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Mike Sacks Is Doin’ It

“If you don’t know who Mike Sacks is, well, you should.” Receiving praise like this would mean a great deal to any writer, but when the words come from acclaimed author David Sedaris, they carry some weight. Sedaris recently called Sacks’ writing “funnier than just about anyone’s” and commended Sacks’ podcast Doin’ It with Mike Sacks as being “excellent.” Sacks has been writing humor for years, for The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, McSweeney’s and many other publications, later collected in his 2011 book, Your Wildest Dreams Within Reason. Sacks currently works as an editor for Vanity Fair, but he might be best known for his in-depth non-fiction comedy books, 2009’s And Here’s the Kicker and its sequel, 2014’s Poking a Dead Frog. In both books, Sacks interviews a plethora of widely known and unknown comedy writers whose work spans the beginning of the 20th century up to the present day. I spoke with Sacks about his recently launched podcast, going through a Fat Elvis period, and why it’s crucial for anyone in comedy to have a bad job. 

Why did you decide to start doing this podcast?

Well I wanted to write for a different medium rather than just print. And I’d been interviewing a lot of people for print. I think audio can be more effective and can certainly hit you a different way. It’s more visceral. I wanted to talk to people and for listeners to actually hear the writers. But also I wanted to write for radio comedy-wise. I grew up listening to old broadcasts of National Lampoon Radio Hour, bootlegs of Bob and Ray, Jean Shepherd. It’s really the only medium that you have total control in whatever you want. Both good or bad. No one’s going to tell what to do or what not to do.

There are a lot of podcasts out there now that discuss and analyze comedy. What separates your podcast from something like Marc Maron’s WTF podcast?

It’s crazy how much is out there. And Here’s The Kicker came out in 2009. I guess I started writing it in 2007. It really wasn’t much. And then since then, it absolutely exploded. Almost too much. A lot of podcasts are good and I think a lot of them aren’t that good. Each of them has their own advantages. Marc Maron, he’s good, but he’s very specific. It’s about Marc Maron and his relationship with comedians. I wanted to do it just a little bit differently. More of a fan, more from the viewpoint of maybe listeners just starting out or wanting to improve their career. How do you do it? How do you become a success? How do you get published? How do you get an agent? Also I think a lot of interviewers don’t let the interview subjects talk. I think many just talk too much and over-talk. I want to do more of a Dick Cavett style. Just let ‘em talk.

I read And Here’s the Kicker and Poking a Dead Frog after college and remember trying to find the pattern what made these comedians and writers so successful.

That was an obsession of mine. I mean I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t know anyone who wrote comedy. I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone who wrote comedy. So it was very mysterious. I imagine it’s still mysterious, maybe not as much with all that information out there. But why not go to those who have made it and hear it directly from them rather than hear it from someone who teaches it in college and maybe has written one spec script for a sitcom?

When all of these comedians or successful people say “work hard” and “believe in yourself” part of me thinks about the luck factor and industry connections. How much do you think other factors besides perseverance and hard work is involved?

There are lots of themes that run through these successful people. One of those themes is “I don’t know what’s going to work for you, but this works for me.” And they’ll say basically “I worked hard, put my head down, did what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, didn’t do it for money and just moved forward.” Whether it happens or not is not guaranteed. It’s not like taking two graduate courses and you get a degree where it’s all written down. You’re operating on your own which makes it really interesting and scary. The highs are going to be higher. The lows are going to be lower.

But there are some general rules I’ve seen across the board. And that is basically you have to stay true to what you think is funny, you have to work within the medium that you like. If you don’t want to write sitcom scripts, you don’t have to. If you want to write a graphic novel you can do that. If you want to write for the stage you can do that. But you have to figure out what you want to do the most and what gets across your writing the best. And just do it. You have to take advice, but you also have to know when not to take advice and just stay true to your own vision. But really it’s just keeping at it. Whether it works or not, no one really ever knows that themselves. Mel Brooks still thinks he hasn’t made it. He’s still pushing. He’s still struggling. If someone like Mel Brooks struggles creatively and professionally I think it’s a lesson that anyone at any level is going to struggle at times. It’s not easy. People go crazy writing jokes. If you work in electricity or if you’re a plumber or a doctor, after 40 years you know what works and what doesn’t work. A joke writer, it’s still a mystery to them whether a joke will hit or not. That’s part of the excitement. It can also drive you crazy.

You spoke with Bill Hader on Doin’ It about how rejection never goes away and how he learned from Trey Parker and Matt Stone the attitude of always being a student. Anytime you think you’re a master at something, you wind up learning something new.

They’ve been through failure. They earned that they kind of know what will work and what will not work, but there’s still no guarantee. But that’s the excitement. If you wanted to get the same reaction each time you can go up there and give a prepared speech and get a medium reaction, but you’re not going to get the reaction of a Louis C.K. who’s up there on the edge, taking chances, doing things that he doesn’t know what the response will be.

I was wondering how you yourself got started, how you wound up discussing comedy but also writing original humor pieces.

I never got into it to write about comedy. It was always to write comedy and I started through magazines. This was pre-internet when I graduated college in the ‘90s, before the internet exploded. It was always about just writing comedy for print, book, articles, things like that. It only came about interviewing these people because I wanted to pick their brains and I wanted to talk to them and I knew that a lot of the old generation of comedy writers were dying off. In fact, a few writers I interviewed from And Here’s The Kicker passed away not long after the book came out. Not that I knew that was going to happen, but I knew their time was kind of short. Like with Irv Brecher who wrote for the Marx Brothers and Larry Gelbart. To talk with someone who worked with Groucho Marx, that’s an amazing thing. It’s almost like talking to a sportswriter who knew Babe Ruth. To talk to Irv was a real throwback to another time. I think this is the equivalent to talk to someone who wrote for Bob Hope like Larry Gelbart did or Milton Berle like Irv Brecher did. I just wanted to pick their brains and also go to the source because there were very few books out there at that time about comedy. It was always like “this is how you do it” usually written by someone who really didn’t know how to do it. I thought of going directly to the source as a straight Q and A would be interesting. But that first book was rejected like 25 times. It only got published because I had a friend who worked for a small publishing house and he pushed it through.

When you were writing And Here’s the Kicker you had already established yourself as a magazine writer?

Yeah and that wasn’t even for money. I got paid $9,000, $10,000. I really didn’t think anyone would really read it besides the hardcore comedy geek. But it really was sort of a selfish thing. I just genuinely wanted to pick these people’s brains. Talk to Dick Cavett, Mitch Hurwitz, David Sedaris. All these people I love and wanted to know how they did it. Like “What do you need to do to succeed? And what should you not do?” It just surprised me, the popularity of it. It really did. It was just a side project.

In listening to and reading your interviews, you realize the thing you don’t expect to be big is usually what becomes successful, but something you’re trying to make big is the thing that doesn’t make it.

Absolutely. I think that’s a good lesson really. If it’s personal to you and that comes across, I think that’ll come across to the reader. If it’s something you’re doing just to make money or to hit point A or point B I think that comes across too.

I think that ties into your podcast and your books where the idea of trying too hard, desperation is never funny.

No, just the opposite. That’s why kids and pets and animals are so funny. They’re just totally clueless as to how funny they are. The more you’re aware of how funny you are, the less funny you’re going to be. So you do have to be in the zone whether performing or writing. You can’t be giggling at your own stuff, you just have to be in the zone and not trying and just having fun and I think the audience definitely picks up on that.

What is your own writing process like?

It’s just an everyday thing. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you just work on something every day. And to me it’s a job. I go into the Vanity Fair office where I work every day and either I’m editing for the magazine or if I have free time I’m writing for the magazine or writing whatever I want. The important thing is that, if you don’t feel like working on a specific piece, put it aside and work on something else. But I think it’s important just to keep moving. I do try to write something every day. Or if I’m not writing, to do research, or just to accomplish something every day. When you do look back you can really accomplish a lot, more than you can ever imagine even if it’s a little each day. I think it’s important to just move forward and not stagnate and a lot of people stagnate with their ideas, sort of circle the drain and before they know it a year has passed. If it’s not coming to you easily, it may not be worth doing. Sometimes the best ideas are the most enjoyable and come really easy.

A lot of comedians will say if you want to be a comedian just go on stage and bomb or just write, just do it, but how can you gauge if you’re actually funny in the first place?

It’s a very quiet thing. I write it quietly. People read it. I don’t see them read it. Whether it works or not in fiction or non-fiction I have no idea. But that’s the thing about moving forward, whether it works or not you really don’t know. That’s the advantage of getting a lot of stuff out there. You can’t be too precious about your stuff. You have to get it out there whether it works or not. You hope it does. But you never know.  

When you speak to these comedians and writers do you ever feel pressure to be funny?

No. In fact, that’s a pet peeve of mine is that interviewers try to upstage comedians or comedy writers. I don’t think it’s important as an interviewer to be funny. I think it’s more important to be nice and interesting and let them be the ones who are funny. But it’s a very common problem with podcasters and interviewers to upstage interview subjects or to get across that they’re also in comedy and that they’re capable of doing what the other person is doing. I don’t find that to be my role. I think it’s more interesting to take a backseat and to just let them be the ones who are interesting and funny.

I think the best comedians do that too, when you see old appearances of Robin Williams on Johnny Carson or Conan O’ Brien they don’t try to upstage him, they let them be funny and let the conversation naturally flow.

The best interviewers were very funny, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Letterman were all capable of being funny. But they knew that it wasn’t their show at that point. They had to sit back. And the good ones want someone else to be funny. It’s just easier. Let the other person entertain and be the funny monkey for a little while. For the types of interviews that I do, I’m always looking at it as being read by a high school student skipping math class. If they want to get into comedy, then they’ll know how to do it. That’s who I’m doing it for, almost like my younger self, like how does one do it? And I don’t think me cracking jokes is going to help them figure it out. I think just asking these people, genuinely, questions that I’m interested in, to me those are more valuable interviews than just two people cracking each other up.

I noticed as a recurring theme in your books and on the podcast was comedians stressing real-life experiences, bad jobs. You said in your interview with Arthur Meyer that “having a bad job should be a requirement for everyone.” What jobs have you had that inspired your comedy? Why do you think having a bad job is crucial?

I worked in retail for 10 years, 15-25 I worked in a record store. And I worked temp jobs and I worked a lot of shit jobs and it was miserable. I was totally miserable. It’s scary, you could really see yourself working these jobs for the rest of your life. But I do think it’s valuable when it comes to comedy because comedy comes from experience and from knowing people and knowing how they talk and how they act. And I don’t think that comes from watching every Simpsons episode. I think it comes from living a life. The early comedians were all very street-wise, Mel Brooks, Irv Brecher, Larry Gelbart. They all grew up on the streets and have a ton of experience. And then they went to war. They were in World War II. That could have only helped their comedy. I think it’s the most important thing because in the end it’s your experience and it’s how you read people. It’s the jokes that are tethered to reality and to stories and to real people you knew that are always more effective than references from a TV show or Meatballs. I’m not sure how much experience a lot of comedy writers have now as far as life experience. It seems a lot of them get hired really young, which is great, right out of college. But I think their life experience is limited. Their comedy might only speak to a small segment, and I think the more life experience they have the wider that audience will be.

When you worked in retail were you thinking then that your experiences would be good for humor pieces?

No, I just wanted to get the hell out of there. If I knew then that at point B I’d be leaving, at this month, this year, then it would have been bearable, but it was so open-ended that I didn’t know when or if I would ever leave. I don’t think it was the type of thing that “Oh, I’m doing this so that one day I’m going to have something to write about.” But in retrospect I met so many characters and interesting situations that I do think it was helpful. Now if I had to do it over again, would I have gone through that? Probably not. I think I would have gone into writing professionally earlier. But I do think it was a good thing. As far as life experience it could also be, even as a young writer, just going out there and traveling. Instead of going home and watching a movie, go out to a bar or just go out to places you wouldn’t normally. Meet as many people as possible. Go through as many situations as you can. Just open yourself up, rather than just being the type of comedy nerd who just watches old Monty Pythons. I don’t think that could really help as much just living a life, experiencing as much as possible.

Surrounding yourself with funnier people seems to help too.

You always want to surround yourself with funnier, more talented people. I think you also want to surround yourself with people who aren’t like you. Go to a bar in a different neighborhood and talk to someone who works out of comedy. To just know people in comedy I don’t think is a healthy thing. I think you have to really meet as many different types of people as possible. Harold Ramis told me “Find the most talented person in the room, it’s not going to be you, and just go hang out with that person.” That was how he met Bill Murray.

In your interview with New Yorker editor Emma Allen one of the points that struck me was the idea of “no joke being irreplaceable” and learning to be okay that many of your jokes will be scrapped.

You can never be too in love with a joke. I include myself in this. I was so in love with ideas that you look up and then a year has passed. This goes back to the idea of keep moving forward, if you write a joke and someone else doesn’t like it, whether they’re an editor or producer, it’s your job to come up with another one. You should just keep creating. That’s the healthy thing to do. You’re writing can only improve if you’re never too in love with your work, if you never fall in love with it.

Your podcast is unique in that you go from a short story to an interview to random recordings of people like Elvis or Col. Sanders. Where do you find these?

I went through a Fat Elvis period when I graduated college. I was living in New Orleans, where I went to school, and I was really reclusive and I shut myself away. Looking back, it was very unhealthy. That’s why I recommend opening yourself to new people and new situations. But during that period I became of a hoarder when it came to found comedy or things that interested me, whether they were Trinity Broadcasting on TV, I would tape all the time, I would tape bad movies, I would take clips from local talk shows at 2 a.m. I would also record the radio. So this stuff that I’m playing now I just would record either off the radio or swap in the underground bootleg market with other people. It’s just sort of this mass of stuff that I’ve had that I really didn’t have anything to do with for years. That’s another reason why the podcast is fun — it just allows me to put the stuff that I’ve loved listening to alone out there. Whether it’s Larry King drunk on the air or Col. Sanders failing to nail a commercial, I just love that stuff. That to me is sort of a throwback to old radio, just put it out there and you don’t even have to explain it. It’s just Col. Sanders babbling. I find that very entertaining.

How did you wind up accessing older comedians like Dick Cavett and Peg Lynch?

Well, the older people are the easiest ones to access. Dick Cavett, you reach out to him he gets back to you. Larry Gelbart, I reached out to him and he got back to me that day. He wrote me back on his AOL account in very large font because he was not seeing well, but he got back to me. The hardest people to get through to are the younger comedy writers. For someone like Peg Lynch, I asked someone who knew a lot about old radio if any of these old radio comedy writers were alive. And he gave me a list and everyone whose name he gave me was dead. But Peg was the only one who was alive and I just tracked her down eventually by calling her. I found out where she lived and called the government office there and they knew who she was and they gave me her number and she answered the phone and we ended up talking that first night for an hour. A lot of these older writers were just thrilled to talk about work that they thought might have been forgotten. It’s really the younger twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings that are extremely difficult to get in touch with directly. You always have to go through PR or a manager or an agent. There are always a few levels between you and them. Sometimes you never even hear back from them. I don’t mind a no. Nos don’t bother me. It’s people who never get back to me that drive me crazy.

I’ve had that experience, reaching out to interview subjects who never get back to you.

You see it with writers who don’t get back to fans or don’t get back to reporters, you just have to wonder what they’re doing that they’re so busy. Can you not take five seconds to write an email? Are you that busy? It always just shocks me.

Did you ever interview comedians who weren’t who you thought they would be?

Very rarely. I interview a lot of people for the books and maybe half of the interviews make it. Not because of their personality necessarily. But either they’re just not good interview subjects or I wasn’t a good interviewer that day. Sometimes they’re too modest. You need a bit of an ego to talk about yourself. There have been a handful of people who have been not nice. And because of that, even if the interview does end up okay, I’ll just keep them out of the book. I just don’t feel like dealing with them. But out of maybe 90 people that I’ve interviewed, maybe 45 ended up in the books, and two or three were total assholes.

Are there any guests you’re trying to get on for future episodes of the podcast?

Sometimes guests who are notoriously reclusive and that you’d really want are not good interview subjects. Just because you’re reclusive doesn’t mean you’ll be a good interview. Like Albert Brooks, not a good interview. Steve Martin, Woody Allen, not good interviews. To me, I’d rather go after people who haven’t been interviewed that often, whose work I genuinely like. I’m not having them on for ratings or because I have to. I’m interviewing Paul Feig. He’s one of the nicest guys in the world. I love his writing. I’m just thrilled to have him on. And Vince Gilligan who created Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. So all of these people are incredibly nice and willing to talk about their craft. There’s no one in particular who I want that I haven’t asked. Sure, I would love to have Obama on, but to me the most fun is interviewing someone whose work I didn’t know about and maybe the listeners or readers didn’t know about. Like Peg Lynch I knew nothing about her and that was just a total surprise and that was a great treat to be able to talk to someone with that life experience and that history who had sort of been forgotten. I’d rather interview someone like that or someone really young and talented who people may not yet know about.

The chapters with the writers I never heard of, those were the ones that were far more interesting than the writers I knew. The writers I knew I’ve heard many of their stories before.

That’s the problem. That’s what I found. A lot of these people who have been interviewed a lot, and I found this out by doing research, they repeat the same exact stories, usually the same exact way. They’ve been doing it for so long that there’s nothing new for them to say. It’s almost like an act at this point. But it’s the people who you get on the phone who haven’t been interviewed in thirty years who are the ones that will give you the really good stories.

It’s hard to watch an interview now with someone like Paul McCartney because he’s been forced to tell the same recycled stories for the past 50 years.

Absolutely. And as an interviewer what could I possibly ask Paul McCartney that he has not been asked before. Why would I even want to do that? I guess I’d like to meet him. But there’s nothing to be gained besides saying “I met Paul McCartney.” I think the same people are interviewed too many times. It’s the go-to people. The real fun is to find people who aren’t go-to, who are on the corners, who were famous 30 years ago. Those are the ones I find really fascinating.

Who do you think has been your most fascinating interview?

David Sedaris was amazing. I talked to him for five hours on one phone call. We’ve since become friendly. He’s an amazing guy and his advice and his decency really stayed with me. Peg Lynch, Larry Gelbart, these people who took the time to talk about their careers, who hustled, who were on the streets, basically writing jokes to earn a living to feed their families, even when they were teenagers feeding their parents. That’s a lot of pressure. Joke writing is pressure anyway, but to write under that sort of pressure for a joke to hit, not just to get a laugh, but to get money to feed your family, that stayed with me too. These are real classic, old time comedy writers. To be able to have talked to them before they passed away was just a great treat.

Were you able to relate to these comedians, many of whom are considered icons?

Definitely, especially if they’re honest. If they’re honest they’re going to admit “I cannot believe where I am and it just seems like yesterday that I was in a library wondering how to get published.” The best interviews are with the ones who are most honest and the ones who are most in touch with their former selves who weren’t famous and weren’t successful and by talking to someone like that they become just someone who you might have known and been friends with. They’re not celebrities anymore. They’re just people who are really talented and worked really hard and found success, but remember what it was like to not have been successful.

I’ll ask a question you ask many writers you interview. What advice would you give to a young writer trying to break into comedy?

You should do whatever you want, however you want to do it. There were very few options when I graduated college, very few magazines. No websites. It was incredibly difficult to get published, especially with what you found was funny. But now you can do whatever you want, however you want to do it. The question is how do you rise above everyone else? There’s so many podcasts, there’s so many websites, there’s so many sketch groups, there’s so many comedy videos out there. I think really you just have to live a life, experience as much as possible, don’t look at it as being a competition. The best way to get hired is just knowing someone. Your comedy can only grow if you open yourself up. Move forward. Never stop. It should be fun.

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