It’s finally the holidays, and we have just the thing to keep you feeling jolly – a funny phenomenon: comedy writer Broti Gupta. You may know her from McSweeney’s, the humor website she started writing for after her junior year of college. Or from her frequent contributions to The New Yorker’s humor section, Shouts & Murmurs, which she started writing for her senior year. Or from her New York Times op-ed…or from the TV show she’s just been hired to join as a writer, Netflix’s Friends From College. Honestly, she’s doing so well there’s a million ways you might have heard about her. But if you want to know the real deal about being a comedy writer, you’ll get to know her from the interview below. Read on!
Where does your interest in writing stem from?
It actually came after my interest in comedy. I always wanted to be funny. I really loved being around funny people. It wasn’t until I started reading Shouts & Murmurs that I realized that was a job and that that was a thing I could possibly do. That started after my first year of college; I used to be a pre-med and now I am not, and a lot of lives were saved.
Were there any classes you took at Wellesley that prepared you or inspired what you’re doing now?
I think maybe every science class I took. I was not good at it. I realized “This is not just a thing that I do for money. People’s lives depend on this.” So I got to re-evaluate and I decided “I love comedy and this is a thing…I’m going to see what an English major can do for me.” I ended up taking a lot of creative writing classes which were so wonderful. My English classes and English professors gave me the freedom to write comedy for their classes, which was so helpful and so supportive – a little too supportive. They took such an interest in what I wanted to do – which largely had nothing to do with their classes.
Your articles are so timely in addressing hot topic issues. How do you work so quickly to respond to current events?
For Shouts [& Murmurs] what I would do probably once a week – because there was a time when I was publishing something around once a week or once every other week – is get up really early, around 5 AM, and read the news (LA is three hours behind). I would write something up, within a couple of hours, and then send it in. I’d see what was trending and if any of them could make a story. A lot of the time they didn’t so I would go back to bed, but sometimes they could.
How does getting paid for articles work, especially when freelancing? And how did you get your foot in the door to start writing for those publications?
The way I got my foot in the door is that while I was at Wellesley, I was writing for McSweeney’s, which is a really great site, and the humor editor from The New Yorker – Emma Allen, who I also had some mutual friends with – saw some of my stuff on McSweeney’s. She really liked it, so she sent me a super sweet email and said “I’d love if you’d want to submit to Shouts. Let me know if this is of interest to you.” I was like, “This is so funny because ‘let me know if the New Yorker is of interest to you’ is incredibly humbling.” They pay, so that’s when I started [earning]. At the end of senior year I moved to LA, where I did not have a job, and to make money I wrote for Shouts and nannied for a bit. I started making more money because I got a gig at GQ, so I freelanced for them. From there, I got a job freelancing at The Washington Post and then the New York Times. It’s definitely been difficult in that you don’t really know where your next paycheck is going to come from. But they’ve all been so generous in terms of how much they’ve published me. Then, a manager from 3 Arts Entertainment got a hold of my info because he read my stuff in Shouts in the New Yorker. He emailed me and asked if I wanted to meet. I said sure, he signed me, and now I have a TV writing job.
Congrats, that’s so, so cool!
I should add, he read an original pilot [I wrote] to use as a writing sample. There’s this woman –her name is Priyanka Mattoo– and she writes and produces her own stuff. She used to work at WME (William Morris Endeavor), and UTA (United Talent Agency), and she read all of my drafts of a pilot, she gave me feedback on it, she’s been amazing. I think finding a mentor has been one of the smartest things I’ve done.
Can we ask what your pilot was about?
Yeah! The summer between my sophomore and junior year at Wellesley, I lived at a monastery in Hollywood. That’s what the pilot is about, I lived with a lot of monks.
What does a day in the life of a comedy writer look like?
For me, so far, it’s been pretty sweet because I don’t have to leave my house and I don’t have to wear pants with a button. I think from here on out I’ll go into the office, sit in a writers room, and break stories.
You’ve co-written and collaborated on pieces before. What’s that like?
I’ve been super lucky in that everyone I’ve written with –and I’ve written with a bunch of different people for Shouts– it’s been so much fun to write with them. Normally, what we do is we’ll get on the same Google Doc and we’ll start out brainstorming. “Ok, what do we want to write? What kind of a format do we want to take?” We’ll write out a list of jokes and it’s so much fun because we make ourselves laugh so much! That’s really important. At the end of the day, you should make yourself laugh, because sometimes no one else will. That’s mostly the process. I write a lot with a girl who just graduated from Harvard, Karen Chee. She is so so funny –I mean you guys should definitely read her stuff. I’ve written a lot with her and with my friend Rebecca Caplan. Actually, our article is in the most recent New Yorker print [copy], which is very cool. And I’ve written with another mentor of mine, her name is Mallika Rao. She writes these beautiful, beautiful essays and I was like, “Can you come down to this level and write jokes with me?” And she was like, “Sure!” In all of those pieces we’ve gotten onto a Google Doc. [It’s] just been super fun, we’ve been able to do that pretty well.
You’ve been published in Shouts & Murmurs, The New Yorker’s comedy section, and in The New York Times. Can you speak about writing for different audiences?
I love essay writing and personal essay writing. That piece was very special to me because it was about my favorite food growing up (Pani Puri), and it’s a very culturally significant thing for me. The personal essays that come [more easily] to me are the ones that have jokes in the midst of them, so I would say that my process for writing them –this is going to sound so lame and so cheesy– is kind of like writing a diary. It literally just came from me thinking about how important this food is to me. I thought, “More people will want to know my thoughts,” so I sat down and wrote them. Something that’s really helped my personal essay writing is reading good [ones]. Nora Ephron is my favorite– she makes me want to write personal essays. She’s so conversational, she’s so casual, she’s so accessible, and that’s the best kind of writing.
You’ve started doing stand-up comedy as well, does this mean you’re expanding your comedy writing horizons?
I’ve only done [stand up] a few times, but it’s been so fun every time. I really love doing it because I do like performing, but it’s a way to perform without having the pressure to act, which is nice. Writing for stand up is similar to writing a Shouts piece because it’s more jokes based. Eventually, yeah, I’d like to do more stand up and performing, but we’ll see what happens!
You’ve recently been hired as a writer for the Netflix show Friends From College (So cool, congrats!) – what prompted the shift from articles to TV writing?
I actually started out comedy writing knowing that I wanted to work for TV. I was writing humor pieces because I knew that, obviously, writing for TV you have to be able to write jokes and to practice writing jokes, I would write humor pieces and send to College Humor or Funny or Die. Building up from that is when I started writing more legit humor pieces for places like McSweeney’s or Shouts. They kind of all blend together to me a little bit, I didn’t see them as different goals. I was able to write for Shouts but also keep up with scripts and stuff like that.
Do you have a dream career goal? Say, in 30 years, where would you love to see yourself?
In 30 years I will be on Mars, most definitely. We will not be here, this will not be a thing. I’m really hoping to get Invisalign at some point. So hopefully, in 30 years, my teeth will be pretty straight. Professionally, I would love to have my own show, to have a production company. I’d love to have the only production company on whatever planet I end up on. Fortunately, that means that no one has to watch my stuff.
Have you ever negotiated a salary or payment for a piece?
Nope. These are life skills that not only have I not honed, I have not even started to chip [away] at them. I will do anything anyone tells me to do. I am, like, beneath the doormat. I am what the doormat rests on. Not true! You are in The New Yorker and The New York Times all the time!
What’s your experience as a woman in comedy been like?
It’s actually been really great because, again, the people who have mentored me are all women. They’re largely all women. I have two managers: one is a woman, one is a fan of women. They’re both so wonderful. The industry people I’ve met have all been so supportive of women, but they’re mostly young people. I haven’t really had to deal with that much sexism or racism, but that’s completely because of the way these people have paved for me, because they have had to deal with it. I think I’m very lucky because I’m a young person to this industry, and I’m in TV, which I think is probably very different from movies. Most people I’ve worked with have been extremely socially aware and have understood their place in how we have to further this industry, how we need to shape it to feature stories from women [and] people of color.
Do you ever get writer’s block? Or comedy writer’s block?
Oh my God, most of the time. If you scroll through my Twitter, you’ll be able to see when. You’ll be like, “Oh noooooohoho!” Every single day at like, 4 PM, I’m like “Oh, I’m not funny. I’ve written my last joke.” That’s why it’s important for me to get something on the page because when that comedy block ends, you can go back. It’s so much easier to work when there is something on the page already, because then you’re punching it up.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Wow, what a lovely holiday gift. Thank you so much, Broti! Readers, once you’ve recovered from the laughs and wisdom, pause for a second to recognize the blessing of another Broti Gupta session, next Monday morning. She shares how she manages something that starts with s, has a hyphen, and ends with e…See you next week!