to be in that world, I guess I’m going to have to come up with a fun take on Madonna." It started when I was probably about that age and it was something that I would occasionally push to the back of my mind and entertain thoughts of going to grad school or law school, although I had really no inclination toward it. Finally, when I was about to graduate from UNC I just kind of admitted to myself that what I really wanted to be doing was comedy. Or at least I wanted to give it a shot.
Yeah it wasn’t until my senior year (at UNC) that I really kind of kicked things into overdrive. I was doing a lot of extracurricular stuff — I was working for STV and I worked on a TV show there. I did a lot of cartoons for The Daily Tar Heel, but I kind of waited until senior year to do all that stuff because, the other three years, I was just kind of not willing to admit to myself yet that that’s what I wanted to be doing.
DTH: How did you end up with your job at Bob’s Burgers?
SJ: I did work at "The Daily Show" for five years, and I had like two years after "The Daily Show" when I was just kind of freelancing and writing pilots and hoping that something else would come along that was as good as "The Daily Show" and that I would be as excited to work on.
I remember my agents put me in for this new show that was starting up called "Bob’s Burgers," and I didn’t know anything about it except that there was someone from "King of the Hill" involved. I came out to Los Angeles because I was living in New York at the time. When I got to the meetings with the executive producer of the show and the creator of the show, and I found out that, first of all, the creator is the guy who created "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist" and "Home Movies," which are shows that I loved, and that the cast I was already a huge fan of.
... In that meeting I remembered just about begging for the job. It was what I’d been waiting for for two years. It was like, "This is an interesting show." They let me read two scripts, and I was like, "This is funny." From that point I went back to New York and waited a little bit to hear. Eventually I got the call, and that was seven years ago.
DTH: What’s your favorite part of your job, and what’s your least favorite part?
SJ: (My) favorite part is when everyone is in the room together. There’s kind of a rule of thumb that we have for the show, that the show is the funniest when the whole family is together. I also feel like I’m having the most fun on what we call close-out nights when we — before a script goes to table read, all the writers get together in a room and we go through the script line by line and see if we can make it better. Those are kind of my favorite nights—it’s just when everyone’s in the room and we’re all focused on the script. The only challenge for me is sometimes the pace can be a little bit slow. There’s a nine-month turnaround for episodes. You write something and then you’re living with it for nine months before it gets on the air, compared to say, writing for a late night show where you’re just constantly under the gun. There are doldrums; there are stretches where you’re working, but it’s kind of at a leisurely pace. I think I prefer when I’m under the gun.
DTH: What was your biggest career breakthrough and the biggest career setback?
SJ: The biggest breakthrough was getting "The Daily Show" job. I was working as a kindergarten teacher in New York City at a private school called the Grace Church School. I had done little jobs here and there in TV, but in a lot of ways it didn’t look like it was working out for me. ...
Once ("The Daily Show") happened, I kind of felt like the years of telling my parents that I’m just going to give it one more year before I go back to grad school had come to an end. The thing that I wanted to happen had finally happened. There are plenty of ups and downs since then, but I can’t remember a time in my adult life that I was more excited than when I got that job.
Biggest setback — the two years after I left "The Daily Show" were harder than I thought they’d be. It was humbling — you’re constantly being humbled in this job. You can write something that does well, and then the next thing you write falls flat. Hopefully you get more and more chances, so you get chances to prove yourself again and then fail again.
... You always kind of feel that when you’re doing a job like this, that it could kind of end at any moment, and the reality is it can. I had those five years at "The Daily Show" when I thought I kind of dodged a bullet. The feeling of failure of having to go back to North Carolina with my tail between my legs — that could come back at any moment. It was only those two years after "The Daily Show" that I really realized that was true.
DTH: How has winning Emmys, if at all, changed your career? Do you feel more pressure?
SJ: I’ll tell you what, I don’t think it changes it at all. It feels really good, it’s very exciting and there’s a lot of adrenaline when you get to go up on stage and you feel really validated. But then you kind of realize that — you couldn’t tell me who won the Emmy for best comedy last year. No one remembers. It’s not the life-changing event that people who see you on the Emmys might think it is, as much as you might want it to be. This might be less sexy than what you’re looking for. I have those statuettes now, and when people come over for a party or something, it’s good to have because people like to pick them up and pose with them. I started sending them to my family now — my parents have one and my sister has one, so they probably have fun with them. I had a friend once who borrowed one of the Emmys to go on a first date to try to impress somebody with it. It didn’t work of course; it was just totally weird that he had an Emmy and didn’t win it. Yeah it’s exciting, but then you realize that you still have to go into work the next day.
DTH: What comedy has been the most influential on your writing?
SJ: What’s shaped my sense of humor — there’s a guy named Chris Elliott who had a show called "Get a Life" when I was a kid. It was on Fox, it was a very short-lived show, but a lot of really brilliant people came out of it. That was the show that made me laugh the hardest and maybe, along with SNL and David Letterman, really shaped my sense of humor the most. It’s very, very silly and stupid, but it still holds up today. It’s a mix of total stupidity and brilliance. Even when I was in high school, the show had been off the air for a while, so kids — comedy nerds — would like trade VHS tapes of "Get a Life."
DTH: What’s your advice for college students who want to pursue comedy writing or the TV business in general?
SJ: I think these days, you should definitely do whatever you can online. Try to make videos and get on Twitter if that’s your strength, and try to get a little audience going. There’s no better way to learn than by just doing it. Don’t be afraid to fail because that is a natural part of it.
Something that’s truer today than when I started is that you can curate your life on Instagram or Facebook and only show people the good stuff. It’s easy to believe that no one is failing everywhere. It seems like everyone is just having amazing luck and amazing fortune wherever they go, but it’s just not true if you’re going to get better at something. You have to put stuff out there that not everyone is going to love and you just have to accept that not everyone is going to love it.
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