Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers

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9780143123781: Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY NPR

Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, Adam McKay, George Saunders, Bill Hader, Patton Oswalt, and many more take us deep inside the mysterious world of comedy in this fascinating, laugh-out-loud-funny book. Packed with behind-the-scenes stories—from a day in the writers’ room at The Onion to why a sketch does or doesn’t make it onto Saturday Night Live to how the BBC nearly erased the entire first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus—Poking a Dead Frog is a must-read for comedy buffs, writers and pop culture junkies alike.

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About the Author:

Mike Sacks is the author of three previous books including And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft. Currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he has also written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, GQMcSweeney’s, Vice, and Salon.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

The late comedy writer Jerry Belson, a veteran of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Odd Couple, and The Drew Carey Show, among other classic sitcoms, wrote a joke that became one of the most well known, and most retold, in the history of television. It’s from a 1973 episode of The Odd Couple:

“Never ASSUME. Because when you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.”

The joke is undeniably great. But perhaps the best and most effective joke that Belson ever wrote—and he wrote untold thousands—is the inscription that he wanted engraved on his tombstone:

I DID IT THEIR WAY

In other words: Hollywood’s way. The executives’ way. The wrong way.

Belson’s tombstone epitaph never made it beyond the first-draft stage, but regardless, one would think that Belson had done it his way. Plenty of credits. Plenty of money. Plenty of respect from those within the industry. And yet, if there’s one motif evident in the lives of comedy writers, it’s the nagging feeling that one can never have it his or her own way. That a comedy writer must always genuflect to those with the power, with the money—those who deem themselves arbiters of What Is Funny.

Whether through executive negligence or creative bartering on the part of the writers, the most beloved comedies of our time have avoided this trap. When Monty Python created their four-season television series, Flying Circus, they did so with minimal help from the BBC. In fact, as one of the Pythons, Terry Jones, explains in this book, BBC executives were disinterested in the result—until they saw the final product. Then they came terribly close to erasing the entirety of Monty Python’s first season for the grand purpose of reusing the tapes to record more “serious” entertainment.

The creators of The Simpsons made it clear from the show’s inception that there would be no executive meddling. James L. Brooks, also interviewed in this book, declared, in essence, Stay away from our jokes, and we will produce a show for the ages. Actually, Brooks might have hired a lawyer to say as much in very clear legalese, rather than “in essence.” Whatever the case, Brooks saved the show and helped to create a classic.

The creators of the U.K. version of The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, flew so low under the radar that by the time executives became even vaguely aware of what their money had wrought, it was too late. Due to this neglect, the show set an influential precedent for its combination documentary-style format and cringe-inducing humor.

It’s clear then: All great comedy has managed to circumnavigate executive meddling. But this is easier said than done.

Since at least the fifth century B.C., when the playwright Aristophanes needed the financial help of a chorêgos, or rich benefactor, to help stage his comedies, writers have had to rely on others. The creative have never been fully in control of the marketing and distribution of their creativity. Playwrights have needed sponsors and performance space. Screenwriters have required even wealthier sponsors than the playwrights: Hollywood production studios. Humor writers for print have needed the acceptance, and then distribution, provided by magazines and publishing houses. The keys to the kingdom have been controlled by the less creative.

Until now.

I cannot overstate that there has never been a better time for writers of comedy—or, for that matter, writers of anything. A twenty-one-year-old in her room in Oklahoma who writes hilarious jokes on Twitter is potentially just as important (or influential) as any professional comedy writer for The New Yorker. A teen making funny videos in his suburban garage can reach just as many people—certainly, just as many of the right people—than any director of a movie to be distributed by the large studios.

We are now all on equal ground. If you want to write comedy, you can. There’s no one to stop you. And there’s no one to tell you what to do. This can be bad. It’s far too easy to create sloppy, forgettable work. On the other hand, it’s no longer a requirement to work on The Harvard Lampoon to eventually earn a professional living writing jokes. That can only be a good thing.

It is also so much easier to communicate with our peers and mentors than ever before. We can access material in a few seconds and reach out to others almost instantly. I have fond memories of growing up in suburban Maryland, biking to the local library to look for inspiration, and staying up late to watchLetterman and whatever obscure, random shows that might air in the wee hours. I compiled dozens of files of clippings and took them with me when I went to college and everywhere else I eventually moved. Many of these clips were written by comedy writers; others were in-depth interviews with comedy writers. I pored over the mastheads of my favorite humor publications and the credits for the shows that I thought were the funniest. I occasionally wrote to these writers, seeking advice or attempting to sell jokes.

This book is really an extension of my youthful attempts to contact those in the business whom I admired most. If there is a common trait among those I chose to interview for this book, it’s that each of these writers has always done it his or her own way and no one else’s. Each came to this business primarily because he or she wanted to create the sort of comedy that they themselves enjoyed the most. For all of them—be they writers of sketches, graphic novels, screenplays, New Yorker cartoons, fiction, nonfiction, television, stand-up, the radio—success was a by-product, not the goal.

I am no humor expert; I don’t think anyone is. If something makes you laugh, it’s good. But if there is anything about which I am certain, it’s that we are now living in a comedic Golden Age.

Never before have there been as many comedy writers in the early stages of their careers producing the type of work that means the most to them and to others. By the time my five-year-old daughter reaches my age, most, if not all, of the young writers in this book will have already become the comedy legends of the next generation. Who are these writers? How did they choose this very odd profession? What do they want to accomplish? How exactly do they do what they do? And, perhaps most important, why? One of the reasons I wrote this book was to find out and to share what I learned with others who might find all this of interest, too.

Luckily, there also still exist a good number of elder statespersons of “classic” TV comedies, film, and radio. Soon this ratio will be tipped more toward the young, and a bridge to another time will no longer exist. This is another reason I decided to write this book. How do these older writers want to be remembered? How do they think they changed the industry? Who influenced them? I feel lucky to have been able to connect with these older comedy writers, some of whom have not been interviewed in many years or at all.

The writers in this book have played major parts in everything from creating what’s been called the first-ever sitcom to coining the term “black humor” to writing for Monty Python, Cheers, The Office (both the U.K. and U.S. versions), Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Onion, The Colbert Report,Parks and Recreation, National Lampoon, The New Yorker, Seinfeld, Mr. Show, Bob’s Burgers, 30 Rock, Anchorman, Juno, Ghost World, Get a Life, Cabin Boy, Late Night, Late Show with David Letterman, the Tonight Show, and more. A writer or two may have even written the jokes you read this very morning online.

Interspersed throughout this book, between the fifteen full-length interviews, are “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge” and “Pure, Hard-Core Advice.” The former includes specialized materials and information that might appeal to the comedy geek. “Pure, Hard-Core Advice,” as you may have guessed, contains straight advice—no muss, no fuss—from successful comedy writers or those within the industry, such as agents, that might prove helpful to writers just starting out or for those writers wanting to improve their standing in the industry.

If you’re not familiar with some (or even most) of these writers, I hope that you will find them as interesting as I do and seek out their work. If you arefamiliar with these writers, I hope you might learn something new about their writing, their careers, their lives—and their humor.

As E. B. White once wrote for The New Yorker: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. . . . [Humor] won’t stand much poking. It has a certain fragility, an evasiveness, which one had best respect.” This bit of wisdom is often misquoted or, at least, cut short, with the second half making no appearance. Yes, it’s true that the poor frog dies (and as the owner of five dearly departed African clawed water frogs, this strikes particularly close to home). But the crux is that the process can be fascinating to a certain type of person.

Not the type who wants comedy dissected to the point of death, necessarily, but the type interested in understanding the art and business behind comedy; of what it takes, exactly, to make a career out of attempting to induce laughter from complete strangers with only the words or images that you create. It is a fragile art. And as you will read here, it is a tough, yet fascinating life. These are writers who do it their way (and always have), and the rest of us, as well as the world of comedy, are much better off for their efforts.

—MIKE SACKS

JAMES DOWNEY

Saturday Night Live has employed hundreds of comedy writers in its four decades on the air, but no writer has been associated with the show longer—or had more of a lasting impact—than James Woodward Downey. If Lorne Michaels is the face of Saturday Night Live, Downey is its behind-the-scenes creative force.

Downey first began to consider the possibility of making a living as a writer while at Harvard, where he served as president of the Harvard Lampoon. There he caught the attention of writers Michael O’Donoghue and Doug Kenney (both already stars at The National Lampoon), who suggested he come work with them in New York. But after graduating in 1974, with a major in Russian studies, he decided instead to accept a fellowship to tour Eastern Europe by way of ship and train. After a few run-ins with the KGB, and after meeting a Hungarian who partly inspired the “Wild and Crazy Guys” sketches he would later co-write with Marilyn Miller and Dan Aykroyd, Downey headed back to the U.S. and saw, for the first time, a new televised comedy show that he had only heard about through friends. “As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh, this is hilarious,’” Downey says. “I would love to be a part of that.”

After submitting a ten-page packet to Michaels that included a short piece about his pet peeves—“I guess my biggest pet peeve is when you’re just sitting there, waiting for a bus, and a guy runs up with one of those fileting knives and opens up your intestines and takes one end of it and runs down the street screaming, ‘Ha ha! Got your entrails!’”—Downey was hired by Lorne “more based on instinct, I have to believe, than on the packet itself.” He became one of the first Harvard Lampoon writers to break into TV comedy writing, setting a precedent that would change comedy-writing rooms thereafter. “Jim Downey is Patient Zero,” said Mike Reiss, a former Harvard Lampooner and long-time Simpsons show-runner.

After finding his feet, Downey—the show’s youngest writer—began to make a deep impact on Saturday Night Live, working closely with, among others, Bill Murray (with whom he shared an office for four years), Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman. For the last four decades, Downey has worked with and written for every star the show has produced, including Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Norm Macdonald, Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, and dozens of others. Downey is one consistent on a show that has experienced an untold amount of changes, and has throughout earned a reputation as being a kind, patient mentor to countless young writers (most of whom he personally hired), including Jack Handey, George Meyer, Robert Smigel, and Conan O’Brien. “If anyone taught all of the young writers how to properly write a sketch,” Smigel says, “it was Jim Downey.”

Called by Michaels the best political humorist alive, Downey has been responsible for most of the political-centered pieces during Saturday Night Live’s run (many of which he co-wrote with now Senator Al Franken), starting with Jimmy Carter in the mid-’70s and ending, five administrations later, with Barack Obama. The power of Downey’s political comedy extends beyond laughs; more impressively, his work has influenced the actual political landscape. In 2008—during a live, televised debate seen by millions—Hillary Clinton referred to one of Downey’s recent sketches to make her point that perhaps the press was going just a bit too easy on her opponent. “I just find it curious,” she said, “if anybody saw Saturday Night Live . . . maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow?”

In 2013, after working on SNL off and on for thirty-three of its thirty-eight seasons—and serving as head writer for Late Night with David Letterman in 1982 for two years (where he created the Top Ten List)—Downey retired from the show, and now divides his time between New York City and rural upstate New York, where he hopes to achieve his goal of “harmless eccentric.”

Do you have any comedy pet peeves?

What has bothered me most for the last few years is that kind of lazy, political comedy, very safe but always pretending to be brave, that usually gets what my colleague Seth Meyers calls “clapter.” Clapter is that earnest applause, with a few “whoops” thrown in, that lets you know the audience agrees with you, but what you just said wasn’t funny enough to actually make them laugh.

Bill Maher is a funny guy, but he seems to prefer clapter instead of laughs. A lot of his material runs to the “white people are lame and stupid and racist” trope. It congratulates itself on its edginess, but it’s just the ass-kissiest kind of comedy going, reassuring his status-anxious audience that there are some people they’re smarter than.

My own politics are sort of all over the place in terms of issues, but as far as the writing goes, the only important thing is that it’s funny, and that it’s an original comment. That the audience agrees with me isn’t necessary and probably isn’t even a good thing. It’s so easy to coast by, just hitting the same familiar notes you know are popular and have been pretested for effectiveness. The audience will always at least applaud, so you never have to risk silence.

How about pet-peeves specific to Saturday Night Live?

Celebrity walk-ons bother me. I remember there was a piece from the final show in 2009—Will Ferrell was hosting—and he’s sitting in a restaurant with a few buddies, one was Bill Hader, and they were talking about Will’s experience in Vietn...

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