Filed Under Print
A nice find from The Awl, which has the cover for “Bossypants”, Tina Fey’s upcoming book for Little, Brown. It’s being shown off at the Frankfurt Book Fair. “30 Rock” can be wonderfully silly in the big ways a sitcom needs to be, but I like the subtlety of this piece of silliness. And yet, it’s still fairly easy to spot. Check it:
“Bossypants” isn’t expected on shelves (or your Kindle or iPad for that matter) until April of 2011.
Filed Under Print
Last week a fantastic book called “Satiristas!” hit store shelves. Veteran stand-up Paul Provenza interviews comedians whose work in challenges society and questions what effect it has on the world at all. As the filmmaker of the documentary Aristocrats, Provenza has a real rapport with all the subject and like Mike Sacks’s book “And Here’s the Kicker”, the conversations in “Satiristas!” doesn’t dwell on the standards of where ideas come from and recognizing funny ideas. You start in the middle, literally.
The inspiration for Satiristas! was the photography of Dan Dion. Anybody who’s spent a little time in the front halls of Gotham Comedy Club knows how striking his work can be. Dan captures something about each comic making them perform for him. As he describes in the foreword, he’s not “asking the monkey to dance.” Provenza brings that idea into the text itself.
Below is a gallery of some of Dan’s photos, more of which can obviously be seen in Satiristas! and on his website dandion.com.
A favorite of comedy geeks, David Cross recently wrote the book I Drink for a Reason, a collection of funny essays. He has also gone on tour to support the book, giving fans outside of the coasts a chance to see him perform stand-up live for the first time in five years. (You can check out David Cross’s upcoming tour dates here.) I talked with David about the differences between writing a book and stand-up, why he turned off his Google alert and how his family life is off-limits on stage, at least for now.
What were the challenges you found in writing a funny book as opposed to writing a bit of stand-up or a comedy sketch?
Well, I guess the ideas don’t flow as naturally or prolifically when I’m sitting down to write because you’re writing in a vacuum. When I’m writing stand-up there’s such a give and take in the energy. Plus I’m talking out loud. I never talk out loud when I write.
It’s all my interior voice. Ideas, whether they’re good or bad, come easier to me when I’m talking on stage. That’s sort of the way I write on stage. I have the idea and I just sort of riff the idea until I’ve done the set a bunch of times. And I pick and choose what I say and then that becomes a bit.
I’ve never met somebody who sat down and just wrote jokes. So that genre doesn’t come easily to me. But it was nice to be able to have the idea written down on a piece of paper and be able to edit it there once it was done.
Like if you set up a bit of stand-up wrong, then you’re in that place and can’t go back and fix it.
Yeah, but then I can comment on that. “Oh I fucked that up” or whatever. It’s just so different because you’re communicating in a completely different way.
I just find it to be very hard. I’m amazed when I look at old National Lampoons with Michael O’Donoghue and Doug Kenney and how they’re able to make me laugh out loud. It’s very difficult. You rely on the readers’ sense of timing. You have to figure out how to get that comic pacing in their head.
Well, I probably do have the benefit, if people are familiar with my work, of assuming that the voice that you have when you’re reading it is my own. You can sort of hear my voice in it. I’d be interested to talk to somebody who liked reading humorous books, who’s not familiar with my work at all, to see what they thought of it. Because they wouldn’t have the benefit of knowing what cadence I use. And that’s another huge difference. You don’t have the benefit of pausing and gesticulation and intonations and cadence. There’s no performance to it.
You could put something in italic like Spy would.
That’s all you get.
Italics or bold.
You get an ellipse or all caps.
There you go. The typographic ability of stand-up in print.
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.
Tonight in most areas, PBS will air Make ’Em Laugh, a history of American comedy that I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I’ve already picked up the companion book for the series and the amount of depth of material and history that they use to draw lines between past and (relatively) contemporary comedians is impressive. Plus, it’s damn gorgeous. If this is the resource material they used to build the documentary, your comedy nerd appetite will probably just be wetted. I don’t see how they’ll get it all in.
Tonight’s two episodes are “Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses?”, which focuses on the comedian as outsider, and “Honey, I’m Home!”, which focuses on sitcoms and the comedian as the center of a family. It’s an interesting, and somewhat diametrically opposed paring that keeps comedy from being in a simple box. Also a little interesting - they are Chapters Four and Five of the companion book. The first chapter in print focuses on physical comedy, and while it’ll probably be entertaining, it doesn’t necessarily seem like the best tone setter for a TV series about comedians. Physical comedy can be polarizing. Good choice there.
There’s six episodes in all that will air on PBS, but there’s also a seventh, which focuses on web comedy entitled “Teh Internets”, and appropriately has been released only there. You’re not necessarily going to learn a lot from the video - if you’ve visited this site, you know this shit. It’s more of a Best Week Ever look at the subject. But it’s fun to see that those talking heads are a lot of favorite web comedians (the ones who are intentionally funny) and also Amy Sedaris doing some single person sketches that have a bit of fun with some web memes. Here it is:
If Sedaris ever has a cocktail party with all those web-themed treats, let me know. Yum.
Since PBS is decentralized, the airtime (and date for that matter) might be different for Make ’Em Laugh. You should check the schedule at the Make ‘Em Laugh site to find out when it’s on in your area.
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.