MSU alum Mike Leech “followed the funny” to Letterman

Very few people can say that they’ve gotten to work under their childhood icon. Shortly before graduating from Minnesota State University, Mankato, alum Mike Leech made the jump from Minnesota to New York to intern for David Letterman. 

While growing up in Eagle Lake, Leech listened to Richard Pryor and Steve Martin albums along with watching The Simpsons. From an early age, Leech loved to make his friends laugh. 

“I was never the big, loud, crazy class clown. [I was the kind of kid] who would whisper a little ridiculous thing to my neighbor and try and make him crack up and get in trouble,” shared Leech.

Leech would stay up past his bedtime and sneak over to the TV to watch David Letterman’s show, the comedian Leech claimed as “his own.” Years later, when Leech needed an internship to graduate, his mom suggested reaching out to Letterman’s show for internships.

“I was just going to intern at KEYC-TV [in Mankato] because I thought it would be an easy A, but my mom selflessly suggested, ‘Since you’re a fan of the show, why don’t you intern at a place where you’d like to have a career?’” said Leech. “Somehow, I got that internship, moved out to New York and it took me about five to six years working lower-level jobs for Letterman before I got promoted to a writer.”

With Leech being from Minnesota and Letterman from Indiana, Leech noticed upon moving to New York that Midwestern humor varied differently from the East Coast humor, which includes lots of hand gestures and yelling, that he encountered from his friends who attended Ivy League schools. 

“I feel like Minnesotans [think] that it’s almost rude to insist that people laugh at your joke or even know that you’re joking. The ideal joke is something smart and silly that’s just kind of thrown out there as if it were perfectly normal, and if somebody laughs, that’s great, but if nobody laughs, that’s fine too,” shared Leech. “We don’t want to be a burden on anyone or to make anyone feel that they have to laugh at our little jokes.”

Over the course of the last decade, Leech has found that comedy has changed quite a bit, specifically becoming more thoughtful to groups of people who have been harmed by the power centers of America.

“We call [the process] “punching down” in the writer’s room. ‘Does this joke punch down? Is the target of the joke someone who has no power and is there a way to rephrase the joke so you’re aiming it upward at someone who is powerful and deserves to be cut down to size and can take it?’” said Leech. “There was a lot more careless joking back in the day. People didn’t pay as close attention to who the joke might be hurting.”

Leech’s most recent project is “Fairview”, a political cartoon on Comedy Central that focuses on the small fictitious town of Fairview. Here, the mayor of the town is doing her best to keep the peace while the people of the town are overreacting to every national controversy, whether it actually affects their lives or not. When people can get easily offended by certain aspects of comedy, Leech finds that the best practice is to write jokes that poke fun at all sides.

“It buys you a lot of credibility with your audience when they see that you’re not taking sides. It’s making fun of anyone who deserves to be made fun of, regardless of whether they agree with you politically,” shared Leech.

Leech credits MSU for giving him several opportunities to express his creative freedom on campus that helped prepare him for his career.

“Nate LeBoutillier was my Intro to Creative Writing professor, and he was so supportive and really helped me to feel confident in my abilities and pushed me to improve. I really credit him with what little confidence I have in this job,” said Leech. “I also worked in Memorial Library in the Video Services Department under Jerry Anderson, who was another great, kind mentor to me and he gave me a lot of creative freedom to make funny videos for the school.”

For those who want to pursue writing for comedy, Leech not only encourages practicing writing all the time, but to try and make yourself laugh while coming up with content. 

“I made myself a deadline and made myself accountable to people at the show who I told that I wanted to do this. Once I said that, I had no choice. Even if you don’t think you can do it or it’s going to take awhile to learn, you have to take that leap,” shared Leech. “If something you write is legitimately making you laugh, it will crack up other people.”

Header Photo: MSU alum Mike Leech applied for an internship working for David Letterman in order to graduate. He became a writer for Letterman after several years of working low-level jobs in Letterman’s office. (Courtesy photo)

Write to: Emma Johnson at emma.johnson.5@mnsu.edu

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