The author at work. He looks really, really familiar somehow, doesn’t he?
Vanity Fair editor Mike Sacks’ new book of interviews, Poking a Dead Frog is a nearly 500 page volume featuring contributions from Amy Poehler, Patton Oswalt, Adam McKay and even Mel Brooks. There’s a fascinating interview with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. Daniel Clowes is in the book, WFMU’s Tom Scharpling is in there, too and so is Bob & Ray’s Bob Elliott. It’s essential reading for comedy lovers (as was its predecessor And Here’s the Kicker which featured interviews with the likes of Buck Henry, Stephen Merchant, Dick Cavett, Larry Gelbart, Merrill Markoe and even Marx Brothers writer Irving Brecher.)
Mike Sacks’ informed questions draw out these amazing talents on how to write funny and how to think funny. I interviewed the interviewer over email.
Dangerous Minds: When I was a kid, I used to check out Super 8 Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films from the local library and watch them on my father’s movie projector. Then I discovered Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe, Woody Allen and Steve Martin and then soon after that, Lenny Bruce, Fernwood2Night and Firesign Theatre. When you were young, who were the performers that really got you into comedy in the first place?
Mike Sacks: Woody Allen, particularly in Play It Again, Sam, which I think is underrated. There are two scenes that I loved: Woody getting ready for the blind date, and Woody walking up to a woman in an outdoor restaurant area and ruining her salad. What’s sometimes forgotten is just how great Woody is at physical comedy. He wrote the movie but didn’t direct it; one of the few where this happened. But it’s almost ballet, the scenes are so beautiful.
But more than anyone, it was Letterman and Chris Elliott, when Chris was on the show. Bizarre, surreal, angry bits that I just loved and still do.
Did you start doing the interviews for a book or for another purpose?
Only for the book. These interviews are way too difficult to do for any other reason. They require upwards of 20 hours of research and then up to 20 hours of talking over the course of months, if not years. They take a lot of work and a lot of time. Now I do put together shorter interviews for various websites, but if they run this long and are this complicated, they’re only for books.
Wasn’t there a secondary motive of “I want to know what makes this person tick” or something like that? Napoleon Hill went around interviewing the titans of American capitalism and then distilled the essence of their collective wisdom in his Think and Grow Rich. I think you’re doing that for the titans of American humor.
Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, definitely. The whole purpose of both of these interview books was to have an excuse to talk with my favorite comedy writers. How did they get into the business? What are their main influences, both comedy and otherwise? What would they recommend young writers do and (just as importantly, if not more) what would they recommend young writers NOT do in order to achieve success? And what is even considered success?
When I was young, the field of comedy writing was a huge mystery to me. I had no idea how one became a comedy writer, and the idea fascinated me. To make a living writing jokes for Letterman or SNL, how in the hell does that happen? It seemed a lot more fun than the type of work I probably would have been doing if I stuck around Maryland.
If, like Napoleon Hill, you had to narrow it down to the “universals” of how comedy works, what are the most glistening pearls of wisdom these folks offer on being funny and thinking funny?
I’m not sure anyone in this book really knows how comedy truly works. I mean, they know but they don’t know. And it’s almost as if they don’t want to know. To make someone laugh is a mysterious, almost magical skill. No one who’s unfunny can taught to be funny. However, I do think that funny writers can be taught to be even funnier. But they have to teach themselves. No courses and no books (including mine) will teach them that. It has to come from within. With that said, there are some constants that can be seen among these successful writers. They were funny to begin with. They’ve worked very hard. And they’ve never stopped, even after “failures.”
Since the book concentrates on comedy writers, I won’t ask you to pick a favorite or anything, but in terms of stand-up comedians, who do you rate highest these days?
My favorite comedian might be Brian Regan. I think he’s an amazing performer and a great writer. And this is going to sound goofy, but he appeals to everyone of every age. Not easy. I think this, in particular, is an underrated skill. To use language that appeals just as much to a ten-year-old as to that of an 80-year-old. Very difficult to do, but he does it very well. His main focus is the stage, not TV or movies, and he’s just a master. If you can see him, I highly recommend it. From what I heard, Patton Oswalt, another amazing comedian, thinks of Brian Regan as being one of the best.
Who are you hoping to get for the next installment?
I have a “bucket list” of people I’d love to hoodwink into participating. I’d love if they said yes this time, but who knows? They do have better things to be doing. As far as specific names, let’s just say that I’d love to talk with the dude who produced the 1980s UPN sitcom Homeboys in Outer Space. Why not.
We’re email friends, never met in person. Do you ever get mistaken for Jon Hamm? You look just like him in your author photo…
Yes, all the time. It’s annoying but what can I do? I used to get mistaken for Jim J. Bullock but luckily I grew out of that phase. Seriously, Jon posed for three hours for free, in his underwear. Nice guy. Can’t imagine any other actor doing that. I love the dude. And if he ever wants me to pose nearly nude, he knows where to go…
Mike Sacks’ reddit AMA is here.