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.
I want to give a little heads-up on an upcoming book by my good friend Mike Sacks. Sacks has interviewed over twenty comedy writers and humorists for the upcoming book And Here’s the Kicker, which promises to be a definitive work on comedy writing.
The great thing about the book is that Sacks is not wedded to one comedy tradition - talking to folks as diverse as Al Jaffee (Mad Magazine) to David Sedaris to Bob Odenkirk. And Sacks, as he’s a funny guy in his own right, gets it. So he doesn’t ask the same questions these people are usually asked. He knows those answers. So Sacks goes further, drawing out rare insight into the process of making the funny.
A couple of excerpts are up on the website for And Here’s the Kicker right now. Here’s an excerpt from the excerpted Stephen Merchant interview. He talks a little bit about The Office‘s first fortunately unseen pilot:
The show just wasn’t funny if we were approaching it as a sitcom. It’s only amusing if you think of it as a real place being filmed by a documentary crew. The documentary seemed so vital at that point, because it seemed like all the jokes were dependent on the way that the character David Brent wanted to portray himself versus the way he was being portrayed by the documentary crew.
Another thing we did was remove the voice-over track with documentary-style narration. This helped, because in the end it meant there wasn’t an explicit editorial voice. This allowed David Brent to just dig his own grave.
Kicker is targeted to aspiring comedy writers, so that’s a great lesson for ‘em. Arguably most essential trait of The Office and Ricky Gervais and Merchant missed it when translating it the first time. Just a great lesson for just trying an idea - as a creator, how would you know the strict documentary feel was important for all the reasons Merchant outlines here? You’d probably only know if you’d seen The Office without them..
Mike also interviewed the recently deceased Irving Becher, a comedy writer who wrote for the strong>Marx Brothers and Milton Berle. The man’s memory is positively incredible - his story of how he came to write for Berle is excerpted on the Kicker site. Two wonderful details from it. The first, Becher’s ad in Variety that got Berle’s attention:
Positively Berle-Proof Gags. So Bad That Not Even Milton Would Steal Them. The House That Joke Built.
And the second, which might explain Becher’s memory, his first encounter with Berle was while Uncle Milty was naked. And yes, he saw it. At least enough of the legendary member to have it burn this story into his memory.
There’s more, a lot more, in the book. Including conversations with Robert Smigel, Harold Ramis, Arrested Development‘s Mitch Hurwitz, The Colbert Report‘s Allison Silverman and Dave Barry. And Mike’s working on getting a couple of things included, space permitting, that would be the most comedy nerdgasm inclusions ever. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, know that And Here’s the Kicker hits bookstores in July of 2009.
I heard Alan Zweibel tell this story at his show “A History of Me” at the PIT, sharing how he dealt with the censors during the first season of Saturday Night Live. Zweibel’s kind of transitional comedy writer - working in the new slash and burn style of comedy in the 70s but with roots in Borscht Belt joke writing. You can definitely hear that in this story.
Bob Odenkirk is a comedy writer I admire not only for his work, but for his unflinching words about his work. It’s in evidence in this recent interview with Bob (with David Cross) on Vanity Fair on their upcoming HBO sitcom David’s Situation. The interviewer brings up The Ben Stiller Show as a show – like Arrested Development or Mr. Show – that was canceled too early by the network. Odenkirk instantly objects, stating:
The Ben Stiller Show was a complete fucking mess. Watch that show. Just watch that show. Please!
It was not a cohesive show. The voice of one scene was completely different from the voice of another.
Look, I think the show was not completely realized, and we were all very young and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. None of it held together. I mean, c’mon, what was your favorite moment of Ben hanging out with celebrities between scenes? Was that non-stop hilarity for you? People talk about that show like it was comedy genius, but in my opinion it never even came close. It had some high points and sometimes it could be offbeat, but it was mostly a lot of comedy sludge.
And generally you can trust his own self assessments. This weekend I caught part of the Odenkirk directed “Let’s Go to Prison.” I watched the first half hour and was pleasantly surprised how much I was enjoying it. I had remembered Odenkirk admitting some troubles with the film in an AV Club Interview. I had some run and ended up recording the rest on the DVR while I was out. Picking up where I left off, the prison setting started swallowing the humor, black comedy turning into bleak comedy. I had to go find what Odenkirk said in that AV Club interview. Sure enough, he described the film as lacking a target and ending up as “darkness to no end.”
There’s a reason why people think of Odenkirk as a premiere comedy mind. He doesn’t romanticize his own writing. He’s able to be unsparing critical and at the same time incredibly productive. So much of comedy - or any bit of creativity - requires some tunnel vision and denial just to get it done. How Odenkirk can create with such a powerful critic inside is remarkable. (Not that it saved Let’s Go to Prison, but you can be sure that he won’t make the same mistake next time.)
Last week, I dropped by a book “warming” at the Friars’ Club for “Milt & Marty” - a fake memoir for an unsuccessful comedy writing team. The book was penned by Tom Leopold and Bob Sand, two veteran comedy writers themselves (but far more successful, much to the consternation of Milt and Marty, who took the pair under their diseased racist wing).
At the warming, Milt and Marty made an appearance via video, in this interview was conducted by the funny (but playing it straight here) Frank Santopadre. There’s more than a little joy watching some old pros biting the hand of the generation before them, packing jokes in the rapid clip of that time, sometimes dropping a reference you might have to look up on Wikipedia.
(BTW, the video was shot by my good friend Carol Hartsell at Drink at Work, who describes some of the challenges in shooting it here.)
The event was held in the club’s Milton Berle room, jokingly described as appropriately the biggest room at the Friar’s Club (the room is actually a little small, doing no justice to the comic’s legendary shvantz). The Friars seem probably to most like the echo of a bygone era, but there’s still something a little amazing about the place - a private club where comedians could be funny uncensored among each other, doing the stuff they couldn’t on stage. That sense of fraternity doesn’t seem necessary today, but it’s still more than a little attractive. Might need to find myself a membership application.
With David Letterman having a deal for his writers and Jay Leno having to go without, I’ve been hopeful that it’ll become clear what writer-less television is like. An obvious gap in quality would do a lot to end the strike.
The first night, I don’t think that gap was there. As Johnny Carson said, talk shows are really about the guy behind the desk. That’s the center of the show. Letterman, though he obviously supports the writers, doesn’t necessarily need them. He has the energy to respond to the unexpected, explosively dropping an equally surprising line immediately after. A little bit like Carson, there some fun in watching him recover from a bit gone awry. The writing for the show naturally matches these gifts of Letterman and is sometimes, a bit looser to allow Dave be Dave.
Leno, on the other hand, is a gag man. He obviously reveres the art of joke writing. If only he had the same respect for joke writers. Much of his monologue was, self-admittedly, written by himself. As a WGA member, Leno is not supposed to be writing. I’ll be charitable though, perhaps the rules from the WGA are a bit unclear. But even so, if you’re in favor of the strike and support your writers and their cause, it seem to me that you would err on the side of no prepared material. The uncharitable parts of me wants to draw Leno’s monologue up to ego and competitiveness; he can’t stand to have Letterman have a leg up on him. The comments about “one man against the CBS machine” - it sounds as if he only thinking of himself here, rather than the writing team who works very hard for him. This is what the Late Night ratings competition does to people.
Leno also mentioned about coming back to support the other staffers, upon which the camera cut to a person who supposedly handles the lighting - a slovenly guy sitting in a chair holding up a flashlight. It’s the sort of joke that a lot of comedy writers have made about the make-up of other unions for a long time. A joke is a joke, but I found it bizarre to stick in an anti-union joke in there when you’re supporting the rest of your staff. Is that just me?
With Letterman’s performing style and Leno’s WGA rules flaunting (or unawareness), I’m not sure that the public will be able to tell the difference between a show with writers and one sans writers. Again, I hope it becomes more apparent. Was there enough of a difference? Will there be one?
Update: The ratings are in and Leno beat Letterman last night with a rating of 5.3 to Letterman’s 4.3. I don’t think the strike-aware population is large enough to credit that to “wanting to see a train wreck.” However, I think maybe - maybe - my question is being answered as, according to some earlier notes on Hollywood Reporter, Leno’s numbers fell off as the show went on in some markets and Letterman’s went up. A good sign for television created by writers?
...if only so Lorne can grab two SNL writers and stick them in a room to write a movie around Armisen’s studio executive character Roger Trevanti.
“Hope You Get Ass Cancer” might wear as a catchphrase, but the blatantly obvious double-talking is just brilliant. There have been thinner characters for SNL sketch-based films.