An Interview with writer Caissie St. Onge (Part 1 of 2)
Caissie St. Onge is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and has worked for The Late Show with David Letterman, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, VH1's Best Week Ever with Paul F. Tompkins, The Grammy Awards and lots more! She is also a regular writer for comedian Joan Rivers. In addition to comedy writing, Caissie is also the author of the Young Adult novel Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever. and a co-author of The United Jokes of America and Maternity the Musical, with Alan Katz.
How did you get started in television comedy writing?
I got started in comedy writing when I was working for David Letterman. I was an intern in his office during his very first days at CBS, and when my internship was over, I was hired to be one of his assistants. He was very old school and sent a lot of letters to friends, colleagues and fans. One of my jobs was to help with those letters. At first I was making them pretty straight-forward, but then I thought, "If I got a letter from Dave, I'd want it to be funny." I asked him if I could try to put some jokes in there. He said, rightfully, "Sure, but they better be funny or I'm not gonna sign it." I learned a lot about how to construct a joke doing those letters and eventually, I tried my hand at writing monologue jokes with the help of this wonderful writer, Bill Scheft, to whom I will be eternally grateful. When Bill thought my jokes were ready, he slipped them into the pile (without my name on them) and I will never forget the first time Dave picked one to be on the show. After that big break, I was pretty much all set. Kidding! After that, I knew that writing comedy was definitely what I wanted to do and it's been a roller coaster ever since. Lots of fun and very stomach-churning.
Do you have any favorite memories from past shows you've written for?
Oh, gosh, I have so many memories, it would be impossible to pick a favorite. I worked on The Rosie O'Donnell Show as a writer for six years and every day we had these amazing celebrity guests who would come on and many of them would actually ask if they could be written into a sketch or a game or a song. One memory that I will always treasure actually happened before I was officially a writer.
When I first came to the show, I was Rosie's assistant. She hired me to be her assistant because I had been Dave's assistant, but I always told her right from the start that I dreamed of being a writer. She was really supportive of that dream, thank goodness, because she did not enjoy having me as her assistant at all! Within weeks, she fired/promoted me to being an associate producer, then after a few more weeks I moved up to the research department. After a couple months of that, I heard that there was a writing job opening up and I did a submission packet to be considered. Right after I handed it in, a producer left the show kind of abruptly for some reason, leaving some human-interesty-segment type holes in the week.
I knew Rosie loved doing segments with kids, so I went to Judy Gold, who is a very famous comedian but was also a writer on the show at the time, and told her about this idea that I had for making kids' dream candy bars. I wanted to go into a school, ask kids to write up their recipes for their dream candy bars, then have a candy company actually produce their creations and have the kids come on the show to reveal them and have Rosie taste them live on the air. It was an okay idea and Judy pitched it for me and Rosie okayed it and I got to be really involved with the creation of the segment. We contacted an amenable local school and they treated it like an art/writing assignment then the principal set up a time for us to come and meet the ones that were her favorites. Which we did. The only problem was they were cute, but, I'm sorry to say, kind of dull. It looked like the idea which seemed good on paper wasn't actually very good in practice. Then, just when we were getting ready to leave the school and go back to say the bit would be a bust, I asked to see the papers the principal had rejected. Some of them were hilarious! I picked a bunch of candy recipes that made me laugh and asked to meet those kids. It turns out that, for the most part, the kids whose work stood out to me as potentially good for TV were kind of known for having "problematic behavior." The principal reluctantly allowed me to meet with those kids, mumbling something about not being sure it was a good idea to reward kids that bucked authority or whatever. Within minutes of meeting the first few kids, it became obvious to me that the segment was saved and that these kids would be entertaining as hell. We had a chocolate factory whip up their weird recipes and the segment aired and, if I do say so myself, it was kind of magical. Every kid was money in the bank that day, but especially this one little girl that invented a candy that had something to do with chocolate and frogs and refused to answer to her real name live on the air because she'd decided at the last minute that she was changing her name. Man, I wish I'd kept in touch with that little kook. Maybe it was little Lena Dunham? Who knows?
I was so happy that segment was a success, one of my first, but the real reason I won't ever forget it, is because a few days later, the great Phil Hartman was a guest on the show and he talked about how much he had enjoyed that segment with Rosie on the air. After the show was over, he asked his producer if he could meet the person who'd made the candy segment and he came over to my cubicle to tell me how much he'd laughed when he watched it. Phil Hartman. I think I levitated out of my chair. A week or so later, he mailed me a funny picture his kid had drawn. I so wish I still had that.
And THAT is how you tell an extremely long story!
Can you share any times that you felt especially discouraged and how you got past those experiences?
I feel especially discouraged a lot. Writing can be hard. It can be hard to get yourself to do it in the first place, because you're all hung up on whether or not you're doing it right or whether or not anyone will care about it. Then, once you do it, you have to have the discipline to evaluate it, revise it and make it better. Then you have to have the courage to share it. Then, you wait. Will people love it? Will you get the job you were vying for? Will that agent want to represent you? Will that editor want to buy it? A lot of times, the answer is no. Actually, a lot of times the answer is silence followed by never hearing from the person you shared it with ever again. I've come to treasure a clear, "No," and if somebody is willing to tack on some honest, constructive feedback about why it was a no, they're a hero in my book. I really love writing, though, so I have to do it no matter how many times I hear crickets or get told no. Because sometimes someone says, "Yes," and that feels really good. I love that feeling enough to make up for how much I hate those other feelings. I love it enough to wait for it. I don't love the waiting, though, so call me back everybody!
What made you decide to write your first novel?
I was really lucky with my first novel, Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever. I am a Twitter addict, and I was joking around with some funny friends on there about the teen vampire trend. My point was that it was all too sexy. Being turned into a vampire would be a complete nightmare for a teenager, freezing you at the most awkward point in your life, leaving you trying to fit in for all eternity. I joked that if I had become a vampire as a teenager, I probably would have been blood intolerant. I said I was going to write a book about that, kidding, but soon, I was getting tweets from vampire fans saying, "When will your book come out?" This brilliant tweeter, Arjun Basu, sent me a message saying, "You really should write this book. I've written a book, let me know if I can help you in any way or give you advice." I made a few inquiries and not a ton of time elapsed before my agent, Josh Adams, sold it to Random House for their new Ember imprint.
Why did you choose to write for a Young Adult audience?
I'm a wife and a mom, and even though I haven't been a teenager for a while now, I still feel like one. Or rather, I feel like I've maybe retained a clearer memory of what it was like to be fifteen or sixteen than other people my age. I feel like it was just yesterday, and I am still trying to make sense of those teen feelings. I don't think I'll ever be ready to say goodbye to my inner adolescent. I try to talk to a lot of people that age. Well, less talking, more listening. Everyone should listen to a person that age if you get the chance. They've got fascinating things to say.
How did you prepare before you began writing?
I wrote an outline of what I thought the beats of my book would be, then I pretty much just jumped in. There were some historical and scientific aspects to what I wrote, so I did some research into those things. Even though it was a work of fiction, I wanted everything to be as plausible as possible and I wanted to get the details right. Even down to things like what common male, female and surnames would be in the 1930's. I like to think I'm a stickler.
Do you have plans to write additional YA novels?
I hope so. I have written another YA book I'm really excited about. Now I'm in that waiting time where it's out there and I have yet to hear if anyone else is excited about it. Fingers crossed.
Keep your eye on this space for Part 2 of our interview with Caissie St. Onge!
Brighid Gonzales is a library student and Brisbane Library intern. She lives in LA now but misses the Bay Area and its cold, rainy winters.