Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Talking with Mike Sacks about 'And Here's the Kicker', Interviewing Comedians, References in Comedy, and More!

Six weeks ago, you guys chose And Here's the Kicker as the first book of the Splitsider Comedy Book Club. Great job! I hope you enjoyed it and got as much out of it as I did. What Mike Sacks achieved with And Here's was tremendous. He got a rare level of access to these comedic geniuses and they did not disappoint. Just to be able to read about how Bob Odenkirk, Dick Cavett, or Marshall Brickman thinks of a joke is profound; to be able pass on the legend of Milton Berle's penis is even more so.

Recently, I discussed the book and some of its major themes with Mike:

So what made you decide to write this book?

It was really just the type of thing where I never grew up reading anything like this. I mean now it’s all over the place, but when I was growing up there was nothing with interviews with humor writers except those about SNL and Your Show of Shows. Other than that there was nothing; there was nothing on how to make a career out of it. It was very mysterious to me. I always wanted to read a book like that, so this was just a good excuse to do that. It was just a good excuse to talk to people that I really liked, to talk to Larry Gelbart and Bob Odenkirk and Merrill Markoe, a lot of these people I became friendly with afterwards, so it was a really good opportunity for that and also some of these people passed away. Like Irv Brecher, who was 93, so there wasn’t really that much time left to pick that guy’s brain about comedy. Talk about a guy from another generation. Writing gags for The Wizard of Oz. It was shocking really, like talking to Abe Lincoln.

That one was so good. To have someone who's 93, who punched up jokes for films, there’s still those people, but he did that for The Wizard of Oz and for The Marx Brothers.

I know it’s amazing, you don’t even think of these movies as being created. They’re just there as monuments. The fact that that script needed punching up in any way is crazy. That was worth it alone, just to speak to these people who passed away; who didn’t really get the recognition that they deserved. They might get that recognition years from now but they aren’t necessarily getting it now. Well, maybe they are getting it now. When I started this five years ago, there was no Marc Maron, there was no Splitsider, there was nothing. And it’s just shocking to me that something like this could be so popular. It was always such an insular interest of mine, I didn’t know anybody else who was interested in that. And now it seems like the whole word is interested in this sort of geeky comedy.

How did you pick whom you interviewed? Some people are big names and some are less known, what was the kind of mix you were trying to go after?

Well, truthfully it may be easier for the second book with podcasts and everything, but for the first book it took sometimes over a year to convince someone and sometimes I’d never even hear back. I had a huge list of people who I wanted. I just went down that list and if they said yes and were willing to be interviewed for 10 hours then it was a go. And it came down to how well the interview came out. I ended up interviewing 40 writers and 19 of those didn’t work out for whatever reason so I didn’t use those. But it really just came down to those who I admired work-wise. It wasn’t names, it was more their work, and if they were willing to spend the time talking to me about their career.

You're a humor writer yourself, so were there any conversations that you learned from?

My role wasn’t as a humor writer for this, it was as an interviewer, but I did come away with things that I learned. Most of the things that I learned were in research, reading every book that the author wrote or reading everything that I could find, so that when it came to the interview itself, I usually knew what I was going to come away with. But that really was on the backburner when it came to explaining to the reader about the pasts of these people. It’s a pet peeve of mine when you have humor writers and then the interviewer tries to top the interviewee with jokes. I just can't stand that. So I tried to really avoid that. Maybe one joke per interview.

Are there any specific examples of something that you never really thought of before?

Well, David Sedaris… I was asking David Sedaris about his endings, which I always thought were great. And also the segues. When you read a piece of his, it’s almost like looking at a movie the way he edits from one time, over to another time. And he was saying that he viewed it as that game that you played when you were a kid where you weren’t allowed to step on the ground and you had to make your way back to the bedroom, he would throw big pillows on the ground and jump from one pillow to the next. Which I thought was really, really interesting because I’ve never thought of it that way. What you have to do as a writer is just to create that path by any means necessary, and you’re totally in control of the reader. Which is incredibly important when it comes to humor because if anything is wrong it just collapses. But his point was that it’s up to you to make that path and that in the end, even though it may not be a straight path, you can jump from one thing to another and make it sensible to the reader.

There seemed to be a generational divide about how people got their jobs, or how they got started. With the older people, there was a lot of right place, right time and for the younger people it was: I started at Second City, or I started doing stand-up. Do you think that fostered a different kind of comedy writer or a different kind of comedy or even a different kind of way that they looked at being a comedian?

I do think there was more life experience in the older generation. They were writing so that they could eat, which you don’t have now. But it was also more singular; these people were out there alone just going from job to job. It seems now that there’s definitely more of a community out there. As far as affecting the humor, it definitely does, I’m just not sure how. It just seemed grittier in a way even though the older writers were limited in what they could talk about in a way, language wise, it just seemed more connected to the real world, where now it can just seem more free floating.

I think it’s Larry Wilmore who said in the book that there are a lot more comedy writers now coming up who are inspired by comedy and not by their life.

Exactly. At the same time though even Irv Brecher was influenced by comedy, Yiddish borscht belt jokes from comedians that we don’t even know about. But what Larry Wilmore was talking about was some writers for shows, instead of having a reference from the real world, would come back with Simpson’s jokes. It’s like two levels removed from the real world. Which in his view and in mine too, it weakens the humor if it’s not connected to some kind of reality. It’s just referential.

I agree. It can become just references. It’s similar to what Marshall Brickman said in the book about how nobody cares how smart you are or how many references you can make. It’s easy and people like references in a way, but nobody looks at it and says, “Oh look at him, he’s clever!”

I think it can create a buffer between the comedian and the audience. I mean you look at somebody like Dennis Miler, who knows more than anybody on Earth, but there’s something that’s just not clicking with me. There’s nothing really human about that.

It puts a distance between you and the audience. Being funny is good but it can also be bad when you end up creating a wall around yourself. It's like, “I’m a funny person and I know these things!” And the reader can't relate.

Yeah, because at that point you’re really more of a teacher than a performer. You’re putting yourself above these people and telling them that you have something to teach them, which you can do that in a certain way, but Richard Pryor didn’t use crazy references to get a point across. It was all in his own language and his own sensibility. To go up there and just show off is really off-putting, people don’t like that.

One of the big points of conflicts in the book is Saturday Night Live. There were people who thought it was really good and people who thought it kind of brought out bad comedy.

Well yes, but I think they both had good points. Bob Odenkirk hated it, but then he went on to make Mr. Show and I think that there was an admiration for those who could play the game. I think that he respects those who can play within the rules of that world. I forget who called it this, but Rebels with Sweaters.

Robert Smigel.

To be able to write the things you write and get it across to a big audience is really tough to do and I think Bob Odenkirk and others respect that. I comes down to people just can't work within those boundaries. I think that the SNL writing schedule is still based off this cocaine-fueled 70s, where everybody’s up all night. It’s not exactly the most conducive to good humor; it’s the most conducive to getting a show out every night. I think people like Bob Odenkirk are complete perfectionists and don’t like to get stuff knocked down. He likes to massage ideas, not just have them all ripped apart and forgotten about. He had a big frustration with that place.

What makes someone like Smigel want to appeal to more people as opposed to "his" people?

I don’t know. I think everybody wants as big an audience as possible. But I think to be able to write what you want and to get a big audience is tough. It’s like writing a well-respected pop song. I think that most people, even with somebody like Smigel, write what they want to write, not what they think people want to see or what they think executives want to see. They just want to be able to reach the biggest audience possible. And I think the best ones aren’t doing it for money, they’re doing it for respect. They wouldn’t want to write a joke that would embarrass them to their friends. Bob Odenkirk's quality-level  to this day is astonishing. He would never do anything, write anything, or appear in anything that would embarrass him. So that’s the kind of comedy that lasts.

The book has a lot of Jews in it, which I guess was unavoidable. What I found funny was that they all would, even if you didn’t ask, bring it up. Did you get any consensus on why they think they’re a lot of Jews in comedy?

Well, I think that… I don’t know what it is; I don’t think anybody knows what it is. We, Jews, were oppressed when they first arrived to this country and certainly back in Europe, so I think the oppressed are going to get back at those in power, not through violence, because they are unable to, but through wit. It didn’t really occur to me that I had to go out and get this or get that. Even if they weren’t Jewish, they were of a certain same ilk; they're outsiders and poking the system from outside. These are not people who are the head of the frat; they’re not out every weekend partying; they’re at home watching bootlegs of Monty Python or whatever. It’s more of an outsider thing than a religious thing. People who can attack the power through words and those who were on the sidelines growing up, but now have used their comedy to get in more mainstream.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD] popped up a lot in the book. Did you figure out any link?

I don’t know what it is, I think a lot of people have OCD; a lot of plumbers have OCD, a lot of surgeons have OCD, a lot of housewives have OCD, but I think that it can be used to your benefit if you focus that obsession towards something creative and I think that a lot of these writers have done that. So, instead of being obsessive about hand washing, they’re obsessive about having to write every day and not sitting on their laurels, and having to produce. And maybe having to see their name in print. Writing is really hard, so you need some sort of compulsion to do that and I think that can only help. As far as brain chemistry, how it affects brain chemistry, I have no idea. The link between depression and humor is large but no one knows why. And certainly no one knows why OCD is connected to humor. Maybe you need to contact Oliver Sacks about that. It's just something that I notice because I have it and David Sedaris had it and after that I’d start to ask writers if they too had it. I’d say that three quarters have some form of it.

Not all of them, but a lot of people in the book were also performers. Is there something about being a performer that also helps someone be a writer?

Yeah, and I think that I didn’t really know where to draw that line but it came down to if they were accomplished as a humor writer. Odenkirk and Smigel and Cavett were all that. If they were just a performer then I didn’t really want it for the book. In a lot of ways these performers were more difficult to be interviewed because they’ve been interviewed more often and a lot of these performers are really quiet off stage. The best people to interview are really the Brits because their knowledge of humor is amazing. American humor as well as British humor. They have like an encyclopedic knowledge. And they can give you exactly what you want, whereas American writers can sometimes be like, “Yeah,” which you don’t want. You want someone with a bit of an ego who can talk about themselves for ten hours. For someone to say, “Oh, it wasn’t really that big of a deal”, there’s no real help for you as an interviewer. I’m not saying that the Brits have egos, but they just were pretty confident with themselves and their knowledge of comedy. And I think that came through pretty well in the interviews.

They would self-deprecate less; there definitely was a confidence about them. Like Mazer's interview, there definitely was an assuredness to it.

Absolutely, but I don’t even think that I got across in the interview how nice he was. He was truly, truly, really sweet, but just willing to talk about humor, geeking out.

Similarly, I remember one of my favorite passages was just when Stephen Merchant was talking about coming up with the names of the characters. I feel like that was the type of thing that you never get someone to talk about. Instead you'd get: “I don’t know, these things just come to me.”

Absolutely. And I think that 19 of the interviews that didn’t make it into the book fell more in the latter category of, “Hey, I just came up with the name.” But for someone like him, everything was just so specific and it was almost surgical. And that’s the type of thing that I love. He just found the name Dawn simpering. Where she was this character who had trouble breaking out of their current situation, which I found interesting.

One of my favorite anecdotes was when David Sedaris talked about being on a plane and being asked if a grieving Polish person could sit next to him. And he said that most people who aren’t writers would say no because it might ruin their time, but he said yes just to get a story out of it. Was this common for these writers to be living their life for the comedy of it?

Yeah. Though, I think it can be taken too far. There are people who only do certain things to get material for a book. I think you do have to have your filters or antenna up, just knowing what might work for a certain situation. Sedaris was saying that this person would just annoy most people but he knew that if he just paid close attention, it could be beneficial to him as a humor writer. So he’s looking where others aren’t, which can be exhausting to do all day, every day. Most people just want to get the hell away from this guy but it’s part of his job. He can’t do that; he knows he has to stick around to see what happens. But I do think it’s important for comedy writers to look where others aren’t. If everybody’s looking at the same thing, turn and look in the other direction so you can find something in the nooks and crannies that everyone else is just ignoring or not even noticing it.

There is a certain obsessive quality to that, to be able to live a life noticing these things. And then each of these writers creates their own filter based on their very specific point of view.

Definitely, and the more you do it, the more you know what to look for and what not to look for. David Sedaris said that sometimes things can just pop up and they’re just too perfect and he can’t use it because people will just think that he’s making it up. So, he has to find these examples and something that sounds realistic and actually happened to him.

You said you were working on a second book. Where are you in the process?

Right now my agent is sending it out and he’s looking for a publisher. I want it to be a bigger publisher than the first time. And it would have to be worthwhile, money wise, because it’s just so long. It takes two years, so I think the advance would have to be pretty big.

Is there anything you'd like to do differently?

I think the only difference is I like to get more women, which I couldn’t get the first time around. I really desperately tried and it just didn’t happen for any number of reasons. But I’d really like to get some more mainstream names that people are more familiar with. Like Stephen Colbert or Judd Apatow, but I haven’t even really thought of the logistics yet. I’m just trying to focus on selling the idea first and then go into it.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=737945599 Matt Levy

    Amazing book.  Read it once, reread it and recently passed it onto a friend.  This is a total must for any real comedy geek.

  • http://twitter.com/Zulkey Claire Zulkey

    Great book and I just heart Mike in general.