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For some late-night hosts, the laughs come cheap

May 3, 2009 | 10:30 pm

Freelance writers send in jokes, hoping to hear them on TV. The pay? $75 to $100. It may violate the WGA's contract, but enforcement is tough.

Dave "Beautiful day in New York City," David Letterman mused on the "Late Show" recently. "Am I right about that? A gorgeous day. It was so nice today that AIG gave a bonus to Al Roker."

That joke, part of Letterman's March 17 monologue, wasn't penned by the late-night host or one of the dozen writers on his staff. It was written by Phil Johnson, a freelance writer and Web developer, sitting at home in Boston.

Johnson says he has gotten more than 160 of his jokes on the "Late Show With David Letterman" and, before that, "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

The 39-year-old is part of an underground network of comedy writers who supply the late-night programs with a constant stream of material. If one of their jokes gets on the air, they get a check for $75 or $100. What they don't get is any credit or union pay.

Read more: For some late-night hosts, the laughs come cheap

-- Matea Gold and Richard Verrier

Photo: David Letterman.  John P. Filo / Associated Press