Melinda Taub, Uni Class of 2001, is an Emmy-winning writer and comedian based in New York City. Over the course of her career, she has written in a variety of forms across many platforms, from sketches to novels to late night television.
Taub was introduced to comedy as a career in college. After graduating, she joined the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, an improvisation and sketch comedy group. She quickly learned that improv wasn’t her thing, but managed to get on a sketch team. Although the culture was competitive, it was also collaborative and “a really tight-knit community.” It was at UCB that Taub says she learned her craft. In addition, the majority of comics at the time, including stand-up comedians, were affiliated in some way with UCB, so that network was greatly beneficial to finding future jobs.
After a few years at UCB, Taub got a job writing at Funny or Die’s new prose office in New York. She stayed there for a few months, and a few months after leaving, the office closed. Taub heard that a new TV show, Adam Ruins Everything, had put out a call for packets (a collection of jokes matching the style of a show, typically submitted as part of an application to late night shows). Adam Ruins Everything was Taub’s first job in television, and her first time in the writers’ room for a half-hour, narrative show. Along with learning about the details of television production and the more riff-heavy nature of a writers’ room, Taub also learned how to write jokes about “serious, complicated, research-based subjects,” a skill that helped her in her next job: Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Taub’s first task at Full Frontal was simply getting acquainted with the new style of writing. Unlike Adam Ruins Everything, the show is not narrative and is filmed in front of a live audience, so, among other things, getting straight to the joke is important. Because of the different rhythms and even different script formats, according to Taub, starting at Bee’s show was “a little like learning a new language or a new programming language.”
Making the transition even stranger was that the show premiered in early 2016, an important and charged time politically. Luckily, though, the show was always going to be political and its beginning dovetailed with all of the changes in the political world. In fact, the premiere covered the February 6th Republican presidential debate (the one with the introductions SNAFU, which Taub described as “delightful and a gift to comedy writers everywhere”). The show intentionally avoided certain topics and candidates at first, including Donald Trump, but they eventually became unavoidable. Taub said that it was “draining” to not be able to look away from the news and have to make jokes about it, but that “comedy works best when you talk about what’s on your mind,” because the things bothering you are probably bothering your audience too. She noticed that people began to accuse her and her fellow writers of being journalists, but they were always quick to correct them — it was not the job of their group to be the source of news and analysis. “We’re just some dummies who took some improv classes and now we’re here.”
Although Taub does not feel that comedians took on any more responsibility during that time, she did feel a mood shift, especially in late night. “As the world seems to get darker, the audience seems to get more hungry for catharsis and an acknowledgement of how bats**t things were going.” She feels that now many comedians (though not all) are more aware that they have a responsibility to punch up rather than down. She also believes that the door is opening wider for people who are not white males, which is “creating a really exciting explosion of amazing comedians.” Before her time at Full Frontal (where she became head writer), many of the writers’ rooms Taub had been in were male-dominated or she had been the only woman. She said she appreciated that her fellow writers wouldn’t just have to take her at her word that women would find a joke funny, she wouldn’t be talked over, and she could “[make] jokes about Gilmore Girls and know that there were people in the room who would laugh.”
Outside of sketch, comedic prose, and television, Taub is also a novelist. She came up with the idea for her first romance novel, Still Star-Crossed, while at UCB. Her second book is still in progress, but she says it will have a bit more comedy (she could not reveal any further details). Taub finds prose writing very different from writing for television, where the jokes are written in the host’s voice and must be easily read off a teleprompter and quickly digestible by the audience. Written lines can be more tongue-twister-y and have a different structure and rhythm.
To succeed in such a competitive industry, Taub has worked in a wide variety of jobs and in many forms of comedy and learned different skills and styles from each one, but she feels that her voice has remained consistent throughout them all. Especially at UCB, she learned that her jokes that hit the best tended to be more feminist and inspired by real events. All her jobs ever since have simply sharpened that voice and taught her more about how to write in it.
Outside of her own work, Taub has been enjoying the sillier side of comedy lately. She is obsessed with Will Ferrell’s new movie, Eurovision, and has been watching/rewatching shows like New Girl, Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Saturday Night Live over the course of the pandemic. Taub personally projects that the overall tone of comedy is going to return to being a bit less serious and sillier for a little while because, as she put it, “people need a break.”
With the ever-expanding TV landscape and number of platforms, there are more jobs available to comedians than ever, but Taub feels that they are also more precarious, as content and whole platforms can quickly vanish or collapse. She says comedians now are “hustling and scrambling” a bit more. However, because of COVID-19, quarantine, and the ways in which TV production and comedy shows have adapted, there is really no way to predict how the field will change moving forward. Meanwhile, because she quit Full Frontal in early 2020, Taub feels especially disconnected from the comedy world. As New York and the nation begin to open up, she is excited for live shows to become a possibility again.
Taub offered some final words of wisdom to any aspiring comedians: go to college in a place with a big comedy scene (traditionally New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, but likely any big city will do). “You can’t learn to do comedy except by watching comedy and doing comedy, so you might as well be doing that.”