Jul. 8 2020
Bess Kalb has written for the Oscars, the Emmys, and even Hillary Clinton. But after eight years at her dream job as a Jimmy Kimmel Live! staff writer, the 33-year-old felt a new—and scary—impulse. “I’d been writing for other people for years,” she says from her home in LA. “What would it be like to finally write for myself?”
The question led to a best-selling book—Nobody Will Tell You This But Me—and a movie deal… which got signed just before California went into pandemic lockdown. Here’s how Bess is staying creative in quarantine, finding a work rhythm outside of an office, and learning how to land jokes without a late-night audience.
I can’t believe I’m speaking to the Baby Bachelor creator!
You know, I still live in fear that, as a writer, I’ll never top that sketch… I was in New York City visiting my parents, and The Baby Bachelor came on Taxi TV. I was screaming so loudly, I scared the hell out of the driver. But when you’ve lived in New York, seeing something you wrote on Taxi TV? I mean, to me, that meant I’d really made it.
It’s easy to leave a job when you hate it. But you loved your job, right?
It was a dream job!
How did you decide it was time?
I’d been there for eight years… I was so grateful and excited to be in that writers room until the very last day… But as part of my job, I did dozens of “man on the street” interviews at Coachella, at Trump rallies, everywhere, and all you see is my arm on TV. We’d edit my face out completely. I was anonymous and a disembodied voice. Writing Nobody Will Tell You This… was a way to stand up for my own voice and my own writing. Which is to say, I finally got drunk with power! No, not really. It was more a question of, “Am I going to take a chance on my own voice where I don’t have to hide behind a famous man to say my jokes for me?”
Once you took that chance, was it easy to write your own thing?
Uh, no. I think the hardest part of this was getting over that confidence block. I had to really tell myself, “Ok, I know I have a story in me. Writing it would be personally fulfilling for me. Writing it is a way to work out the grief and loss I’ve felt about this one person—my grandmother—leaving my life.”
Writing about your own family can be tricky. Were you scared they would get angry?
I was scared I wouldn’t do my grandmother justice. But at her funeral, I delivered a eulogy that was basically a series of voicemails she left me. And my grief-stricken relatives were all laughing, including my grandfather. They were hearing the woman they loved. And that was a sign that this project would work.
We hear a lot about a lack of female voices in comedy. How did you break into late-night TV?
Twitter. I’m not even kidding. Someone reached out to me after having followed me—my handle—for years. I submitted a writing packet to her, and she sent it through her agent! So first of all, a woman got me my job on Kimmel… The head writer was a woman, so she set the tone. It also meant men were working for a woman. And Jimmy Kimmel has three female executive producers. Women very much run that show in every aspect.
Do you think more points of view make a writer’s room better?
Absolutely! I believe funny is funny and I believe if you’re only coming from one experience, you’ll never know how funny something can actually be. Here’s a really basic example: At Kimmel, we did a whole skit about Spray-On Lululemons. That was my idea, and when it aired, it got huge laughs. But if women hadn’t been in that writer’s room, would the dudes there have known that Lululemon was a joke? I don’t think so. That joke happened because women were in the room.
What’s next for you?
Well, I had a baby boy! So what’s happening now is, I’m raising an ally… I’m writing the proposal for my next book, which I was well into before quarantine, thank goodness. And I’m trying to develop a TV show, which I can’t talk too much about. It is not a Baby Bachelor spinoff, I will confirm!
Now that you’re a best-selling author, do your creative nerves go away?
Never. But even so, the idea of writing as myself is something I’ll never regret. Even if it doesn’t work out, even if everything fizzles, at least I’ll have done something brave. I can say to my kid, “Mom tried. Mom was brave.” That means everything.