Morehead-Cain Mentoring Pair (via the Catalyze podcast): Tom Thriveni ’10, comedy writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden on CBS, and guest co-host Lauren Gornto ’21

Nov 10, 2020

Our first guest for this episode is Tom Thriveni ’10, a comedy writer on The Late Late Show with James Corden on CBS. Tom shares how the show has transitioned and transformed during the pandemic, how his own TV pilot about pivoting from investment banking to late night television is coming along, and advice for those considering a career change. 

Catalyze is also joined by guest co-host Lauren Gornto ’21, a business administration and management major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with minors in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) and music. Lauren is Tom’s mentee through the Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program

More about Tom and Lauren

Our first guest for this episode is Tom Thriveni ’10, a comedy writer on The Late Late Show with James Corden on CBS. As a Morehead-Cain Scholar, he interned with Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, an opportunity offered by Jon Benson ’06 (Jon produced field segments on the show at the time). 

Following his graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tom began pursuing a career in investment banking. As he shared in a Virtual SEVEN Speaker Series event this past spring, it took a traumatic brain surgery to help him realize that he wasn’t following his passion. 

With support from Dave Bernath ’89, then the executive vice president of programming and multi-platform strategy for Comedy Central, Tom returned to late-night television in 2014. After two years as a researcher on CC’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Tom moved to Los Angeles to be a writer’s assistant for James Corden. He rose to his current position in the fall of 2018.

Our second guest is Lauren Gornto ’21, a business administration and management major at Carolina with minors in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) and music. The scholar is the music director of Tar Heel Voices, the University’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, and the co-founder of “ACTing Up,” a summer theater camp for children. In summer 2021, Lauren plans to join Insight Sourcing Group in Atlanta as a summer analyst in the consulting practice. 

Lauren is Tom’s mentee through the Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program; this is the scholar’s and alumnus’s second year participating together. The program strives to leverage the power of the Morehead-Cain network by cultivating connections between scholars and alumni, providing structure and support to these relationships so that they can develop based on shared values and interests. Scholars enroll annually beginning in April and all rising juniors and seniors may participate. You can learn more about the Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program by contacting Emily Olson, our alumni engagement manager, at emily@moreheadcain.org

On your mobile device, you can listen and subscribe to Catalyze on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For any other podcast app, you can find the show using our RSS feed.

Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

This episode closes out our fall season of the podcast. We’ve covered everything from politics and activism to tech startups, music, and meditation. Thank you for listening. You can let us know what you thought of the season or who you want to hear from in 2021 finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org. Until next time, stay safe.

Episode Transcription

(Sarah)

Tom and Lauren, thanks so much for talking with me. 

(Tom) 

Thanks for having us.

(Lauren)

Thank you. 

(Sarah) 

Tom, are you hunkered down in L.A. still working remotely? And Lauren, are you in Chapel Hill or doing classes somewhere else?

(Tom)

Yeah, I'm still here in L.A. working remotely. I'm going in two days a week now, so I'm getting a little bit of a glimpse of office life again. But I'm mostly outdoors and keeping my safe distance from everybody. But, yeah, for the most part, I'm still working from home.

(Lauren)

And I'm in Chapel Hill. Life has definitely been slower doing all my classes online, obviously, but overall things have been going well, and it's been good. We've been able to have virtual Tar Heel Voices, which is the co-ed a cappella group that I'm in. So that's been pretty cool to find some creative solutions to still make music this semester.

(Sarah)

Well, very nice. First, I just want to ask a couple questions to you, Tom, about what life looks like for you right now. And you just said you've been working a couple of days in the office, but mostly remote. Can you bring us into that world for a minute and share what it's been like since the pandemic started and what we're phasing into now?

(Tom)

So early on, we started out with James, our host, he was doing shows from a little set in his garage where he could self-record. Everything was done remotely, so cameras were just set in there, there were no cameramen, and they could just set to record remotely while he was in there by himself doing this one-man show.

And we didn't know how long that was going to go on, but we took a big break from production in June and July, and then when we came back, we found a way to safely do a distanced version of the show. We built a new set that was distant, so he had enough space from the band and enough space from cameramen, and it was really meticulously done. He's in the studio but with a tiny, tiny crew. It's just cameramen. And us writers eventually started going in on a rotational basis. I'll go in a couple of days a week, our head writers are in so I'll help. We're still doing everything pretty much over Zoom but I'll hunker down and get either an outdoor table where I'm safe to write by myself or I'll get a little conference room to myself. There’s often a corner of the building where I'm not around anybody. So we’ve found ways to adapt. 

And there's been changes in the show itself. One of our head writers who's an amazing performer, Ian Karmel, super funny, and he does stand up, he has a stand up special on Netflix and all that stuff, he's been joining in recording for the show as a sidekick to James. And when he was sick, I filled in for a couple episodes for him. So we've been getting other people involved in ways that they normally hadn't been before.

So like I said, it's gone through these phases but I feel like we're starting to become comfortable with what the show is now. It's amazing how adaptable you can end up being when you when you don't really have a choice. 

(Sarah)

Oh, absolutely. I saw a couple of those funny YouTube videos of James where he felt like he was left out of the staff game night, and it has been fun to see more behind the scenes and seeing your face and others, the people who spent hours making the jokes perfect. As you've been talking about adapting and how the show has really transformed, of those changes, which one do you think is going to be the most salient or important and that is truly changing how this show is done, even after it's safe to be back in the studio with full staff, and maybe even audience members, and back to what before was normal and who knows what the normal will look like ahead?

(Tom)

I never thought we would be doing a comedy sketch that took place entirely over Zoom. I mean, it's stuff that we never would have even thought about before, and just thought, like maybe from a production standpoint, that “that just sounds crazy and there's no way it'll work, the comedy won't make sense to a viewer.” But we’ve found ways to adapt, and maybe that means we’ll be more open-minded to things in the future. Maybe it is people doing stuff more interactively, having fans participate, everything being a little more open-ended in terms of how or who might be participating. The fact that we're doing a little more behind-the-scenes stuff, getting people involved online, I think it has opened the world up a little bit to things that we may have thought beforehand wouldn’t work. We're finding that there are more ways to be creative than we thought. And maybe that's something we can incorporate more in the future. 

(Sarah)

Another question is, how do you navigate empathy and in thinking of jokes and humor and using that as a way to cope through this pandemic – is that something that's difficult or does that make it easier? And there’s also the social aspect of not having a colleague who you can be talking to in the same way backstage or in the office in a different traditional setting. 

(Tom)

No, I mean, you're absolutely right. It is difficult because like, yeah, humor is a great coping mechanism for difficult times, for times when you may feel frustrated or isolated. But there is a context of real tragedy behind all this. It's really, really heavy sadness. People have lost their lives and people have lost loved ones. So part of the trick is making sure that the areas in which we find humor are areas that are light, and that are relatable, and are sometimes really mundane. And so I think that part is really important -- that if we can find humor about being stuck at home, and being over Zoom or having to wear masks, or the awkwardness of navigating day-to-day life, I think there is humor in the mundane of us all trying to adapt and figure out a new way of life.

And I think that it's our role to find ways to make people laugh in a way that helps them step away from some of that tragedy. And without ever making the butt of the joke the people who are suffering right now because I think that we need to show empathy and compassion around that really, really heavy, tragic parts of where we are right now. But I think that we have to find humor in the silly day-to-day stuff because, I mean, that's what keeps us going, and finding where those lines are and finding ways to laugh, it's essential.

And really, like at the end of the day, that's part of my job. It's never easy but that is what I'm tasked with. We did a little silly music parody video that is about the awkwardness of dating during this time. It was a parody of a Dua Lipa song, which is all about trying to do a socially-distanced first date in a park, trying to do dates over Zoom but freezing in the middle, Lysol-ing yourself before you leave the house. It's really silly, but it's like, if we can't find these little tiny pockets of places to laugh, we may not be able to stay sane. So we do the best we can.

(Sarah)

In the SEVEN talk that you did in the springtime, you shared that you're working on a new pilot series and drawing some material from your time working in investment banking. Can you share an update about the work and if that's changed at all from where you were back in the spring?

(Tom)

Yeah, I mean, it's just something that I've been working on, mostly just for fun and to get some experience. We have weeks that we’re not in production and I want to keep writing and keep honing my skills. And so that's been a fun thing to work on and to take a little bit of inspiration from my real life. Things are pretty slow right now in terms of development and picking up new shows and all that and so I haven't been too concerned with moving forward with that, it's more just something that I'm working on. And as things pick up and there's potential to pitch it and see if there's interest in developing it as a series, that would be great. Or it's just a sample that people can read and get a little bit of a sense of what my voice is like as a writer or my comedic voice, I think it's a good example for that. And just for me personally, it's been cathartic to take what was an unusual experience, and a very challenging, difficult experience in a lot of ways, and to find areas of humor in it and to poke fun at it and to take some stuff from my life and find a creative outlet for it.

(Sarah)

Well, that's exciting. And speaking of just the atmosphere in Los Angeles right now, what's the sense that there might be more opportunity in the future for at least late-night television?

(Tom)

People have been pretty creative and pretty adaptable in finding solutions, especially in late night. I'm really pleasantly surprised with how we've been able to adapt. I know beyond that, it's a little bit more difficult with bigger production stuff like TV series and movies. There are so many people involved and so many moving parts to doing it safely, I think that’s a little bit bigger of an undertaking and that is challenging. I don't have a ton of insight into exactly what the timeline is on that and when production for some of those shows will resume. I think production for some of them have resumed. They’ve found ways to quarantine the entire staff to make sure that everybody is safe. And we're getting tested every few days to make sure that nobody goes in the building, in our office until they've tested negative. So there's a lot of protocols that are being put in place outside of entertainment.

I know that there is definitely a major struggle in this city still in terms of small businesses and retail. And I know that there are a lot of people suffering and that that disproportionately falls on a lot of marginalized communities. And so that part has been really difficult. I do feel like, while the numbers in terms of new cases ebbs and flows in a broader sense, just as a person in the community, seeing what's going on in my neighborhood and nearby is that some businesses have found ways to adapt and I'm sure that's similar around the country, that people are being creative in finding ways to institute safety protocols. You know that you can still social distance with everybody outside, and you can still go get some ice cream after dinner or stuff like that. I like to say that I'm contributing to my local community every time I order takeout, even though it's really just for me to eat. But there's ways that people have been creative in finding ways to get business up and running. And I think as long as the priority is keeping people safe and protecting our fellow community members, then that's a good thing, hopefully.

(Sarah)

We'll be right back.

Today, we've been hearing from Tom and Lauren, an alumnus-to-scholar pair in the Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program. The program is designed to leverage the power of the Morehead-Cain network by cultivating connections between scholars and alumni and providing structure and support to these relationships so they can develop based on shared values and interests. All rising juniors and seniors are eligible to participate. 

(Sarah)

I am now going to turn things over to Lauren Gornto, Class of 2021, and, of course, your mentee in the Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program. So she’s got a couple questions for you, too. Lauren, all yours

(Lauren) 

Thanks, Sarah. 

Tom, I think one area that we talk about a lot in our mentorship sessions – and one area of expertise and wisdom that I really leverage from you – is your time in investment banking and particularly your transition from that to comedy writing. How did you decide that it was time to make that switch in your career? And what advice would you give to scholars who are following that same instinct? And it could be something as small as just changing a major here at UNC.

(Tom)

Totally, yeah. And this is something that you and I talk about a lot. It wasn't like there was one sort of ‘aha’ moment that clarified everything for me. But I knew deep down, I sensed that I was unhappy. I sensed that I didn't quite fit in where I was. I didn't feel like I was on a path that I was excited about and that brought me a lot of joy that made me feel like I was fulfilling my values, like I was following my curiosity. 

And that's the thing, I think a lot of times it's not necessarily that we don't know what we want to do, it's that we have ideas about what we want to do but we feel a lot of external pressure, we think of a lot of logical reasons why making this type of change, like you said, whether it's changing your career or just changing your major, you have all these voices in your head or people in your ear telling you reasons why it's not a good idea. But deep down you have this instinctive feeling about what you want to do. 

And I say, you've got to be careful about the risks you take but it's really important to listen to your gut because there's a reason you have those nagging feelings. When I was working in banking, I think I tried to approach it with a really open mind but after my first year, I had the sense that this wasn't the right place for me. And so after I had done that for a few years, I knew I really wanted to explore something more creative.

I got to the point where I was like, ‘I'd rather try and explore this other side of myself that had these other interests – I'd rather try to do that and fail and have that be an interesting part of my story then to just avoid doing it because I'm scared that it won't work out.’ I got to the point where I thought, ‘Hey, if I spend a year or two in New York trying to make it in comedy and it doesn't work out then I'll look back on it 50 years later and probably have some funny stories,’ and I'll get to say, ‘Hey, I just had this cool little part of my life and this cool little part of my path that will be fun to look back on.’ So I think it's important to just see everything as part of your own interesting story versus being like, ‘I have to hit all these milestones and make sure that I succeed at everything I do.’

(Lauren)

Yeah, I really appreciate that. And I know that's definitely something that's brought me through my time at Carolina, too. Just following my interest, my curiosity, my passions, and that path might look different than other people, but it's brought me the most joy and happiness and hopefully that's something that I can carry on for the rest of my life as well. 

Another question that I had is, so a common challenge for people who work in creative spaces, and this is definitely true for me as well, is that I think sometimes your hobby can turn into a task and sometimes become a little less meaningful. I'm curious if that's ever been the case for you and your work as a comedy writer, and how did you overcome that challenge?

(Tom)

There are days where it is difficult to do a lot of work. Everybody has a tough day at work, no matter what your job is, that's just a normal part of being human. But I've always found that I'm really lucky that my work is, even on days where I feel like, ‘Oh, I'm swamped and I have a ton of work to do,’ I'm really grateful for the fact that my work is getting to come up with, like a silly sketch idea or like a fun game we can play with somebody or just writing jokes about the news. It can be difficult at times but I'm always of the mindset that this is about as good as work can get. So I'm really grateful for that task. I don't think it really took away from the joy of getting to do it, because once you come up with something and you get to look back on what you wrote, it's really still a satisfying feeling. 

It can be difficult. You can be banging your head against the wall to come up with something that you think is good. But whether it's your job or just for fun, when you've come up with something that you're proud of and you look back on it, the satisfaction is always there.

(Lauren)

Yeah, I love that. That's such a positive outlook. And definitely I know for me has been a challenge in my work and, not necessarily my job, in that I do a cappella full time, but definitely can be challenging when it becomes a little more task-oriented so it's great to hear how you've navigated that challenge. My last question, Tom, is how do you cope with failure? And what does embracing risk look like now when there's so much uncertainty in the world.

(Tom)

There were a lot of times early on where I really felt like I was failing, when I was at a job where I felt unfulfilled or on a career path that I felt was leading me somewhere I didn't want to go. And that was really difficult. But I had to look at redefining what my goals were. Was my goal that I really wanted to have one success after another and to hit these milestones where I worked at this firm with this really prestigious name, and then I went on to this graduate program that was also prestigious, and I have this title that's really prestigious. And while I would have thought that trying something different and having it not work out would be a failure, like I said earlier, I had to retool my perspective to say, ‘OK, if I were to try to jump off this path where I was going to spend two years performing improv shows in the basement of a convenience store,’ a lot of people would be like, ‘Wow, that guy, he really, things went downhill for him.’ I had to change my perspective on it to say, ‘You know what, I have to see that as a really fun story, a really cool part of my life path.’ 

Even after changing career paths, I still had to deal with a lot of what felt like failure for a long time. I really wanted to get a staff writing position, and I felt like I was just totally stuck in a lower level position as a writer's assistant. I saw other people that I was close friends with getting staff writing jobs, and they got to join the Writers Guild and it was really exciting, and they were on staff as a writer. I felt like I was stuck in this lower level position and I was never going to break out of it and that was really difficult. 

And there were a couple of things I tried to do. I tried to focus on the skills and to think that, well, whether I get this title or not, it goes back to what I was talking about earlier. Is it the title that I want or do I want to be proud of myself and my ability to write stuff that I'm proud of? And I really tried to focus on developing the skills that would get me to where I wanted to be because regardless of what your title is or where you work, nobody can ever take your skills away from you. If you focus on developing those skills and you focus on learning what you want to do and being good at what you want to do, you can always find pride in that.

And that way, what you may feel is failure is actually just another stepping stone underway to where you want to end up.

(Lauren)

I think that's great advice and definitely applicable to myself and to a lot of scholars as we just try to figure out what we're going to do with the rest of our lives or even just how to navigate our time at UNC.

(Tom)

And also, I think during this particular time, we have to retool what we consider success. A few months ago, I may have thought, ‘OK, if I didn't sell a script by now, I would be really disappointed.’ But things aren't what they used to be, everything is a bit different right now. I would encourage anybody who is graduating in the next year or so to not feel down on themselves because they didn't get the job they wanted – or people who are in a point of a career transition and feel like they're stagnant – to not feel down on themselves in the way that they may have a couple of years ago but to be open-minded and think that, ‘While these are unusual times, I should consider myself a success for continuing to push through adversity, continuing to find ways to be an asset in my community, an asset to my family and my friends,’ and know that this particular aspect of my life, career-wise or education-wise, you will also flourish when times change.

(Lauren)

Definitely. Thanks so much, Tom.

(Sarah)

Well, Lauren and Tom, thank you guys so much for both sharing and Lauren for cohosting Catalyze today. Is there anything either of you would like to add or ask of each other?

(Tom)

I'd like to ask Lauren -- I can't imagine what it would have been like for me as a college student and I think that's a particularly difficult position to be in during this pandemic. How have you found that you've been able to get through this? What have you struggled with the most in getting through this as a college student? And what are some ways in which you've been able to find yourself still flourishing, you're still having fun and still getting the most out of your college experience?

(Lauren)

Yeah, I think it goes back to a point you touched on earlier, which was redefining success. As soon as we knew that we were coming back to UNC-Chapel Hill and it was going to be a hybrid model at first and such, I already knew that my senior year was going to look different. From that point, I just started to redefine what a success would look like here. And what were my classes going to look like? What does time with friends look like? How do I prioritize my safety and the safety of my housemates while still maximizing senior year?

And I think I've been really lucky to be in a great house with a great group of girls. And we have had a lot of fun this semester just doing things together. We went to Virginia and did camping and hiking at Grayson Highlands. We're planning a trip soon to hopefully Annapolis. Thursday night we're having a game night. We're going to go to Kenan Stadium. We're going to order a pizza and play a board game or something. It's really the small things, but we're having a lot of fun. I certainly miss certain aspects of regular campus life and football games and things like that but in many ways, I'm just very content with where I'm at right now. And my classes are going well, and I have great people in my life. I think it's just redefining success, like you mentioned earlier. 

(Tom)

Yeah, that's great. I'm glad to hear that you've been able to do such a good job adapting to all this. I'm not sure I would be as good at it as you are, but I'm glad that you guys have found a way to continue and enjoy senior year.

(Sarah)

Tom and Lauren, thank you guys again and hope that you guys both stay safe and well. Just appreciate the conversation and for your time.

(Tom)

Thanks so much for having us.

(Lauren)

Thanks, Sarah.

*This episode has been edited slightly for clarity.


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