Mike Sacks's Poking a Dead Frog Explores the Inner Workings of Comedy Writers
Photo by Justin Bishop
"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.
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?
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.
Comedy is moving so quickly right now, and outlets often change.
Yes, it's moving really quickly, and I thought a lot about that. I knew Best Show would be going off the air, and toward the end, I knew that Community would be going off the air. But these things can be found. That's another thing that is so different now. If you wanted to, you could go back and listen to every single Best Show. And if you wanted to, you could watch every single Community. This is stuff that will last. Whether it's on the air presently or not, everything will be off the air eventually anyway. It's like Cheers; it went off the air 20 years ago, but it's still a great show. It still can be found. So I tried to do interviews with those people whose work I think will be around for awhile.
How do you feel about Daniel Handler [aka Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events] advising to avoid reading interviews with writers?
I thought he was honest, and there are a few people in there, like Adam McKay, whose end advice is, "Yeah, don't listen to people like me. Just go out and do it." It's a good lesson for young writers, in that there's no one right answer. Adam McKay is giving advice, and at the same time he's saying, "In the end, he best thing for a comedy writer is just to go out there and experience life, rather than read how-to books." I didn't want to leave it out because that was negative against my book. I felt that was very honest advice that readers should know about.
Were there any interviewees you'd hoped to get that fell through?
The people I wanted, I got. A lot of big names aren't necessarily going to be good interviews. Like, I don't think that Steve Martin would be a great interview. Albert Brooks probably wouldn't be a great interview. But the people that I wanted are in the book. A lot of times I'll read the same interview with big names over and over again, almost like they're going through the process of just rote memorization or studying their lines. I wanted to avoid that. The people that I got, I don't think you can necessarily find elsewhere.
That may change for a third volume. I'm sure there are plenty of funny people I could get for a third volume, if there is one. I don't even think there will be, quite frankly. I think this is it. But I'm content with the way this mix is in the book.
Why wouldn't there be a third volume?
Because I think it's over. I think the process, for me, is done. I don't see myself doing another one. It's just too much work. I want to move on to other subject matters. Two is a good number to stand on. I don't want to put out a Godfather III.
Amy Poehler advised, "You can generate original material, or you can be a staff writer, or you can write about the comedy scene." I've never seen that latter option confirmed as a legitimate one anywhere before.
I haven't either. I thought that was very interesting. And that's the type of thing where I thought, "Good for you, man." Because a lot of people don't want to create comedy, per se; they want to write about comedy. And that becomes an art form in itself if it's done well. Good for her for saying that.
Compared to the optimism of Kicker, Poking seems to caution that comedy is a tough row to hoe.
Yeah, it is more realistic. And that may be due to where I am now, to just being older and seeing how difficult it is for everyone. But it is difficult for everyone, so if someone is struggling and they're young, they should know that everyone is struggling, and that everyone wants to be doing other things as well, and there's no perfect job. Everyone, even if they're a big name, they want to be doing other things. If you write for TV, you want to write books. If you write books, you want to write for movies. If you write movies, you want to write for TV. So I think it's another good lesson: Everyone's miserable. And the sooner you realize that, the happier you'll be.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.