Q&A: Luke Cunningham, the Delco Writer Helping Jimmy Fallon Be Funny

There are only six comedy writers on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and Delaware County native Luke Cunningham is one of them. Cunningham performs this Saturday night at Helium Comedy Club’s “Dirty Dozen” midnight show, and here, he tells us what it’s like to work with Fallon and Questlove, and to get frisked by the Secret Service. (First Lady Michelle Obama will be the featured guest on Thursday night.)

What’s your Philly background?
I grew up in Upper Darby and graduated from Monsignor Bonner in 1997. Then I went to college and moved to New York. I’m 99 miles away, so I come down and do standup and sketch comedy in Philly all the time with a bunch of people I grew up with. I performed on New Year’s Eve at Helium, and I’m back again this Saturday with John McKeever and Tommy Pope from Bird Text. I write almost all the Bird Text stuff.

Oh, so you’re responsible for the insanely funny “Deck the Hall & Oates” video?
Uh, ha. That is the one Bird Text thing I didn’t write. So everything else.

How does one get a job with Fallon?
I wrote a pilot that was about growing up in Upper Darby called Red Delicious. When I was a kid, I was a big fat kid and used to wear red all the time, and people called me Red Delicious. I sold the pilot to Fox and moved to LA for a while to get the pilot developed. When I was there, I got hired to work on a Comedy Central show, where I did a bit for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and the show runner put in a good word for me with Fallon.

What was the interview process?
It’s a difficult process. You submit ten jokes a day for a few weeks, and they keep thinning it down until who is left. I got to the interview stage, and when I said I was from Philadelphia, there was a round of applause from Jimmy and the executive producers, because whenever they hire someone from Philadelphia, the Roots are thrilled.

Little did they know you are actually from Upper Darby.
Yeah, when I did that bit for Tina Fey, I talked to her about the pizza at Pica’s. She said, “My daughter was just there for her birthday.” Tina is going to be on the show on March 3rd. [Hint to Pica’s: SEND PIZZA.]

What’s your day like with Fallon?
Every night, I get an idea of what the premise will be for the following day. I get a premise packet: these are the things we’re gonna talk about. By 11 a.m. the next day, I have about 40 jokes due. We email them in. There are six of us, so 240 jokes. That’s the first round. Then we get another round of afternoon premises, and we’re trying to do 20 jokes each on those. Find the angle that beats Twitter, that you can say on network TV, and that will resonate.

That’s the jokes. What about the sketches? Please tell me you are responsible for the Brian Williams “Rapper’s Delight” piece.
No, that’s John McDonald, an amazing video editor who does work for SNL as well. We have certain guys that write the bits and musical impressions.


Is Questlove as cool in person as he is on TV?
Oh man, that dude is the best.

Have you smoked up with him?
No, but we did go to his house for the Breaking Bad premiere. It was spectacular. He lives in this really cool building downtown. He had his chicken place with Stephen Starr cater it, and there was some ice cream from a place he loves.

And is it true that you are in the same building with the First Lady even as we speak?
Yes, she’s here. We got screened pretty tightly when we came off the elevators this morning. She’s great, and she has fantastic comic timing. The bit we did last year on the evolution of mom dancing, she added the Dougie part at the end. We’re like, “How do you want to close this bit?” She said, “Well, I can just Dougie.” And then she Dougied. And she nailed it.

Can’t wait to see what she does tonight. Thanks so much for taking out some time before rehearsal.
Absolutely, and tell Sheil Kapadia I said hello. I read Philly Mag every day.

Yep. Fuck Larry Mendte.

PHOTO: Jazzmine Beaulieu Photography.