Profile in Comedy: Eric Drysdale
After working his way through the New York alternative comedy scene in the late '90s, Eric Drysdale spent nearly eight years in the fake news business. He worked as a writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart from 2000 to 2005, earning five Emmy awards along the way. He then moved to The Colbert Report, where he stayed until late 2007, adding a Writers Guild award to his shelf. He also contributed to bestselling books based on both of those shows. As a stand-up comedian, he's appeared on NBC's Late Friday and Comedy Central's Premium Blend. He's also written and produced several live shows at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Oh, and he's also a graduate of the author's comedy class at Emerson College. He is now pursuing his own projects.
When did you first realize that you were uniquely funny?
When I was very young I realized that I liked making my parents and their friends laugh. I definitely liked the attention. Whether I was actually funny or not, I don't know. Later, in high school, one of my teachers confiscated a notebook in which I was writing these little weird essays sort of based on the “Deep Thoughts” column in National Lampoon. I would pass it around in class to make people laugh (especially girls). He grabbed it and made me come see him in his office later in the day. When I got there, he half-heartedly admonished me for disturbing his class, and then said he thought the stuff was really funny and encouraged me to write more.
Who do you think were your influences?
Well, the things that made me want to do comedy were Saturday Night Live, the NBC David Letterman years, Woody Allen, Monty Python, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Pee-Wee Herman, Stephen Wright, Jake Johannsen, and SCTV. But I think my earliest exposure to comedy — stuff I liked when I was preteen — was just as influential if not more so. The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, for sure. The Electric Company, which I must have watched when I was four, was just a great ensemble sketch-comedy show. Mad Magazine was a favorite — I especially love Al Jaffee and had all his books. I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle, and that show is super-smart. Also, I just obsessed over the early Peanuts comic strips, which I had in those Fawcett-Crest paperbacks. I loved the K-Tel novelty record compilations — especially the Coasters. I could go on forever.
Do you remember your first original joke?
As some guests were leaving our house after a dinner when I was a kid, maybe four years old. My parents report this exchange: Guest: “Well, Eric, I hope we get to see more of you.” Eric: “But this is all of me there is.” I can't imagine that I made that joke on purpose, but my parents swear I knew exactly what I was doing.
When did you realize that comedy was something you had to do for a living?
I quit for a while in the mid '90s because of the instability of it all. I soon realized that I sucked at everything else, and, more importantly, didn't enjoy anything else.
What was your first job in comedy writing or performance?
When I was nineteen, I lucked into a job writing a “teen” late-night comedy show for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. They had an open casting call and I showed up with a writing packet instead of a headshot. You've got balls when you're nineteen! The show was pretty bad, and was cancelled as a favor to the Canadian people after a couple of months, but I had lots of great experiences. I worked with Valri Bromfield, who was Dan Aykroyd's partner at Second City, appeared on the very first episode of SNL, and then later wrote for SCTV. She made a big impression on me. The Kids in the Hall made a very early appearance on the show. It was great, but it took me twelve years to land my next job in the business.
What is the biggest difficulty you've encountered being a comedy writer?
As a stand-up you have all the time in the world to get a joke right. What's it like to have to get it right with daily deadline?
At first it's terrifying. When you're on a staff, it becomes about your “batting average,” to some degree. You keep track of how many jokes you get on. Eventually, the fear dies away and you get used to throwing away a lot of material. (That is, getting lots of material rejected.) The fact is, you can only get it mostly right. Sometimes not even that. And when you do get it right, someone else might get it even more right. That's why these shows have many writers. Learning to throw away so much material is the hardest but most important lesson of a job like that. You build that confidence that there's another joke up in your head. And there is. Eventually.
When working on fake news, what is the daily routine like?
It sort of functions like a real newsroom plus jokes. We have a meeting all together first thing in the morning to discuss what “top stories” we're going to cover and how. In the morning we're writing stuff based on that day's news, usually individually. In the afternoon we work, usually in teams, on longer-term segments. On The Daily Show, that could be things like field pieces or other segments with correspondents. On The Colbert Report, that would be features like “Better Know a District” or “Formidable Opponent.” It's a great blend of working by yourself, collaborating with one or two others, and working with everyone. The nice thing about a show based on daily news is that you can't plan that far ahead. The script is due at 4 or 5 p.m., and the rehearsal is soon after that. There are some rewrites between then and the taping, which can be really high-pressure, but then that's about it. So a lot of the time you get to go home at the end of the day — it's like a regular 9 to 5 job in some ways. More like 9 to 7, but still, not many comedy jobs are like that.
What are the differences between writing for yourself and writing for others?
In a way, I find writing for others somewhat easier, as they more or less tell you what to do. I certainly got used to that at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Every day we were sent off to write with a pretty clear assignment. Writing for myself, I can do anything, and I'm somewhat paralyzed by the possibilities sometimes.
What do you find exciting about comedy right now?
I guess the idea that anyone can just make something that can make an impact on the Internet. Sure, there are a lot of people who can be funny once for five minutes on YouTube. But once in a while you get something like those Yacht Rock guys, who took a simple concept and made something really great out of it.
Where do you think comedy is headed?
If I knew, I'd do something along those lines and make a fortune.
As audiences are becoming more specific and more segmented, is that making your job easier or more difficult?
It's making it easier in that even weird-ass stuff like “Adult Swim” can find an audience, but harder in that it's more challenging to eke out a decent living catering to those smaller groups.
What is the best thing about being a comedy writer?
Well, being on staff at a show like The Daily Show or Colbert is just heaven, because you are making some of the funniest people in the world laugh all day long, and they're trying to do the same for you. Then, if you're lucky enough to be on a show that can cut through all the other noise, you get to see that stuff ripple through the popular culture a little bit. That's exciting. But very rare. I guess the biggest reward is just doing what you like to do.
Do you have any advice for up and coming comedy writers?
Patience. Keep working no matter what. Find like-minded people and make things. Don't wait for someone to give you a break. Especially with this new world of the Internet, there's just no excuse to not keep doing things yourself and putting them out there.
Take at least one improv class. Shut up, listen, stop trying to be funny, and approach it with a serious, open mind. If you learn something and/or have fun, stick with it. Improv isn't for every writer, but the ones who do get something from it swear by it. Late-night comedy staffs are filled with people from the improv world for a reason. (Yes, it's a networking thing to a degree, too. But really, it's because improvisers get trained very well.) It's also tied in to that confidence to throw away material that I talked about before. Every improv performance is in a sense “thrown away” because it only exists once. It's a good thing to get used to as soon as you can.
Here's one that I didn't hear when I was starting out that I think could have helped me: Don't only care about comedy — there's more to the world.
Relax and take in other things. Everything informs your work. Some of the most important things I've learned about comedy have snuck in from other interests and disciplines. Plus, you should know some things about the world you're making fun of. It's huge.
Most importantly, have fun. You'd be surprised how competitive and serious the business can become. It's easy to forget that we do this because we love to laugh and make others laugh. It's that sense that you're having fun too that really draws people into your work. It's no accident that — for the most part — the things I've done that people have responded to most favorably also happen to be the things I've had the most fun doing.