This month, we spoke with Karen Chee, a comedian and writer with one of the most positive, uplifting, and silly voices in comedy we have today.
She’s been writing at Late Night with Seth Meyers since 2019, worked on season 2 of Apple TV’s Pachinko, and was included in Vulture’s Comedians to Know, Variety’s Young Hollywood list, and Forbes 30 under 30.
We talk about starting her comedy career on such a big stage, dealing with impostor syndrome, and what’s at stake in the Writers strike.
Listen to the episode or check out some highlights below:
What hobbies did you have growing up? What do you think, in your life, primed you for being interested in being funny as a profession?
Honestly, growing up I was such a, a nerd and a square. I loved school. I worked really hard to get good grades. I did a lot of student government and local government stuff. So I, I grew up in a very small town slash city I guess, and so did a lot of local government things.
I played a lot of violin, I did a lot of soccer in TaeKwonDo, but I did a lot of sports and then I got diagnosed as concussion-prone. I basically got two concussions within one month and had to quit both. And then I was like, I also really like going to see improv shows, so I just started doing a ton of improv and that's kind of how it, uh, yeah, I guess that's sort of how I ended up doing comedy. My friends and I would go and we were just like, "this is the coolest thing." I think because I was not funny, I really liked people who were funny. I honestly think that's why I got into it. It just felt so foreign to me as somebody who was very earnest and worked really hard.
I have a really funny uncle. My mom is very funny. I had funny friends and I was like, oh, that seems really cool and impossible.
Were people in your life telling you, "you're really funny, Karen!"?
So how did you apply yourself to learning comedy?
It was extremely studious. I remember I started watching The Office in eighth grade and it blew my mind. I could not believe a show could be that funny. I literally had a notebook and I would watch comedy shows and take notes.
I think I still have it somewhere at home, but I used to take copious notes and try and learn and figure out how things were funny. And that's how I got into comedy writing, it truly was by being a very good student.
What were some of your early comedic influences?
I have an older brother who I idolized growing up and he showed me The Daily Show, The Colbert Report. It was the era of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. I remember talking about late night TV with my grandpa who lives in Korea, he used to watch Johnny Carson all the time. He was like, "Oh my gosh, I love late night television!" So he showed me a whole bunch of Don Rickles on Johnny Carson, which is the greatest combination, that's maybe ever been on American TV.
I think those were probably my biggest early influences. And since high school, because of that, I really wanted to do late night. I was really into late night TV and I loved Conan O'Brien. That was probably my biggest thing in high school., just being obsessed with Conan.
When you were starting out at Late Night, did you feel any sort of imposter syndrome?
I've talked about this with my therapist–who I no longer meet with. I don't think I have imposter syndrome because I think I genuinely know what I am good at and what I am bad at. And she was like, "well, what do you think you're bad at?" I think I'm bad at most things. And she kept saying, "that is imposter syndrome!"
I think I legitimately am bad at a lot of things and I've gotten very lucky. I think knowing that is actually a good thing. Also, Evan, I feel like statistically just, you know, numbers-wise, if everybody thinks they have imposter syndrome, surely they're not actually all secretly good. Most of them are bad, right?
I don't think I had imposter syndrome. I think, genuinely, it took me six months to get good at the job. Most people who run late night shows know that it takes a few months. Not just the kind of work but emotionally and you won't feel drained at the end of the day. So they're like, really take it slow. Don't try and do things outside of work too much, otherwise it's gonna take even longer.
And that was truly one of the best pieces of advice that I got when I started this. Yeah, I don't think it's imposter syndrome. I think I genuinely was bad when I began and now I'm less bad at it. It's important to know when you suck at stuff.
During those first six to eight months, what were the things you were learning, the skills you were picking up? What does the job entail on a daily basis?
When I started, I was solidly on the monologue team. There are a couple teams within the writing staff. There's one that does sketch, one that does mono and then the Closer Look, which are all different parts of our show.
The mono team was you write three full pages of monologue jokes by noon I wanna say, or one o'clock, and then you have a meeting with our head writer and with Seth and the whole mono team. He goes through all the jokes that our head writer picks out, that are potentially good. And then you have another deadline before rehearsal, which is like any new news that happens later in the day.
You write jokes on that. And then you go into rehearsal with a studio audience. Seth tries out all the jokes, a bunch of them fail. Very few of them actually make it to the final round. And at the end of the day, there's another last round of jokes that you write, based on new news that, again, happens.
Also when I started, it was 2019 so things were about to get very crazy. And there was constantly so much news all the time. One of the things I got better at is just turning out a ton of jokes and a ton of hard jokes, and that was something I thought I had really worked on before I started this job.
Once I got there I was like, oh, wow, the pace at which people are able to write good funny jokes was incredible to see. That definitely took me a while to get up to that level of like four full pages by the end of the day, essentially, and if you're lucky one to three of those jokes will make it on air.
I imagine you need some sort of structure to be able to consistently generate that volume of ideas. Have you figured out how you work best?
Yeah, well when we were at work, you kind of just have to be at your desk and then do it but we've been remote for a while now. Actually, I've been on a leave of absence from Late Night cause I'm working on a different show, so I haven't done this in a few months.
But here's what I figured out is the best way for me to write a whole bunch of one-liners in one go. Instead of spending the full two hours that I am allotted to write the morning round of jokes, if I do a little run and I start writing maybe when there are like 90 minutes instead of 120, so then I'm in a gentle panic and then I'm so good at focusing. There's an element of having just worked out so my brain is working very well, and I'm a little panicked so I'm really focused.
Then it's just 90 minutes of really good writing. The upsetting thing is I know that that is true for me and I do it maybe two or three times a month because getting yourself to run in the morning is so difficult.
What sort of things do you do now to unplug and allow yourself to come to the desk, ready to write jokes?
I don't know if there's one specific thing. I do spend a lot of time doing little hobbies. That's my favorite thing. I like knitting a lot. I like fishing. I like going for walks. I love reading. There are two other coworkers at Late Night, and the three of us are the Late Night History Club.
Whenever we read a good book on history or find a new historian, we text and we talk about it like, "oh, I went to this exhibit at the Met and you have to go" and then we'll all talk about it after. So that sort of thing, I think, makes the work part of work more fun. Not doing work makes work more fun.
I wanted to ask about the Writers' Strike that's been going on for the last four weeks. How has the industry changed in the last few years and what is it that writers are asking for?
I feel like when I joined it was already quite streaming-central but I guess one of the biggest differences that I can say is, so Pachinko is a streaming show. It's on Apple and Yearly Departed was a show I worked for that was on Amazon. We don't get residuals for shows like that. Residuals for people who don't know, if you write for a TV show, the first time it airs, you make money because you wrote it. Then every subsequent time it airs, you get a little bit of money for it because the network or the streamer is making money off of it. They're still able to have ads.
So if it's on network TV, you get residuals, but for streamers you don't. And so that was one of the crazy things is if you have a show that ends up becoming a huge hit, the streamers will continue to make lots of money off of your work, but you won't see any more money from it. And that's one of the main issues why people are striking.
One of the crazy things is that, you also need to make a certain amount of money every year to qualify for health insurance because in the US our health insurance is tied to your job. So the amount of money you're making, if the streamers are like, "Hey, here's work you've done, we're gonna continue profiting off the work, but we're not gonna pay you." That in and of itself is bad, but it's also extra bad because then you are at greater risk of not getting healthcare.
One of the methods they're using to lessen the amount of work, and thus lessen the amount that they have to pay you, is that they're using these things called mini rooms. Mini rooms are the exact same amount of work you have to get done to make a show, but less time, and more work ends up just going to the showrunners.
The showrunner has all lot of work they have to do that would otherwise be allotted to like eight people. And those eight people are working fewer weeks. So their chances of getting healthcare that year are slimmer. It's like a really crazy attempt at streamers just to be more "financially efficient," but it comes at the cost of people's livelihoods and, in healthcare related ways, maybe their lives. So yeah, not very fun.
Do you have a favorite picket sign you've seen?
I'm gonna try and quote this. It was written so perfectly. Max Silvestri, who's a very good comedy writer and comic who I worked with, I met him doing the Golden Globes a few years ago. He had this sign that was like, "The only thing I love more than writing is not writing. I could do this forever." I think that's what it was, but I remember being like, that's so funny. That's fantastic.
At this point in your career, what challenges are interesting to you now? What are the next milestones you set for yourself?
Oh man. You know, I just started working on this show, that was like the thing I most wanted to do, which is kind of in between Late Night and Pachinko. Once the strike is over, that job will resume and I'm very excited about that. It's a show called The Mole Agent, it's a half-hour comedy, run by Mike Schurr who made Parks and Rec and The Good Place.
That was a new challenge that I was very excited about having. Never done a comedy narrative show, but other challenges I am looking forward to...I kind of wanna try rock climbing. I think that would be really fun and scary. I'm really afraid of heights, so I'm not really sure how that's gonna work out.
Learn more about the WGA strike at wgacontract2023.org
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