True-Life Magic: Mike Sacks on How Comedy Gets Made

In a 1958 interview, Steve Allen tried to boil his trade down to the essence with the sentence “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”  The central insight gives the SNL writer her or his due for wrestling with the same essential aspects of existence that drive King Lear.  But like most appealing epigrams, it’s fundamentally misleading — the alchemy that turns one thing into the other is no mere product of duration, or perspective.  Somewhere in that “plus,” the  stand-up comic, sitcom showrunner, or Onion headline writer perform transformative and mysterious magic.

Vanity Fair‘s Mike Sacks is both a practitioner and a scholar of the Art of Comedy, and with Poking a Dead Frog, he returns to territory first explored in And Here’s the Kicker — the lives and minds of dozens of comedy writers from Mel Brooks to Amy Poehler.   In these illuminating (and often wildly funny) conversations, he disproves another adage about comedy, the one referenced by the title.  These interviews not only let fans of Cheers in on what it was like to conceive of and write a classic television comedy, or introduce a nearly-forgotten pioneer whose innovative radio plays set the template for Seinfelds to come, they reveal comedians as fans of comedy, eager to share their favorite jokes, transmitting almost unconsciously a spirit of laughter that is resolutely alive and kicking.  Mike Sacks spoke with us about the book and what he learned making it via email. — Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: And Here’s the Kicker was a book of interviews with humor writers. Poking a Dead Frog is a book about comedy writers.  What makes a writer choose one of those paths over the other?

Mike Sacks: Oh, there’s no difference in my mind between a comedy or humor writer. It’s one and the same. All those definitions are loose for me, anyway. Is George Saunders any less a humorist or comedy writer than someone who writes gags for TV? Maybe, but who cares? I think George Saunders is brilliantly funny and his stories make me laugh, and so I put him in the book. Who’s to decide what is a “proper” medium for humor, anyway? One is no less or more important than the next.

BNR: Comedy is a notoriously tough business, but most of the people you interview are surprisingly warm.

MS: I think you have to be a warm person (at least deep down) to write comedy. Your moral compass has to be set correctly, pointed directly to “Decent.” If it isn’t, audiences can very easily discern that you’re not on the side of right. And the comedy won’t work. Every classic comedy character is likable, even the ones who aren’t traditionally “likable.”

BNR: One thing that’s transmitted in so many of these conversations is that each comedy writer is in some way a collector of favorite jokes – often not his or her own.

MS: First and foremost, all of these writers are huge fans of comedy, and not just their own. They all started out as comedy geeks and fans of the form. And it still brings them pleasure. Maybe even more pleasure now; it’s more difficult to make them laugh but it’s well earned now.

BNR: So many of these writers note the big change from the era in which they started — a time when comedy wasn’t a career to be pursued but a sort of accidental fate that befell a certain type of obsessive person — to the current day when there are hundreds of improv workshops and collegiate programs that feed an increasingly professionalized field. Are they documenting a loss?

MS: Maybe, but I think it’s more about them trying to tell the world that it was harder when they were coming up. I’m not sure that this glut of comedy — if it can even be called a “glut” — will affect the quality of the comedy. There might be more garbage out there now, but the best comedy always rises to the top. There’s also a lot of great comedy.

I wonder, too, why comedy has exploded in the U.S, and around the world, recently. Does it have to do with the political state of various countries? A counter-reaction to conservatism and the religious Right? The lack of “traditional” jobs being available? I’m not sure, but it’s interesting.

BNR: With that explosion of comedy, have we lost the space where the more eccentric sort of comic mind is likely to be able to go off in its own direction and surprise us? Or does the presence of the Internet mean that the chance of a young Mel Brooks getting our attention is that much greater — even with all the competition for our eyeballs?

MS: Well, there’s definitely more chance of being discovered, but there’s also more of a chance of being lost in the shuffle. Although, if you’re really good I do feel you’ll eventually be discovered. I imagine that if Mel Brooks were starting off now, he’d be making crazy homemade videos that he’d then post online. There is much more competition, but I’m not sure there’s more competition among the best of the best. There are only going to be so many geniuses out there.

BNR: You interview the ninety-six-year-old Peg Lynch, the creator and writer of the classic comedy Ethel and Albert, which ran on radio and television from the late 1930s to 1956. You suggest the show, with its un-jokey focus on a couple’s ordinary lives, is an early forerunner to the small-moments comedy of Seinfeld.  But most of your readers are unlikely to have heard of it. How did you learn about her career?

MS: That was just a total surprise. I hadn’t heard of the show, either. I contacted an expert in radio comedy and asked if any writers for radio were still alive. He gave me a list and I went through it. Peg was the only one still alive. I called her and we got along very well. I then went back and did a lot of research on her show, which I loved, and we talked more over the course of the year. One of the great things about doing a book like this is that I can interview writers who may not be well known but who are worthy of being recognized.

BNR: One thread that emerges is the impact of the 1980s NBC sitcom Cheers — many of your subjects talk about it as a kind of paragon of television comedy. Why do you think it had such an overwhelming impact?

MS: Amazing writing, great characters, interesting stories. It was similar to a radio show. The entire world was (pretty much) contained within that bar. For a show like that, the writing has to be extra sharp. They can’t rely on gimmicks. And I think that the characters were all very likable. They all had their problems, but they formed this quasi-family and attempted to navigate the world with the help of each other. It’s very touching, in many ways. The show would also go into areas that a lot of sitcoms didn’t go into: addictions, sadness, failed hopes and dreams, and otherwise. Just a great, great show.

BNR: Many of the writers here — I’m thinking in particular of Peter Mehlman talking about writing for Seinfeld — stress both the structural difficulty of writing comedy scripts that work, and the fact that thousands of people send in scripts, presuming that everybody’s got a funny idea. “Dying is easy,” as the famous line goes, “comedy is hard.” Is writing or performing comedy, do you think, harder than writing other sorts of drama?

MS: Oh definitely. I think the margin of error with comedy is much, much thinner than it would be for drama. You can’t fake it. I think if you’re watching a drama, you can kind of zone out and get lost in it all. It becomes white noise. But with comedy, the viewer is always waiting for the beat, the laugh. You can’t zone out. You’re on guard. And if you’re not being entertained, it becomes that much more annoying.\

BNR: Your title invokes the adage that analysis is fatal to comedy — that the magical “snap” of the joke is destroyed the moment you begin to examine its machinery. But the writers you talk to don’t seem to feel that way; there’s a positive delight here in talking about, and demonstrating, for example, how Onion headlines or sketch ideas for Conan work or don’t work. And it still makes me laugh. Were there cases here where you found discussing the comedy deadened it?  Were there cases where learning how a joke was put together made it funnier?

MS: I never wanted to analyze it to the point of boredom. I never asked, “Why is this joke funny and the other isn’t?” It’s all so subjective anyway. But what I did want was to go behind the scenes and get into some “inside baseball” type of talk. For instance, why would this headline work for The Onion, and not this other one. It’s really about more about how a professional makes daily decisions, much like a pilot would or a surgeon would. But it’s all very mysterious. And that’s why there’s so much anxiety in comedy. You can work in comedy for sixty years and still not really know if something is going to work or not. True-life magic.

BNR: Some of the contributions from your subjects come in the form of “Pure, Hard Core Advice.” Did you take any to heart yourself?

MS: Yes, without a doubt. Work really hard. Do the type of writing that you most want to do. Understand that no one in comedy is perfectly content with their career. And never stop. Never, never stop.