Ally Hord on Comedy, Writing, and The Right Side of History

Ally Hord, Female Comedy Writer
ALLY HORD. PHOTO COURTESY OF A. HORD
Julia Gamolina, Woman to Woman
JULIA GAMOLINA. PHOTO COURTESY OF SYLVIE ROSOKOFF.

Woman to Woman: Conversations Across Boys’ Clubs—An Introduction

Working in architecture and having interviewed over 70 of the women who advance the profession, I’ve often wondered about women in other male-dominated fields. My conversations in architecture have inevitably touched on what it’s like to be a woman paving her way in a man’s world, and the world is abuzz with similar conversations happening in Hollywood, in tech, and in politics. There are, however, a large number of other industries that share a lot of similarities and that we don’t hear about as much. After meeting many incredible women in such fields—at The Wing, through friends, and even through Madame Architect—I decided that it was time to write about and talk to them too.

With Madame Architect, I didn’t approach the interviews looking for a certain story or a certain angle—their core is that they are just conversations between two women on the challenges and highlights of our profession. With this spirit, I introduce “Woman to Woman: Conversations Across Boys’ Clubs,” where I speak to comedians, sommeliers, poker players, public defenders—all of whom happen to be women. My hope is that in covering more professions, I can bring back to architecture that which has worked for women in other male-dominated fields, and vice versa, and that in sharing stories across industries, professions, and focuses, women all over will support each other and encourage each other to build a new and different world.

 

Ally Hord is currently a writer for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” A graduate of Northwestern University, she began her path in comedy in the UCB LA community as a writer on a house sketch team. Ally served as an executive producer at the website Funny or Die, where she was able to work on shows like “Billy on the Street,” contribute to the development of @midnight, and write, direct, and act in celebrity sketches as well.

For the 2012 election, she launched Funny or Die’s political content page “Live Funny or Die” which became a Webby honoree for humor. She also produced two full-length Funny or Die features: “iSteve” and “The Art of the Deal”. In 2018, she sold a half-hour comedy pilot to NBC with Seth Meyers’ company Sethmaker Shoemeyers.

In her conversation with Madame Architect’s Julia Gamolina, Ally talks about her persistence in becoming a writer in the world of comedy and the diversity in today’s writing rooms— advising young women to ask for what they want and to be open about their experiences.

Ally Hord, Amber Ruffin, and Seth Meyers during a 2018 sketch Point, Counterpoint
ALLY HORD, AMBER RUFFIN, AND SETH MEYERS DURING A 2018 SKETCH “POINT, COUNTERPOINT.” IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.

Julia Gamolina: When did your interest in all things writing and comedy first develop?

Ally Hord: I grew up doing theatre, taking improv classes, and watching SNL, so acting, TV, and comedy were always interests from the get-go. I went to college for film, putting a pause on comedy and not getting back into it until I graduated and was an audience page for “The David Letterman Show” as one of my first jobs. I got to be in the theatre and see the warm-up and watch the show, and that solidified it for me—I knew I had to work in this world.

What was it about comedy?

I just love that you can digest any life situation or difficult news headline, and send it back out into the world in a way that reframes it as: “It’s not all bad, or at least, here’s another way you could look at this,” in a smart way that catches people off guard and makes them laugh. I always loved that about “Weekend Update” growing up.

 
“Do you want to be a writer or not? Say no.”
 

How did you get from film school to “Late Night”?

I’m an elder millennial at 36, so I’m part of a generation that doesn’t really hold a job for ten years at a time—it was very much a freelance existence. I moved to LA, but did so during the 2008 writers’ strike, so I took a job in TV development for a couple of years. At the same time, I was starting to take classes at UCB, I got on a house sketch team, and then eventually started working at Funny or Die shortly after the company had just started.

While I did this, I wrote pilots and TV shows on spec—meaning just writing my own work so that one day when someone does ask for a writing sample, you have good material ready to go that really shows your voice. I did that for about eight years in LA, being in the comedy scene, building a resume through Funny or Die, and freelancing on the side. I submitted writing packets to shows for years, and then one day I submitted a packet to “Late Night” and that was it!

Tell me about your time at Funny or Die.

I was there right after YouTube started and the internet was this wild frontier of comedy videos. The level of production was quick and dirty, so we could churn out videos easily. I was there for four years, first as a producer, and then an executive producer. Funny or Die was one of these exciting places where you could wear many hats, and if you got all of your homework done, you got to write or even direct a celebrity video.

And that’s what I really wanted to do: write. But I was a producer, and also it was a bit of a boys’ club at the time. After years where it seemed like they would never see me as a proper writer, I quit and ended up freelancing over the next two years. Unfortunately, I still had to take jobs producing to pay the bills, but all the while I was doing UCB monthly shows and writing pilots and packets to submit.

Amber Ruffin, Jenny Hagel, and Ally after a sketch for the 2017 Women's March for Late Night
AMBER RUFFIN, JENNY HAGEL, AND ALLY HORD AFTER A SKETCH FOR THE 2017 WOMEN’S MARCH FOR LATE NIGHT. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
Ally Hord with her Late Night coworkers at the 2017 Emmys
ALLY HORD WITH HER LATE NIGHT COWORKERS AT THE 2017 EMMYS. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.

How did Late Night happen in this period of freelancing?

I finally got my big break writing on a pilot for Moshe Kasher’s Comedy Central show “Problematic”. It was a non-airing pilot, but it was exciting to be in the room as a writer, and not the one sitting down taking notes as a producer.

During this time, a head producer for an HBO talk show called and said, “You came highly recommended—we have a three-year contract for a producer, and it would start in two weeks.” I went back in the writers’ room and said, “Guys, I really want to be a writer, but this is a three-year gig on an HBO show.” I was expecting them to be like, “Talk about job security, take the HBO gig!” but instead they said, “Do you want to be a writer or not? Say no.” I called the guy back and turned down the job, and three weeks later, I got an interview with “Late Night” to be a writer.

Wow.

I mean, it was the best advice I could have gotten. NBC liked my writing packet and flew me out to New York for an interview, offering me the job just days later.

You’ve been there for three years—how has it been?

It’s a dream job, truly check marking all of the boxes that I had hoped to—being paid well, paying off my debt, and being in a union with great health insurance, great work-life balance, fair hours, and great vacation time.

 
We tape at 6:30 p.m., but since Trump tends to drop a lot of news after 6:30 p.m., we put in a lot of last-minute jokes.
 

What is your role and your day-to-day like?

Every writer here is strong at writing a topical monologue joke, or they’re very good at distilling a topic issue or cultural theme into a sketch. We have a sketch team and a monologue team, and I’m on the monologue team but also write sketches when I have time. For example, for Mother’s Day I wrote and starred in a sketch that was about Hallmark inventing cards for “dog moms.”

In terms of our literal day-to-day, the monologue team gets in a little bit earlier to start writing jokes. We then have three joke deadlines throughout the day, after which we gather with Seth and he reads and highlights the ones he likes. We then have a rehearsal where we gather tourists, bring them into the studio, and Seth reads them all the jokes or sketches or pre-tapes, just to gauge what the audience responds to. We tape at 6:30 p.m., but since Trump tends to drop a lot of news after 6:30 p.m., we put in a lot of last-minute jokes.

This is fascinating—in architecture, the “cycle” of a work product, if you see the work product as a building as opposed to a drawing set, could be something like two to 10 years, but yours is one day! Every day, you prepare for a nightly show.

I would say that’s the best part. If this is your first job in comedy, it is a crash course in how to accept failure gracefully. I could write seven to nine pages of jokes a day, and only get one joke into the show. Ninety percent of our work goes in the trash every day, because if no one laughs at it, Seth kills it. It’s not personal, at all—we have to create a good show, today and every day, and if your material didn’t make it in today, tomorrow is a new chance, and so you move on.

It’s the complete opposite of development in Hollywood, since a TV show, much like a building, can be in development for eight years, and a movie even longer.

Looking back, what have been some of your biggest challenges?

Having the courage and the savings or resources, to step away from a consistent job that was not right for me, or when I was on the wrong “ladder.” Having to take smaller freelance gigs in producing so I could be available for a writing job when the opportunity came was tough because you have to pay the rent! Creative fields are very hard to navigate because of that, and many people don’t have the luxury to take time off to wait for their dream job.

What’s been interesting to me hearing you talk about writing versus producing is that it reminds me of the gender bias we have in architecture, where men are the creative designers that envision and sketch, and women are the project managers, sort of “managing the household.”

Yes, it’s the same gender split. Granted, our writers’ room has a high percentage of women and all writers’ rooms are getting better—but if you go into our bullpen of coordinators, researchers, and producers, there are a lot of women. It was certainly that way at Funny or Die too. I don’t know if women tend towards those roles because of their skills of always being on top of everything, or people just hired them for non-creative positions, but that is how it was. I wore the producer hat for 10 years before getting a writing job.

You had mentioned that Funny or Die was a boys’ club. Tell me about that.

I’m not saying everyone there was exclusionary by any means, but all the people at the top were men—the CEO, CFO, the president, development exec, etc. I think the culture was just that of a group of male friends that had built a company together, and that trickled down. We did have writers that were women, but not many.

Funny or Die wasn’t the only institution guilty of that, in production, and in Hollywood, obviously. I’m lucky to be working at a place now that has adjusted for way more female representation in the writers’ room, and the show is better for it. We have so many different viewpoints about news stories from the women in our room—a gay Latina single mother, an African-American Midwesterner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, a Korean-American Gen Z’er just out of college—there’s so much more comedy to be distilled from those perspectives than if Seth makes a joke just from his perspective.

Ally Hord Directing Charlize Theron for Funny or Die in 2012
ALLY HORD DIRECTING CHARLIZE THERON FOR FUNNY OR DIE IN 2012. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.

On the flip side, what have been some of the biggest highlights?

Getting to work with all of my comedy heroes. The whole business model of Funny or Die was that people could just come and play. People would often tell us, “My film is stuck in development hell, and you’re telling me I can make a 3-4 minute video, and it’ll go live on Monday?!”

We did this April Fools sketch with Charlize Theron, where we pretended that she left her phone at our studio, and we hacked into it and saw that she had recorded a video where she was practicing for a fake Oscars acceptance speech [laughs]. I got to write and direct her in that. Having Charlize Theron turn to you and go, “How do you want me to do this?” is pretty unreal.

Also, I was lucky to sell a pilot this year! Seth and our producer Mike Shoemaker started a production company to develop projects on the side, and the amazing thing about being on their staff is that they offer you a first-look deal. It’s very generous, what they’re doing for their writers.

 
We live in a world where one of the benefits of social media is that women can be more open about their experiences.
 

What advice do you have for women just starting their careers?

If there is a boys’ club vibe at your office, just know that that’s a red flag for getting ahead on your merits. I once had a man who was my intern promoted to a position above me just because he was older than me, and my boss said that it would be “embarrassing” for him to continue holding a low position at his age.

A lot of these industries are now correcting for their decades of sexist behavior, but you would be surprised by the things that still come out of people’s mouths in fields you think are more “woke”, especially when they think no one is listening. I have learned to start speaking out against that when I hear it instead of just keeping my mouth shut to not rock the boat. In general, we live in a world where one of the benefits of social media is that women can be more open about their experiences, so I’d like to think that the up and coming Generation Z can speak up for themselves better in the workplace without repercussions.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when first starting out?

I wish I knew to ask for what I want earlier on. When I’ve told people what I’ve wanted, so many people have gone, “Oh! I didn’t know you wanted that! Let me see how I can help you.” For the most part, people want to help if they like working with you—I just didn’t know that I had to ask for it.

Finally, big picture, what do you want to do in and for the world? What’s the impact you’d like to have?

I would love to be a part of moving conversations forward politically where people can laugh but still absorb an important message. I want to be able to look back on my life and know that I was on the right side of history, which is sometimes tricky in comedy, because comedy pushes the envelope.

I also don’t want to regret or feel like I’ve wasted any opportunity I’ve been given. My boss is the head of a production company that wants ideas from us and if I go one year without coming up with ideas to pitch, I will have, in a way, let myself down. People would kill for the opportunity to have studios hear their ideas. I’d be crazy not to take advantage of that, because every opportunity is a gift!

Ally Hord on the set of Grampires with Billy Crystal, a sketch she produced for Funny or Die in 2011
ALLY HORD ON THE SET OF GRAMPIRES WITH BILLY CRYSTAL, A SKETCH SHE PRODUCED FOR FUNNY OR DIE IN 2011. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.