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Poking a Dead Frog: Mike Sacks’ conversations with today’‘s top comedy writers
07.15.2014
09:09 am

Topics:
Books

Tags:
comedy
Mike Sacks


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.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Screwed in Times Square with Josh Alan Friedman


 
Vanity Fair’s Mike Sacks is one of the world’s great comedy nerds and he’s got the published bona fides to prove it. Funny in his own right (his book of comic essays, Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason had me laughing out loud on nearly every single page) Mike’s proven himself incredibly adept at getting top humor writers to open up about what they do and how they do it. His 2009 collection, And Here’s the Kicker featured interviews with the likes of Buck Henry, Stephen Merchant, Dick Cavett, Larry Gelbart, Merrill Markoe and even Marx Brothers writer Irving Brecher (which floored me, because I am fascinated by the man who Groucho called “the wickedest wit of the West”). The book is filled with gem after gem of good advice on how to write funny and how to think funny. If you are at all interested in the craft of comedy, it’s an absolutely indispensable book.

In just a few short days, Mike’s new book of interviews, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers will arrive (June 24 to be exact) and this nearly 500 page volume features contributions from Amy Poehler, Patton Oswalt, Adam McKay and even the great Mel Brooks. The Irving Brecher equivalent for me—there had to be a Brecher this time, too, of course or the reader would be disappointed—well, he got several Brechers this go round (I’m talking about other unexpected leftfield participants, to be clear). There’s a fascinating interview with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, for starters. He’s also got Daniel Clowes, WFMU’s Tom Scharpling and Bob & Ray’s Bob Elliott. That’s some pretty rarified company, right? But that’s what you’ll find here. [As an aside fellow comedy buffs, my beloved pal Philip Proctor of the Firesign Theatre once told me that his extremely distinct comedic delivery was more influenced by Bob & Ray than anyone else. Once you know that, it provides a fascinating lens with which to view Phil’s contribution to “the Beatles of comedy.”]

One of the interviews that was cut for space from Poking a Dead Frog was a conversation with Josh Alan Friedman, co-creator with his brother Drew (the one who draws) of the all-time, until the end of time classic Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental and on his own of the classic in a different way anthology of his Screw magazine essays on the 42nd Street milieu, Tales of Times Square. To say that I am a big, huge, unabashed fan of those books is no exaggeration. I even gave out copies of Tales of Times Square for Christmas presents back when Times Square was still a sleaze pit. I found a stack at The Strand bookstore and bought all of them. I put plastic wrappers on my own copy of the first edition and it sits in a place of pride on the bookshelves behind me as I type this. When Mike offered us the opportunity to run the Josh Alan Friedman interview on Dangerous Minds, I was only too happy to accept.
 

Josh Alan Friedman, right, with his brother illustrator Drew Friedman, late 1970s

Mike Sacks: When I first asked if you were willing to be interviewed, you said that you “find nothing funny about anything, anyone, anywhere, at any time.”

Josh Alan Friedman: That might have been off-the-cuff, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Most of the time, what strikes me as funny doesn’t strike others as funny. And vice versa.

When did you publish your first cartoon with your brother Drew? What year was this?

It was in 1978, but we had been recording reel-to-reel audio sketches and doing comic strips for ourselves over the years. I would kind of write and produce, Drew did voices and illustrations. We never thought about publishing or releasing them.

Drew began to draw constantly. He would draw his teachers naked on school desks. When I went to visit him during his freshman year at Boston University, the public walls of the entire dormitory floor were densely illustrated. Maybe I imagined this, but I seem to remember finding him upside down, like Michaelangelo laboring under the chapel. He spent months doing this, and although the frat boys loved it, Drew hadn’t been to class in months. So I wanted to focus the poor boy’s talent on something, and I began writing heavily researched, detailed comix scripts.

What was that first published comic called?

“The Andy Griffith Show.” It ran in Raw Magazine. Drew illustrated the entire script very quickly. I loved how it looked. I said, “This is an amazing piece of work you’ve just done here,” and he told me he could do better. He ripped up that first version and then re-drew it—that’s the version that now exists. When I saw how startling the strip looked after the second pass, I knew we were onto something exciting.

To this day, the “Andy Griffith Show” comic strip remains slightly shocking. It features a black man wandering into Mayberry, North Carolina, and getting lynched by Sheriff Taylor and some other locals. This was not your typical misty-eyed look back at small-town life in the 1960s.

That cartoon has since been reprinted many times—and we caught a lot of flak at first. Certain people accused us of being racists.

If anything, you were mocking the nostalgia that surrounds a time and place that was anything but happy and perfect—at least for many people.

Yes, of course. I wanted to provoke the heady sensation of fear, and also get some laughs. That, to me, was—and still is—a potent combination. The so-called comic nightmare. It’s like mixing whiskey with barbiturates. It becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Over the years readers have told me that they can’t remember whether they actually read some of our cartoons or dreamed them. People have asked, “I might have been dreaming, but did you once work on a comic strip about such and such?”

You were writing about television shows and celebrities that no one else seemed to care about in the late ’70s, early ’80s.

I’ll confess that during childhood I never realized I Love Lucy was supposed to be a situation comedy. I thought it was a drama about the misadventures of this poor New York City housewife, which happened to have a surreal laugh track that made no sense. Years later, I was stunned to learn it was considered comedy.

I was always riveted by the lower depths of show business and sub-celebrities, maybe as an alternative to the dumbing down of American culture. The common man had higher standards in, say, the 1940s. And Drew’s fascination went even deeper, as he depicted fantasies of Rondo Hatton, the acromegaly-cursed actor who starred in several freak horror flicks in the ’30s and ’40s. And, of course, Tor Johnson, the giant wrestler turned actor, from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space [1959], who practically became Drew’s alter ego.

There was something about The Three Stooges, after their stock had taken a dive in the ’70s, that became more compelling than ever—even deeper than when we were children. Three short, ugly, but really beautiful, middle-aged Jews who slept in the same bed together, refused to separate, yet beat and maimed each other senselessly without end. It almost ceased being comedy, but you couldn’t stop watching. 
 

 
What fascinated you about sub-celebrities at the nadir of their careers?

If I were to speculate, I would say that worship of America’s celebrity culture was becoming a mental illness without a name. It was the sickness of celebrity. It’s only gotten worse: the false icons, the obsession with celebrity over substance. It demeans all of humanity. It’s terribly unhealthy. So why not take it a quantum step lower—to its natural resolution—and worship Ed Wood, Joe Franklin, Wayne Newton, or Joey Heatherton, a Rat Pack–era actress in the ’60s? Or serial killers posing with celebrities?

When Drew and I were doing this in the late ’70s and ’80s, there was no Internet. Information about old shows and movies and celebrities were difficult to come by back then. Now there are hundreds of websites devoted to The Three Stooges or The Andy Griffith Show or Rondo Hatton. You can now look up [the actress and model] Joey Heatherton’s name and immediately find that her first husband, the football player Lance Rentzel, was arrested in 1970 for exposing himself to a child. Or that Wayne Newton once threatened to beat the shit out of Johnny Carson for telling jokes about Wayne being effeminate.

You had to search out arcane clippings’ files in local libraries or newspaper morgues back then. For years, I kept accumulating photos and news clips on numerous subjects like Newton, Joey Heatherton or Frank Sinatra, Jr.

More of Mike Sacks’ interview with Josh Alan Friedman after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Mike Sacks’ Photos of TV

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TV’s dumb, sometimes unintentionally dumb, as can be seen from Mike Sacks’ Photos of TV. Sacks is the author of the “laugh-out-loud/piss-yourself-funny” Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason and has a fun collection of photographs from TV, over at his home page.

Check here for more of Mike‘s photos.
 
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Previously on Dangerous ~Minds

Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason


 
With thanks to the brilliant Steve Duffy!
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason
03.01.2011
07:44 pm

Topics:
Books

Tags:
comedy
Mike Sacks

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Vanity Fair’s Mike Sacks (who authored And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft, a favorite of mine, in 2009) has a new collection of well-crafted comic essays, out today, called Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason.

Originally published in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and McSweeney’s, there is no over-arching theme to these short pieces other than the fact that they are all “laugh-out-loud/piss-yourself-funny.”  Covering topics as wide-ranging as the tell-tale signs your college isn’t very prestigious (“Your mascot is a tiger in a wheelchair”), conversational ice-breakers to avoid (“Lemme guess. Korean?”) and how teenagers aren’t keen on touching his bald spot with their bare feet, it’s one of my favorite books of its kind since Woody Allen’s Without Feathers or Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes. I hope Sacks won’t mind me saying that it’s a great book to keep in the toilet, but it is, especially keeping in mind the above-mentioned laughter/peeing connection.

Sacks exhibits a most unique talent for channeling idiots, particularly needy or desperate dorks like the guy who hires a plane to drop leaflets on his ex’s house to show her how “new & improved” he is, a groom who tweets his own wedding or delusional “author” Rhon Penny (silent h) who offers to blurb Thomas Pynchon’s next novel (even if he hates it!) in exchange for a reciprocal blurb from the reclusive author for his own unpublished book, “Cream of America Soup”:

You have to be wondering: What is this novel I’ve agreed to blurb actually about? And why is Rhon no longer married? Excellent queries both. I will not tell you why I’m no longer married, but my book’s subject matter is very much like Gravity’s Rainbow in a way, and in other ways not at all. It’s also very much a post 9/11 book, but not overtly. I’m not saying you need to know a lot about the medieval feudal system, Lady Bird Johnson, bats, my ex-wife’s fear of conjoined Siamese cats, democracy or linguini… but it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if you did.

Sacks is quite an accomplished word-smith (I genuflect to any writer who can compose a sentence like “Happiness isn’t… what you once did to my sandwich”) but even so, he’s capable of silently making readers laugh out loud with cartoon “Ikea Instructions” that just about every married couple can relate to, even if their own experiences assembling pressboard furniture do not end in suicide.

Buy Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment