Nerding out on comedy just got a lot easier with Mike Sacks’ new Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers. In his follow up to 2009’s excellent And Here’s the Kicker, Sacks has compiled an impressively diverse list of writers working within the humor genre, from both sitcom and feature writers to directors to cartoonists to radio writers, like The Best Show on WFMU’s Tom Sharpling and 97-year-old Peg Lynch, writer of the 1940s Ethel and Albert. Whether you’re a comedian or a fan, there’s something here to interest you and that’s no doubt by design. The table of contents alone is intimidatingly long in the best possible way.
In addition to interviews, Sacks includes “hardcore comedy advice” from the likes of Diablo Cody, Amy Poehler, and Patton Oswalt, as well as sections on “ultraspecific comedy knowledge” that reveal the writing process for Monty Python, Paul Feig’s series bible from Freaks & Geeks, and Bill Hader’s list of 200 essential movies every comedy writer should see. And that, frankly, is just the short list.
The cover boasts some big name talent including the aforementioned writers, surely in an effort to entice readers. And while their contributions and advice are worthwhile, the real gems here are the interviews with lesser known but equally influential players. Carol Kolb discusses writing about “the sad mundanity of life” for The Onion. Glen Charles (writer for both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and co-creator of Cheers) describes that famous Andy Kaufman fit that got his character Tony Clifton kicked off the set of Taxi (but somehow not Kaufman). New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast tells him about breaking into the magazine with an especially weird cartoon. Sacks even talks to Peg Lynch about how she once turned down a dinner with (then-senator) JFK because she had to write a script that night.
Moreover, Sacks is an excellent interviewer, a skill that looks simple enough on the surface but is difficult to master. He asks well-researched, unexpected questions, creating long form interviews akin to deep oral histories, a 180-degree turn from the fluffy PR masquerades of many magazine interviews. The conversations are funny without trying to be. Unlike many other interviewers, Sacks doesn’t waste time trying to set up his subjects to be hilarious. The result is a discussion of artistic process that’s not only entertaining reading, but a salve for the similarly comedically inclined. He asks about failures and letting projects go. Sacks asks Mike Schur to expound on David Foster Wallace’s influence on Parks & Rec, and he gets Mel Brooks to discuss how his affection for Nikolai Gogol affected his writing.
On occasion, the conversations turn dismal — one common theme is the frustration and sadness that comes with creative failures — and yet somehow even that feels uplifting. If you write comedy yourself or are of a certain creative stripe, these interviews are a giant reminder that incredibly smart, successful people fail, too. It’s part of the creative process, and it’s normal.
Beyond the insights and wisdom, there’s something heartening about these conversations with people who were once misfit weirdos that accepted their eccentricities as the very voice that made them stand out. This book may offer quite a bit of advice on a career writing comedy, but if there’s one real takeaway, it’s to write toward what interests you, what you wish was out in the world, and to love the hell out of doing it, successful or not. As Adam McKay points out in a retelling of a Kobe Bryant anecdote, “Kobe felt that what separated the great players from the okay players [was that] athletes who really love to play are the ones who do well, and the athletes who kind of like it, but really want to be successful, well, that’s a much harder road to go down.”
It helps, of course, if your love is also paired with a need to constantly stretch beyond what you’re already capable of. Or as former Onion writer and current staffer for Community, Dan Guterman, described this driving desire that’s both simple and insatiable: “I want to write a joke so good that it somehow rights the rest of my life.”
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.