Mike Sacks's Poking a Dead Frog Explores the Inner Workings of Comedy Writers

Mike Sacks's <i>Poking a Dead Frog</i> Explores the Inner Workings of Comedy Writers
Photo by Justin Bishop
Mike Sacks

"This book is really an extension of my youthful attempts to contact those in the business whom I admired most," Mike Sacks admits in the introduction to June 24's Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers. The New York journalist and author's companion collection to 2009's And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft features interviews with a range of admirees from filmmaker Mel Brooks, reclusive National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard, and radio innovator Bob Elliot through Amy Poehler, Marc Maron, and Dave Hill.

I think people's chances as a young comedy writer to be noticed now are much easier

In addition to stories and advice, Sacks's subjects share insight, encouragement, and even philosophy. Their range of comedic inspirations are essentially limitless, and so too are the routes and outlets they have used to make their voices heard. As The Onion, The Colbert Report, and Community writer Dan Guterman recalls upon discovering satire as a teenager, "I had no idea that comedy could be more than just jokes. That the whole thing could be in service of exposing some truth. Now there's nothing wrong with just writing a joke. A great joke is a great joke. But to realize that I could also say something that I believed in, or describe a worldview I shared, or attack a dishonesty that bothered me, through comedy -- that changed everything."

How have early reactions been to Poking a Dead Frog?

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It's been good, especially the interviewees who have not been interviewed often or at all. Like Henry Beard, one of the co-founders of National Lampoon, has never really been interviewed, I think, for 40 years. And also Peg Lynch [writer and star of 1940s and '50s series Ethel and Albert], who is 97 now -- 96 when I talked to her -- I don't think she's really ever been interviewed. But she is tremendously influential, and that was total luck that I stumbled across her. She's amazing, like 30 years before her time. Not only that, but she was an actress/writer, like an Amy Poehler or Tina Fey. That rarely happened.

The people in the book are just people that I'm fans of, and it's sort of across the board. You have cartoonists, graphic novelists, TV writers, radio writers, movie writers. So hopefully there will be at least a few interviews that someone will connect with. With some of these books, I've noticed, you have a little bit of this, a little bit of that: It seems like it's trying to appeal to the widest audience. I have no idea how many readers this will appeal to. These are just people that I wanted an excuse to talk with, and leaning more toward those who have never been interviewed, or interviewed very rarely, like Glen Charles of Cheers. I don't know if he's ever been interviewed at length about creating that show and working on Taxi.

How has the comedy landscape changed between And Here's the Kicker and Poking a Dead Frog?

Well, it has changed quite a bit. When I pitched Kicker -- this was in 2007 -- there were a few websites that handled humor, and there were very few podcasts. Marc Maron wasn't around then, and I don't know if any others were around. Since then it's exploded, and one of the difficulties with this new book is there's more competition now. I mean, I'm asking people if they want to be interviewed; seven years ago, they weren't being approached. Now they're being approached all the time by podcasts, websites, and all these other places. So that's changed.

But what's also changed for the better is, there's a ton of new talent that has emerged since that first book. Between Twitter, Facebook and all these others, podcasts and such, it's just exploded. And great talent, that's really changed. There are more younger writers now than there were when I was first starting. There was a group of young writers in the first book, but now that group of writers has really expanded. So that has improved greatly. I think people's chances as a young comedy writer to be noticed now are much easier, which is a great thing. Someone who is using Twitter in Omaha has the same chance of being read by as many people as in the New Yorker. And that wasn't the case when the first book started.

The juxtapositions are interesting.

That's the thing that I wanted to do. When I was coming up, as they say, there were very, very few outlets. It seemed like there were some outlets that were more respected that others. To write short, humorous fiction was very well-respected. Writing a graphic novel wasn't. But one of the things I want this book to point out is there's no one genre more important than the next. If you want to write a graphic novel, like Dan Clowes, that's just as important as writing a [New Yorker] Shouts & Murmurs, which is just as important as writing a TV script, which is just as important as writing a one-man show. So there's a lot of outlets, and whatever you want to do, whatever you want to concentrate on, and whatever best fits your sensibility, I think that's important for writers that you shouldn't have to feel pigeonholed, that you have to write in a certain genre or medium. You can write whatever you want, and as long as it's good and it resonates, it'll find an audience.

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