Mike Sacks’s book “And Here’s the Kicker” is out now. It features over 20 interviews with humorists and comedy writers from the time of the Marx Bros to today. If you’re a comedy nerd, Mike probably talked to one of your favorites.
I can’t praise “And Here’s the Kicker” enough. It treats humor writing as less than a tab A into slot B affair and interviews comedians with intelligence and a level of foreknowledge that keeps it from asking unproductive questions like “where do you get your ideas?” Instead the book grants a sense of how to think like a humor writer, something that’s much more worthy in the long term.
This excerpt from a conversation Sacks has with longtime Simpsons’ comedy writer George Meyer shares some of that insight:
Sacks: You’ve mentioned in the past that some of your best writing is done when you go into sort of a trance. Do you consider writing almost a form of hypnosis, where you lose track of time?
Meyer: Losing track of time is a sure sign that you’re immersed in the joy of the experience. You’re in the state that [psychology professor and author] Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.” Actually, I had to be in that state now, just to get his name right. The work you do in this state has grace and ease and resonance. It’s the opposite of what Michael O’Donoghue used to call “sweaty” comedy, when you’ve laboriously squeezed out something tedious, and the effort shows.
When you’re “in the zone,” a joke will just land on you like a butterfly, and only if you scrutinize it later do you see how it came together from disparate elements. Maybe it’s an amalgam of an old half-idea, or something you saw on your way to work, or a strange symbol on someone’s T-shirt. And it happens in an instant. Of course, this state is elusive; it has to be cultivated.
How do you cultivate it?
You have to be prepared. You need basic writing skills, of course, but you also want to have lots of raw ingredients rattling around in your skull: vivid words, strange song lyrics, irritating euphemisms, disastrous experiences that have been bothering you for years. To feed this stockpile, you need to expose yourself to the real world and all its hailstones.
The other essential is humility. You have to be willing to look stupid, to stumble down unproductive paths, and to endure bad afternoons when all your ideas are flat and sterile and derivative. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, you’ll bounce back from these lulls and be ready for the muse’s next visit.
What is it about writing in a group situation that you enjoy? Do you actually prefer this process to writing alone?
Writing solo is lonely and you feel the heat—you want to keep topping yourself. I used to berate myself if I couldn’t think of a killer joke for every spot, but I gradually eased up on that. You can’t keep bitch-slapping your creativity, or it’ll run away and find a new pimp.
That reference to that stockpile comes into play a little later in this excerpt:
Sacks: Jon Vitti, another Simpsons writer, once told The Harvard Crimson, “The physical pain [that] lousy comedy costs George is incredible. You don’t want to be responsible for that.”
It only hurts me if I had a hand in it. I guess I find life so disappointing that I can’t bear to be part of the problem.
Sacks: Are there specific comedic tropes that drive you crazy?
Just material that’s lazy and fake. For instance, when a character has to think of a phony name, sees an ashtray, and then calls herself “Susan Ashtray.” That’s boring. Billy Wilder’s first commandment was “Thou shalt not bore.”
It’s easy to pick up bad habits from watching hackneyed comedy. You’ll find yourself resorting to stock situations, straw men, and hokey resolutions. An artful slice of life, even if it isn’t totally free of editorial contrivance, will inspire you to build your work on the bedrock of reality.
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
I’m in Chicago for Just For Laughs, getting ready for another night of the ha-ha. But if you’re not here, the best place might just be your couch for Joe Rogan’s new hour special, “Talking Monkeys in Space.” Joe has been making his name as a stand-up in the last few years with his willingness to confront the ills of the business, particularly joke thievery. But more than a passionate defender of the art, Rogan is a great practitioner of it, weaving some philosophical insight into his jokes that bring him into territory few comics cover. This bit of evolution here is just a small part of something larger about human hubris in going places we shouldn’t be. Check it:
“Joe Rogan: Talking Monkeys in Space” airs tonight at Midnight on Spike.
Filed Under Just For Laughs
You’re going to see “Let Freedom Hum” in a week on a TBS, but let’s talk about what couldn’t or wouldn’t or probably shouldn’t be seen.
I’ve not been the biggest fan of Martin Short, but the man is definitely a solid professional, working the pause-riddled production with unrelenting energy. All his characters are going to be pulled out of the hat for this one - Ed Grimley (who appears pants-less in the opener), Jiminy Glick, and a surprising return of Lawrence Orbach, the failed synchronized swimmer from one of the most beloved SNL skits of all time. That one’s a little ballsy - something that loved, why risk it? We didn’t get to see the taped piece, so I’ll be tuning in with you for that. Some new bits from Short were also brilliant, including a physical bit where he impersonates a bagpipe.
As I mentioned, there was a lot of pauses in the shooting and a couple of redos of some segments. Some of it was a little odd - a piano being returned to the stage at various points before a comedian’s set for what seemed to be no particular reason. None of them were playing it and nor was short necessarily when he returned for intros. Certainly seemed like they could have had all the comedians who were going to be perform with a piano nearby first then remove the damn thing. As Short remarked at one point during an early reset, “This is what we call momentum.”
Such resets for TV productions are not unusual but probably more striking to me because I had just seen Greg Giraldo perform for his Comedy Central hour special the night before. Giraldo was pretty much all self-editing on stage for that, often commenting a particular bit was destined for a DVD extra. Giraldo also performed for “Let Freedom Hum”, using none of the same material. Which is probably a good thing since his hour special isn’t coming til August I believe.
Giraldo was kind of a different comic from the others appearing on “Let Freedom Hum” - a dark rant from Giraldo about an argument with his ex-wife about the life of a road comic is good funny stuff, but seemed a mite bit darker than the comedy I think of on TBS. I couldn’t really say there was a particular thematic reason for any of the comics to be part of a special together. Where exactly do Tom Papa, Kathleen Madigan, Jeremy Hotz, John Pinette and Giraldo all meet?
There’s some big differences between the other comics on the bill. John Pinette and Jeremy Hotz are more solidly shtick driven. Hotz is a nervous one liner with a signature tic of constant finger biting. Pinette is a fat guy comic. But that’s not a pejorative, as Pinette brings a level of anger that makes his bits often surprising. And Madigan and Papa both play as smart, observational comics with Papa’s fatherhood bits standing out. (Papa told us that much of his drinking now that he has kids is “standing in front of the sink drinking.”)
Nor, as Ryan Hubbard, my compatriot at the Chicago Reader points out, was “Let America Hum” particularly America-themed - despite the title. It seems just to fit around the initial date - Friday, June 26th - which is right around the corner from July 4th. It’s probably a good move - any sort of thematic unity would be kind of an illusion.
But the question kind of remains, why? Why are these particular stand-ups together? It’s a question that’s easily answered when you do something like “Down & Dirty with Jim Norton” (the comics are going to be filthier and lean to the Cringe style) or “Comedy Central’s Last Laugh” (where the comics are kicking the last of the topical stuff out the door). I’m not sure people tuning in will think after one or two comics that they’ll be sure they’ll like the next one and not flip the channel. That might make TBS answer this question for future specials.
Filed Under Pranks
This was one of my favorite Spy Magazine pranks in print, but I never saw the TV version of it until somebody uploaded it to YouTube recently. It’s called Bunny Burgers, a pretty atrocious idea for fast food made worse by actively emphasizing that “Bunny” part at every possible moment.
Just a brilliant idea. And though it has lot of nice reaction shots from the general public, the real satiric bite isn’t on them. It’s a prank where one set of “victims” make fools of the real target - the PR firms who’d actually compete to represent it. A rare contrast that hasn’t been done since on television, despite the proliferation of prank shows in the past ten years on cable. (via Maximum Fun)
Previously: Interview with Spy co-founder Kurt Andersen
Filed Under Funny 2.0
Tosh.0 premieres tonight on Comedy Central, which is sort of nets first attempt at doing a series about viral video. They’ve become a little cookie-cutter, get funny guy with an over the shoulder shot of the mock web video, make snarky comments. Repeat for a half hour.
Daniel Tosh looks for Tosh.0 be a little different, perhaps realizing that the viral video folks are more than just targets. There’s more and better jokes to be gained by actually talking with them. Here’s a teaser clip from Tosh.0 that I enjoyed, simply because it treats the target like a human being a little. It features the man nicknamed “Afro Ninja”, who fell flat on his face when he attempted a back flip. Daniel goes over what went wrong and then gives a chance for a “Web Redemption”, which looks to be a regular feature for the show.
I actually didn’t expect this of Daniel Tosh, who’s very funny but has one of the most caustic acts I’ve seen - one that doesn’t really give you an ideal of anything he actually likes. The over-the-shoulder thing is something he could do in his sleep. Hopefully the show will be much more “Web Redemption” than TV commenting on the web.
Tosh.0 premieres tonight on Comedy Central at 10 PM.
After the jump, Tosh recorded a little greet for Dead-Frog readers. If being encouraged to watch the show semi-personally might help you watch Tosh.0, click “more”
With a pit-bull-like hold on their branding, TBS is adding a late night stand-up show entitled “The Very Funny Show”, all of which will be filmed at Zanies Chicago during the upcoming Just For Laughs Chicago. Tim Meadows, not typically known as a stand-up, will host the ten episode series, each episode featuring three comedians. Names include John Mulaney, Steve Byrne, Nick Thune, T.J. Miller and Matt Braunger. From the press release and Zanies website I’ve only been able to compile about 22 of the 30 comics that’ll appear (that list after the jump).
It’s been pretty obvious for a while that TBS won’t let Comedy Central own the stand-up game anymore. The question I’ve always been concerned about is that have network execs learned anything from the ridiculous ubiquity of stand-up on TV in the late 80s / early 90s, which pretty much killed the form for a while.
I think the performers are definitely sharper now, more seeing this as an art in itself rather than the sitcom stepping stone. And there’s a lot more diverse voices in that community, so there’s far less likelihood that every performers going to be seen as interchangeable. Plus content restrictions are far looser, leading to a lot more territory for a comic to cover. Although, that does suggest to me the airline food joke of this generation could end up being comics using the word “rape” in a bit.
But this is a little bit out of the hands of the comics themselves. Presentation is going to be a big part of whether stand-up on TV can avoid that again. As someone who looks as thumbnail of stand-up comedy videos every day, I can tell you that a lot of stand-up looks the same. That’s the beauty of it in many ways - one person and one mic. But there’s a lot that go inside that - audience reaction shots, close-ups, editing, angles, focus, etc. None of this should just be monkeyed with for the sake of making something look different. But I fear in a visual culture, that audience will judge stand-up harshly simply because it looks the same. Execs should look at how to present a comedic voice, not just throw a few performers on a stage and call it a day.
Zanies, the club where they’re shooting “The Very Funny Show”, doesn’t look too glitzed up judging from the web videos I’ve seen (never been myself, so I could be wrong). It seems like a nice departure, particularly if the lights can stay a little low. But a more interesting difference about “The Very Funny Show” that may create a break from the way stand-up is seen on Comedy Central is the fact that they’re charging for tickets. Comedy Central doesn’t do for that for either their Comedy Central Presents series or Live at Gotham. I think it always creates a different vibe when an audience pays money for a ticket – perhaps they’ll be more demanding, perhaps they’ll see the comics as more experienced hands. It’ll change the feel of the room a little, maybe enough that folks might notice at home. Let’s hope that’s a good change.
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
Every month Los Angeles’s Candor Entertainment holds a stand-up comedy event that’s “invite only.” I’ve been asked to come, but as I’m in New York, it’s a little difficult to check out.
Fortunately for me and the invite-less, clips from their shows have gone up on Hulu. Here’s an exclusive clip from the next set of stuff that’s to go live on Hulu on Tuesday, but is of course live now. It’s from Adam Ray. who I’ll forgive for the backwards baseball cap since he has a nicely tragic response for those who demand a joke from him upon discovering he’s a comic.