Alumni spotlight: Jack Helmuth '97

by Jiaman Peng

June 17, 2019

From SNL to “Strahan and Sara,” television, radio and film alumnus says it’s important to make your own luck.

Jack Helmuth '97 on the set of "Strahan and Sara."
Jack Helmuth '97 on the set of "Strahan and Sara," where he is the head writer. Photo by Jiaman Peng.

Jack Helmuth ’97 got his start in comedy writing at “Saturday Night Live,” where he wrote for “Weekend Update.” A third-generation Syracuse alumnus, the television, radio and film student hosted his own show at University Union Television (UUTV, now CitrusTV) as a student and now works as the head writer for “Strahan and Sara,” the third hour of “Good Morning America,” hosted by Michael Strahan and Sara Haines.

Helmuth has had jobs writing for “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” “McEnroe,” “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and MTV’s “Video Music Awards.” He’s worked for shows on HBO, VH1, MTV, Spike TV, FUSE, Comedy Central and ESPN, and co-wrote and helped produce the independent feature film, “May the Best Man Win.”

“You have to make the choice to [find your thing],” says Helmuth. “There's luck involved, there's all sorts of things involved, but you also have to make your own luck.”

We sat down with Helmuth to talk a bit about his experiences in the tough business of comedy writing.

Do you remember what you wanted to do after Newhouse?

I definitely remember; it's what I'm doing [now]. I wanted to get into late night comedy. In ninth grade, I discovered David Letterman back when he was on the 12:30 a.m. NBC show. Let’s say for a little while I had a tardiness problem at school, but there was always one teacher who believed in me. He said to me… “They don't understand that for you, watching David Letterman is homework. That’s studying for you because one day you're going to be a writer.”

Your first job out of college was writing for “Saturday Night Live”; what did you get from that experience?

I came out of college wanting to be a comedy writer, and I was okay. I wasn't good enough to be a pro, but you spend three years at SNL with literally the best writers in the business, you're just going to learn and get better. It’s comedy grad school. Three years later, I was ready to be a comedy writer. I felt the difference.

When do you know you should stick with something even though it’s difficult?

When you can’t imagine not doing it. I cannot not do TV or comedy. When I got this job at “Strahan and Sara” and I was on set again, it's just like I'm home. You have to make the choice to [find your thing]. I made those choices; I didn't leave power in other people's hands.

Does writing comedy ever get easier?

Yes, with experience, [but] there's always the fear. You always have that blank page of like, “Okay, this needs to be something funny and on TV in a few hours.” Not everything I write is great by any stretch of the imagination, but it can generally be good enough. There's always a fear that you're going to stop being funny, like if I tell a joke and it doesn't [land], what if I’m losing it? 

So how do you cope with that?

Once you've done it, then you know you have it. I wrote “Weekend Update” jokes for my three years at SNL. I look back on the jokes that I gave them after a year of writing and [I’m] horrified. I cannot believe how bad [they were], but it was only through doing them that I got better. The confidence absolutely does come.

Jiaman Peng is a junior in the advertising program at the Newhouse School.