Morgan Murphy: The evolution of a comedy mind

By | October 13, 2009 at 10:46 am | No comments | Features | Tags: , , , ,

Morgan MurphyFormer Jimmy Kimmel show writer and current scribe for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Morgan Murphy recently uprooted her life as a well-respected comedy upstart in the Los Angeles comedy scene to head to New York. But will the East Coast embrace her quirky sensibilities? Yes, they will. But read the story anyway.

After making a name for herself in comedy at a young age with a writing gig at The Jimmy Kimmel Show, Morgan Murphy became a staple of the LA comedy scene. She’s now tackling a new network gig: Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and a new scene: New York. And even though her material is evolving past her once trademark one liners, she still gets a charge out of writing a good joke. She spoke with Punchline Magazine recently from her office in Rockefeller Center.

You got noticed at a fairly young age. At what point were you able to do comedy full time, and what would you say your break was?
I started doing stand-up when I was 18, I guess the summer before my sophomore year in college. But, I never really started doing stand-up full time so much as I got writing work fairly soon out of school, so it was more like I was able to make a living for myself in comedy, and then I was able to do stand-up because people paid me to write jokes.

And then obviously for a long time, if you’re sort of stuck at a job, you can’t really hit the road that much. I would say that writing has definitely, financially at least, paved the way and more or less allowed me to do stand-up, if that makes sense.

When you say you got writing work straight out of college, are you referring to writing for The Jimmy Kimmel Show?
No. I was a waitress for like two weeks, but I actually wrote for this pilot in college for Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter, who run Comedy Deathray in LA. They had this sketch pilot for Showtime, and just through my stand-up they hired me to write for that when I was a senior in college. It was sort of weird, a couple of my professors let me turn in that as my senior thesis.

But that was my first job. They hired me, Dan Mintz and B.J. Novak. So we worked on that together when we were more or less kids – I don’t know what qualifies as a kid anymore. And then I graduated, and a few months later I submitted a packet to Crank Yankers. I didn’t really know anyone there that well. But they called me in and I got that gig. And Kimmel produced that show, so I went from Crank Yankers to Kimmel and did that for a couple years.

You recently moved from LA to New York City to write for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. How has that been in terms of stand-up? Have you had to re-establish yourself in a new scene?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’m about nine months in here and I feel like I just now have some comfort level going into clubs and stuff, and there are some clubs I haven’t even ventured into. That whole starting over thing has been interesting. I mean I started in LA, and I’m not sure that’s the best place to start, but I started there, so any kind of ascent that I made was paced and in the same city. And I gradually got to know different people and grow as a comic. But coming out here, just in terms of booking and all the politics of that, was more or less starting from scratch. You have to humble yourself a little bit, but also accept that that’s the way it is. I don’t expect to land in town and have people throwing me up on stage.

I can’t help but think that seems kind of odd for someone who’s done T.V. and Patton Oswalt’s Comedians of Comedy DVD.
Yeah, but I think even if a bunch of comics know who you are, you know, I’m certainly not by any means a household name. Maybe there are a handful of college dorms, or a few kids who know who I am. But you know, especially in New York where there are a lot of clubs where the same people go up night after night, you have to humble yourself in the way of saying to bookers, ‘I’ll showcase, I don’t mind doing audition sets if that’s what you want from me.’ You just have to go in open minded and say, ‘Whatever the process is, I’ll stick to that,’ as opposed to being above it.

As a staff writer, what’s it like for you to write jokes for other people?
It’s funny, I’m in an office with a couple other people who are writing right now, and as I’m talking about myself my office mate just started gagging herself. But yeah, I think I’m the most popular person in the office here, definitely the funniest person here… (Laughs)

But in all honesty, I like writing for other people. I think some people who perform and write definitely get conflicted sometimes. I mean, that’s definitely how I am. If I’m sitting at a desk too long I want to perform more and vice versa. Although in New York it’s a little easier to work and then go do stand-up. There are just more spots. Now I’m just starting to have nights when I have more than one spot a night, which I like.

But with Kimmel, everybody did everything. There wasn’t a separate monologue staff, separate sketch staff… Kimmel, if anything, couldn’t have been a bigger learning experience. I was really thrust in there at – 22 I think I was – at the same time it was terrifying and also very exciting, obviously. But at Fallon I just write monologue jokes. Primarily at least – I’ll still pitch stuff. But my daily schedule is just joke, joke, joke, joke, which I love. I don’t know why, sometimes I try to figure that out, but I just love sitting down and writing jokes. You know, I don’t necessarily love having to know every story about, you know, the woman in Florida who locked her cat in a mailbox or something.

But you know, there’s always the challenge of having to find a new angle on jokes that are pretty well worn, as far as late night monologues go. For me just in general, there aren’t a lot of times that I’m happier than I am when I’m writing a joke that I’m proud of. You know it just comes to you and you go, that’s great. I don’t know why I can’t have the same feeling when I find a pair of shoes or something like that.

You were an intern at Late Night With Conan O’Brien at the same time as Jon Krasinski. Who was the more astute intern?
Well he was a script intern, if I remember correctly, I’ve sort of casually here and there run into him, and I was what they call a general intern. So I would say he was more astute because he had more specific duties, and they involved being around the writers. And I didn’t really have a specific job.

You were on the couch?
Yeah I just sort of waited for things. But then they asked if anyone wanted to help organize slides and photos, and I did, and I kind of locked myself in a room for a while and did that. And that ended up being actually really beneficial because then this guy Chris Deluca, who was a comic and a writer as well, he was doing stand-up shows around here. Not Caroline’s and stuff like that but shows at bars with Eddie Pepitone and Christian Finnegan and Tammy Vernekoff and all these people I met because I went to Chris Deluca’s shows.

Just to watch some comedy shows at bars. You know I wasn’t familiar with anything in comedy other than what was on TV, before people got famous. I didn’t know there were shows in bars and bookstores or whatever. So that was actually kind of invaluable. Just from organizing pictures and getting to know this guy I met people that I still know to this day, and some UCB folks. And I did my first spot that summer in front of like three people in the Gershwin Hotel.

They used to do a nice show there that I think Craig Baldo or Finnegan had something to do with. But I did a set in front of this guy Eric Kirchberger, Johnny Spanish, and like one other person in the front room that looked like a shitty middle school cafeteria or something. And I just read some notes off a piece of paper, and I got off stage and was like, ‘That’s it, I guess that’s my first. That’s number one…’ Then when I got back to LA I started doing more sets, bet technically the first one was out here.

Most of the sets I’ve seen of yours, online and on the Comedians of Comedy DVD, are from a couple years ago. I saw you more recently at a bar and your newer material was definitely different. How would you say your style has evolved over the past couple years?
It’s embarrassing to sort of deconstruct your stuff sometimes out loud, when I find myself going like, ‘You know, I’m in a really transitional place right now…’ But I kind of feel like I am. You know, when I started doing stand-up I was not a performer by any means, and I just loved jokes so I did one liners pretty much entirely for like seven or eight years. And then, I don’t know, I partially got kind of bored of myself. And I think as you get older you get a handle on your own life enough that you’re able to talk about it and have it be funny, as opposed to exploiting it and have it be funny?

And I just started talking about kind of personal things on stage, not really intending to tell stories, but finding jokes in those stories. But a lot of stuff I started talking about was stuff I thought was embarrassing or too personal. And I’d considered talking about it years ago but I didn’t think I was at a place where I was smart enough or mature enough to be able to do it without seeming like A) I was just using the stage as a therapist’s office, and also I didn’t think stuff was funny yet. I think you have to process shit before it gets funny.

So now, I think the stuff I’ve started to talk about recently in the context of like, relationships and reasons I’m kind of fucked up in that regard… You know part of that seems kind of cliché, and I was jumping to do that stuff in that regard. But I think the combination of getting bored with my old stuff and wanting to be more honest on stage. Although it also I think coincided with becoming less focused on doing something that was commercially viable. Which is interesting, how I became honest on stage when I stopped really thinking about it as a means to money or a TV show or something. Not that that was always my goal, but I just thought, ‘I don’t know, I’m just gonna do what I wanna do.’

You’ve performed with Aimee Mann at her yearly Christmas extravaganzas (See also, the video she did with Mann below). Did working with her, a very serious songwriter, lead you to become deeper and more confessional onstage?
Well, Aimee is like my best friend, and to be very honest, when we’re together, I’m probably the most juvenile. We’re like two children. Which I think is funny because she’s like, this unbelievably gifted songwriter, very poignant, but our favorite bits are like, pointing to something and pointing to it, and going like, ‘See that?’ And catching the other person and being like, ‘That’s you.’ Like that’s the height of comedy in our lives. And doing the show with her, I just did this stupid character. It couldn’t have been less highbrow.

I did a rapping Chanukah Fairy in a white unitard and a blue tutu. And I think if it wasn’t her tour, there’s no way I would have had the balls to do anything like that at all. I really respect sketch people because I just don’t have that ability to just kind of throw myself out there. But I think because I was with friends, and got to hide behind this ridiculous character, I could do it. So yeah there was no confessional stuff. I was a drunk, rapping Chanukah fairy, and then last year, pregnant with Jesus’ baby.

Under the “albums” section on your myspace page, you say, ‘One of these days.’ Should we take that seriously?
It has said one of these days for a long time. You know, that’s actually kind of the next goal. I recorded an album at Largo in ‘06 I believe, and it was a great night. Patton did a set and Aimee sang and Jonathan Ames read some stuff, and then I did this hour set. I just listened to it too much and got overly critical of myself, and just ultimately decided to not put it out. I think I regret that. Listening to it now, it’s who I was then. That being said, that’s definitely the next goal. The next goal beyond just doing spots in New York and working everything out is to get the last eight or nine years out there and recorded. Not for financial purposes, but almost just to burn it and put it behind me.

Like what Jerry Seinfeld did with I’m Tellin’ Ya For The Last Time?
I guess that seems a bit aggressive. With some people, I might be telling them for the first time. But you know, there’s a lot of material that I don’t really do anymore, and I think it would be kind of a shame to not have some record of it. It’s just a way to archive it. And people seem to like CDs, and downloading CDs and what not. So that seems like the way to go, right? Or maybe a VHS tape of all audio?

Morgan is opening for Patton Oswalt at Town Hall on Nov. 7. Click here for tickets. Check out her myspace or official site at morganmurphy.net for more info.

About the Author

Brendan McLaughlin

Brendan is a comedian and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.