Mike Sacks on ‘Poking a Dead Frog’, Discontented Comedy Writers, and ‘Comic Decay’

Comedians think often about how their identity relates to the world around them. They spent much of their time reflecting on who they are, where they come from, what they’ve done, and what they’ve seen. Usually these reflections are form-fitted and presented to us as comedy for entertainment, and it’s through this process that we may come to know more about the comedian and the world we live in.

Imagine if you gave comedians free-range to tell us about themselves and what they think about their world without having to mold it to fit a comic form. Mike Sacks has been doing that for us since 2009 when he published And Here’s the Kicker. Sacks, who is also a member of the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, gave us a peek into the minds of great comedy writers like David Sedaris, Paul Feig, Harold Ramis, and Bob Odenkirk. He’s returned again with Poking a Dead Frog to give us yet more insights from the likes of Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, George Saunders, Marc Maron, Bill Hader, Patton Oswalt, and more.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Sacks about his new book and some of the messages he picked up while putting it together.

For starters, your title is a reference to the E.B. White quote “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.” I’ve read the interviews you had with Marc Maron, George Saunders, and Bruce Vilanch, and I have to say: I think your examinations do exactly the opposite. If anything they invigorated the “frog.” What was your goal going into each of these interviews?

My main goal is to not bore the reader. I hated school and the last thing I want to do is get too academic. There are a lot of academic books about The Simpsons, Monty Python, and comedy in general. There’s just no reason for me to want to read a book like that, let alone write one. So with these interviews it was my goal to make them entertaining and helpful to anyone who wants to get into comedy or improve their standing in the comedy world. And for anyone who might not be into comedy but who might just be interested in pop culture. There’s really no grander purpose.

In your interview with George Saunders in particular, you gave us a very personal connection to your interviewee. I’m generally under the impression that comedians and comic writers are often very closed-off, or otherwise so boisterous that they conceal any interior information. How did you get around that with these interviews?

For me, it’s doing a ton of research. I like to read every interview that I can find that’s been done with the interview subject. Sometimes the most important thing is what not to ask. I mean, how many times can they be asked the same questions without them beginning to lose complete interest? They go into a zone. There are areas, of course, where I do have to ask general questions, but I try to avoid anything that they’ve been asked a million times.

Also, I’m not interviewing with any agenda. I’m not out to get anyone. I’m not into gossip and all that. I couldn’t care less about that sort of thing. And because I’m doing this for me, I can ask them whatever I want and take it in any direction that I find interesting. There’s a lot of freedom. There’s also a lot of freedom to fuck up, so I have to be careful.

Are there any instances where you felt like you fucked up that you can share? If not, what are you always the most hesitant or cautious about going into an interview?

If I’m nervous about anything, it’s that I may not get a second chance. A lot of these writers are really busy. So I try to take advantage of the fact that this may be the last instance where I’ll have time to talk with them at length. That’s why I practically memorize the 20 pages of questions or so, like I would a script. That doesn’t mean that I just go through the entire batch of questions by memory, but at the very least, I’ll know where to jump if the subject goes from topic to topic. They’re the ones who control the narrative, not me.

Yeah, I’ve fucked up some interviews, definitely. I ended up asking questions that they didn’t want to answer, or we just didn’t click. For this latest book, I interviewed 70 writers total. About 45 made the final cut. The ones that didn’t work aren’t in the book and won’t ever be seen. They’re stored in the same vault as the remaining copy of Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried. But they have fewer references to Nazis. And clowns who wear pinkie rings.

Saunders mentioned that he has a lifelong “sense that [he is] inadequate and a big phony.” How common place do you think that feeling is among successful comedians and writers? Do you think that it may be more common specifically among the more successful?

I’m sure there are a lot of dipshits who think of themselves as inadequate. But, yes, there are a lot of successful people, and not just writers, who think of themselves as phonies. The difference with writers and others is that we just happen to hear more stories from writers about being inadequate. And we certainly hear it often from comedians. For audiences, it’s enjoyable. Not so pleasurable when feelings of self-doubt or self-hatred come from your brain surgeon, but entertaining within the realm of comedy.

[Laughs] That’s true. It’s like the pretense of comedy allows for everybody to be so much more open and honest about the things we’re normally the most hesitant about. We give comedy writers a pass to talk about the things we all experience but can’t usually just bring up in any other context.

Right, but I sometimes feel that comedians feel that being “honest” is a guaranteed route to make audiences laugh or even gasp. If someone talks about how incredibly pathetic their love life is, and goes into great detail, I guess that’s honest, but what’s the point? The honesty in Richard Pryor’s routines seemed to be tied to something broader and more important. Also, to be honest, I’m a bit tired of comedians competing to see who’s the biggest loser. Or who’s growing up the slowest. I think I prefer comedy where the characters grow up too fast, not fast enough. But that’s just me.

Saunders talked about the power he felt from his first casually scribbled comedic poems and how they had totally eclipsed the 700-page novel he had just written. Do you think that a sort of spontaneity is really at the heart of all good comedy, or do you think that the spontaneity is just concealing something much more labor intensive?

I think you have to achieve a sense of spontaneity, whether you work on it for two seconds or two years. It’ll take the reader the same amount of time to read a joke or hear a line of dialogue no matter how long a writer spends on it. The trick, if it even is a trick, is to make it work without overworking it, to not weigh it down with more words than necessary. To have it tethered but still floating. It’s different for each writer. It’s very individual. That’s just how I look at it, anyway. Comedy is really fragile. It’s a sensitive little creature, unlike drama which is a tough little bastard.

I interviewed Jacqueline Novak, who talked about having read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. She said she was interested in Martin’s statement that “standup is the ego’s last stand.” She asked, “Does he mean that standup is the last bid of a failing ego, in which case it would lead to enlightenment, or is standup the pathetic desperation to still somehow gain personal glory from communicating ideas that are actually about everyone, universal, and owned by no one?” In your experience, writing your own comedy and your interviews with these comedic greats, how do you think Steve intended that quote?

Well, I took that as meaning that there are fewer things more egoistical than standing on a stage in front of an audience expecting them to laugh at the words you’ve written and are now performing. But all art is egotistical. Even writing a Tweet is a bit egotistical. What you’re saying is, Listen to me for a second (or a half hour). I have something to say that I think you’ll enjoy. Now picture that in front of 20,000 screaming fans, like those Steve Martin performed before in the 70s. He was a rock star. It was incredible. And, from what I’ve read, he’s very shy. Very strange business.

And I don’t think any of it is natural. I think it’s natural to want to be liked and to be heard and to be respected, but I don’t think anyone is wired as a human being to be known and adored by millions of people. Why would we be? Fame is new and unnatural for humans, beyond kings and emperors. It’s not in our DNA. I think we’re wired to want it, but not necessarily to accept it or deal with it.

You’ve said that you picked very particular comedians and writers and that you “don’t think Steve Martin would be a great interview.” Why not?

Big names don’t make for big interviews, necessarily. They don’t have the time or the interest to speak with me hour upon hour. They’re just not interested. Also, with Steve Martin and Woody Allen, you’re dealing with personalities that aren’t conducive to them opening up. Shit, I’d love to talk with either of them, but I just don’t think their interviews would turn out well. At least with me involved.

You interviewed Megan Amram, who is a sort of shining example of the utility of social media for the careers of aspiring, young writers. You said “Someone who is using Twitter in Omaha has the same chance of being read by as many people in the New Yorker,” but I feel like that’s just a little bit off. Yes, one is much more likely to reach a wider audience with much less effort, but now there are tens of thousands of other dreamy-eyed tweeters bustling for more attention, and attention spans seem to be drawing thinner.

Yes, but you may not be aware of how difficult it was twenty years ago. I can mostly speak for writing comedy for print—be it for books or for magazines. To begin with, there was no internet. Also, there were very few publications that published humor, maybe three or four. It was even more difficult to get a book of humor published, which is saying something, because now it’s nearly impossible.

For many, many people—including myself—there was zero chance of getting discovered and finding an audience. I’m not saying that it’s a given now that every writer will make it. And I’m not saying that every writer in Omaha is guaranteed to become a success. What I’m saying is that someone in Omaha who is working out of her bedroom can conceivably be read by as many people as in Newyorker.com. That’s an incredible opportunity.

And it’s all changing so quickly, even still. I feel like the nature of comedy lends it a pretty short shelf-life. Comedy tends to “rot” faster than many other art forms. You’ve interviewed comedians who run the gamut from the mid-20th century to today; do you think this is true? 

I think it depends on what type of comedy you’re talking about. I used to visit the local library in Maryland and look through the comedy section. I remember running across some old Art Buchwald books that were collections of his newspaper columns from the Watergate era, the early 1970s. It was like staring at death. Jokes about Nixon, jokes about missing audiotape, jokes about Woodward and Bernstein… But I also remember coming across books written decades ago by writers who dealt with character and real human emotions which made a very strong connection with my 13-year-old self. You can now read two-thousand-year-old plays by Aristophanes and be amazed at how accurate he is at depicting the human character. On the other hand, if Aristophanes were to write jokes about the corrupt politicians he knew in ancient Greece it would all fall apart.

That’s why I prefer comedy that’s character based. Look at any Bob & Ray routine. Still fantastic and fresh and amazing fifty years later. All based on great characterizations. That’s why Woody Allen, I think, will last and Charlie Chaplin will last. Great character. Marx Brothers. Bob Hope. Think of any great comedian and the ones you remember created a strong character.

You talk to Peg Lynch, who is 97, and Megan Amram, who is 26. I like the juxtaposition of those two interviewees; what do you think connects them and what do you think separates them, aside from their years active?

Just a certain way at looking at the world. A very individual sensibility. A strong talent that they’ve nurtured (and continue to nurture) through hard work. A need to create. I’m sure Peg at 26 had similar qualities to those that Megan has now. And I think (and hope) that at 97 Megan will have similar qualities to those that Peg now has. Also, they’re both very nice and pleasant to talk with. I’d recommend that for any comedy writer: don’t be an asshole. There’s too much competition as it is. Make it easier for yourself. So many people make it harder than it has to be.

With respect to your own comic writing, what have all of these experiences interviewing great comic writers changed the most about how you approach and think about writing comedy?

Well, all comedy writers are miserable, and the sooner a young writer realizes that, the happier they’ll be. It’s helped me to learn that no matter how successful a comedy writer happens to be, they always want to be achieving more. No one’s completely content with their current position. So it’s healthy to be a little bummed out that you’re not doing this project or you’re not getting asked to do that project. That’s just the game.

Choosing a career as a writer is like joining the circus. You’re off the path and into the woods. If you must know exactly where you’ll be at all times and where exactly you’ll be in the future, get a job in an office complex in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which I did for a few years. It’s not fun. So just enjoy yourself and keep your head down and keep moving forward and when you trip, get your ass up. Keep doing it. Repeat. That’s life.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Mike Sacks on ‘Poking a Dead Frog’, Discontented […]