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Tony Awards Head Writer Dave Boone Shares His Comedy Secrets

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

What does it take to write a brilliantly funny Tony Awards show? Emmy-Winning Head Writer David Boone takes us behind the scenes

In the days leading up to the 70th Annual Tony Awards — Broadway’s most extravagant and prestigious awards ceremony — the creatives of the Broadway community behind the event are meticulously planning for the calendar year’s zenith of musical theater. 

One person, in particular, has spent the last 365 days in preparation for Sunday’s ceremony: Dave Boone, Head Writer for the Tony Awards.

Boone returns to the Tony Awards in his 13th consecutive year as the show’s Head Writer. It’s a job that deeply resonates with his love for theater. “I get to infuse the Tonys with thoughts of my own about what theater means to me,” says Boone who has won two Emmys and a Writers Guild Award writing the show. “I’ll often write something from the heart and tell the talent, ‘That’s my truth. If it’s not your truth, I don’t want you to feel obliged to say it.’ Most, if not all, have the similar feelings toward the art form and don’t disagree with the words.”

Dave Boone, Tony Award (Photos: Christopher Ameruoso, Courtesy of Tony Awards)

Dave Boone, Tony Award (Photos: Christopher Ameruoso, Courtesy of Tony Awards)

Before landing the Tony Awards, Boone spent many years honing his craft. Early writing for comedians like Saturday Night Live‘s Kevin Nealon and Jay Leno led to other late night shows, including Later, with Greg Kinnear. A week after he was hired, Kinnear left to make As Good As It Gets. A year later, the actor was nominated for an Academy Award, and Boone was writing for the Oscar host, Billy Crystal. “Writing for Billy opened a lot of doors for me. And if I’m ever in doubt, I ask ‘what would Billy do?’ It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own jokes, even if they’re out of place. If a joke leans toward the mean side or the ‘funny in the writer’s room’ side, having Billy’s voice in my head gives me the confidence to kill it and look for something else.”

His connection with Crystal had him writing for Comic Relief 8 at Radio City with Whoopi Goldberg and the late Robin Williams. “The last time I worked with Robin, I wrote with him for his tribute to Jonathan Winters on the Emmys,” says Boone, who has written for 10 Academy Award shows. Boone spent four “very happy years” with Goldberg on Hollywood Squares, followed by two years as Head Writer when Bruce Vilanch left the show.

We talked to Boone about the joys and surprises of writing for the Tony Awards.

How do you craft ideas for the Tony Awards?
Inspiration for the Tony Awards telecast comes mostly from the shows. I come to New York from Los Angeles several times throughout the season to see everything. Many times, an idea will come to me before the curtain comes down or sometimes weeks later. Then, we have to wait until the nominations come out to see which ideas are still valid. The combination of nominees also leads to new thoughts.

What do you like about writing for the Tony Awards?
I love live theater, and coming to see 39 new shows each year is the best part. Many times, I’ll see an early preview and go back to see a show again after it’s opened. In a typical week, I’ll see anywhere from 5 to 9 shows – that’s a lot of theater. And I’d see more if I could.

How did the experience of writing for the Tony Awards for several years change you?
I think that seeing more than 400 productions over the last dozen years has certainly made me a more astute theatergoer. Even though it’s part of my job, I don’t look at it that way. I still get excited when the lights go down – and I treat the experience like a fan, not a critic. I think that seeing so many shows, the ones that work and the ones that don’t, has sharpened my skills in terms of seeing “why” something soars or falls short. I always take away something positive from every experience. Sometimes, even when things don’t work on all levels, a single performance or even the cleverness of the design can make my night.

When did you discover your sense of humor?
I guess I was funny as a kid. That’s what my family tells me. My dad is very funny, and I got my love of the great comedians of the past through him. I got my admiration of I Love Lucy from my Mom, who says that I could always make her laugh. Many years ago, just days before my grandmother passed away, she told me that she’d ask for me whenever she was feeling down. She said, “Just let David talk, he’s bound to say something funny.

I’m an only child, so I was always good at make-believe and inventing characters and stories to amuse myself. I’d sit in the den with my tape recorder and make up my own radio skits with jokes and sound effects. When I found out that I could also amuse my friends and family, I tried to do so as often as I could. They also let me watch TV and, mostly, inspired me to dream. They still do.

What advice do you offer someone aspiring to write for the Tony Awards?
When people ask me how to start writing, the answer is simple: “Start writing.” There are no shortcuts. There is no substitute for doing the work. Write, write and then write some more. A great exercise is to transcribe late-night monologue jokes and analyze them. You’ll notice an economy of words in the set-ups and the placement of the punch lines – at the end of the line, where they belong. It sounds basic, but I have seen jokes submitted by experienced writers who put the funny in the middle of the line and continue the thought. If you want to write drama, read a lot of the classics. Look at structure and character development. Same with comedic plays. Read them and read them again to see how the comedy comes from the characters – not just characters saying funny things.

What are some key memorable moments from past Tony Awards?
I’ve been involved with the show for 13 years now, and I have loved every moment of it. The moment when my pal, Billy Crystal, did us a favor by coming out at the top of the show instead of Hugh Jackman was one of my favorite because we kept it a secret, and everyone was surprised. Any of the shows hosted by Hugh or Neil Patrick Harris stand out as fun and exciting. We’ve been very proud of the attention and awards we’ve received for those shows. The year that Whoopi hosted was fun because she asked me to be in a bit with her. Working with people like Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Julie Andrews – the legends – never gets old.

How far in advance do you begin working on the Tony Awards? What is your process?
For me, working on the Tonys is a year-long process. It’s no exaggeration to say that it starts the day after the telecast. We’re always thinking ahead. As the new theater season begins with the opening of new productions, I start to file away ideas for the following June. Once we have our host locked in and know who will be the voice of the show, we can start to shape those ideas toward a specific point of view. Until then, it’s just the thrill of seeing live performances and discussing them over a late dinner at Sardi’s and Joe Allen. That’s my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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