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Adam McKay on What He Learned from Working with Improv Guru Del Close

adammckay-willferrellWill Ferrell doesn’t mince words when describing Adam McKay, his longtime friend and comedy collaborator. “He’s kind of a dangerous individual,” Ferrell says. “He’s extremely funny; there’s no doubt about it. But he’s dangerous. I wouldn’t stay in a room with him, one on one, for any longer than I had to. There’s a criminal tendency there. We have a great working relationship because I don’t ask him much about his past. He just frightens me.” Ferrell is joking, obviously. But there was a time, years before McKay found Hollywood success directing and co-writing films such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and The Other Guys (2010), when he might very well have been the most dangerous man in comedy. 

The Pennsylvania native grew up idolizing mainstream comics like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld. While studying English at Temple University, he performed what he calls “family-friendly” stand-up in local bars and restaurants. But less than a year shy of graduation, he dropped out of school and moved to Chicago to study improvisation, and he soon became one of the most popular (and notorious) performers in the city’s vibrant comedy scene. With such pioneering groups as The Family and The Upright Citizens Brigade, he became infamous for interactive theatrics and elaborately staged pranks. During one show, he led an entire audience back to his apartment, where they witnessed a brutal (and entirely staged) murder from his bedroom window. During another show, he staged his own suicide.

Is it true that in the midnineties, while you were in the Chicago improv scene, you publicly improvised your own suicide?

Yes, that happened. I had an actor’s photo, a horrible eight-by-ten glossy, that I inserted into a poster. And the poster read: “On such-and-such-a-date, Adam McKay, 26, will kill himself. This is not a joke.” I put up the poster everywhere, and on the assigned location and date, there was a huge turnout. I went to the roof of a five-story building and yelled down to the crowd. We had a CPR dummy dressed exactly as I was dressed, and we threw it off the roof. Someone else was playing the character of the Grim Reaper, and he collected the dummy and hauled it away. Meanwhile, I ran downstairs and “came to life,” and we all ended up back in the theater where we finished the show.

Good luck not getting arrested in New York with that stunt.

[Laughs] It was the type of thing you could only get away with in Chicago. Anywhere else, I’d have immediately been hauled away. But it was also the perfect time. Nowadays with the Internet, people would just go, “Oh, it’s performance art” or “It’s a flash mob” or whatever. But it wasn’t commonplace back then. There weren’t as many hidden camera shows. Nowadays, this stuff is so common, you can’t truly surprise people.

There was just this freedom. There was just a freedom to try to get away with whatever you felt you could get away with. Del Close encouraged that. READ MORE

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'SNL's James Downey on Working with Norm Macdonald and Getting Fired for Making Fun of OJ Simpson

jamesdowneySaturday 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. 

Called by Lorne 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, six 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.”

You worked at SNL longer than any other writer in the show’s history. And yet as respected as you are, you were actually fired by NBC for a season, beginning in 1998. 

Well, that was all due to [NBC executive] Don Ohlmeyer. Norm Macdonald, the anchor for Weekend Update, and I were writing a lot of jokes about O.J. Simpson, and we had been doing so for more than three years. Don, being good friends with O.J., had just had enough.

Your O.J. jokes were not light taps on the head. These were jokes that would often end with: “Because O.J. murdered two people.”

Yeah, we weren’t holding back. [Laughs] That’s the thing I kind of liked about Don, actually: his friendship with O.J. was so old school. It was so un-showbizzy. He ended up firing me, as well as Norm, but I can’t honestly say that a part of me doesn’t respect Don for his loyalty. Most people in show business would sell out anyone in their lives, for any reason at all, including for practice. Don was the opposite. He threw a party for the jurors after the 1995 acquittal. And he stuck with O.J. through it all.

I don’t know that Norm enjoyed the experience of the firing quite as much as I did, but to me it was exciting. It was certainly the best press I ever received. We got tremendous support from people I really admire, some of whom are friends and some I didn’t really know that well, but who stepped up and called me. It was a fun time. READ MORE

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Talking to Teddy Wayne About His New Comic Novel and the Difference Between Fiction and Humor Writing

Teddy Wayne is the author of the new comic literary novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, out today, featuring the titular 11-year-old pop star as he makes his way across America on his “Valentine Days” tour. The book has received stellar advance reviews from a host of outlets, including Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times, who says it’s “sad-funny, sometimes cutting…more than a scabrous sendup of American celebrity culture.” Wayne’s debut, Kapitoil, won a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award; Jonathan Franzen wrote in The Daily Beast that the novel’s main character, Karim Issar, was a type “that we’re all familiar with but that no other writer, as far as I know, has invented such a funny and compelling voice and story for.”

Wayne regularly writes humor for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere, and he has the distinction of being the most frequent contributor of all time to McSweeney’s, where he writes the column “Teddy Wayne’s Unpopular Proverbs” (which is, as he pointed out to me, one of the site’s consistently least-popular features).

(Full disclosure: Teddy and I are friends and occasional writing partners. Did that influence my decision to interview him for Splitsider about this new book? Yes, without a doubt, but the book is great, and I recommend it highly.)

Recently, over wine spritzers and Rice Chex mix, in the back of a public library, I discussed writing humor, and humorous fiction with Wayne: READ MORE

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Talking to National Lampoon Co-Founder Henry Beard About Humor Writing, the Lampoon and More

Henry Beard, one of the co-founders of The National Lampoon, is a prolific man. Over the course of forty years, Beard has written more than 35 humor books, including Zen for Cats, The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook (co-written with Christopher Cerf), and Latin for All Occasions. What’s especially interesting is that Beard remains one of the few comedy writers to only devote themselves entirely to print, with little or no interest in writing for other mediums, be it television or films.

Beard’s first parody book, Bored of the Rings, was published in 1969, when Beard (and co-writer Doug Kenney) had just graduated Harvard. The book remains in print to this day, having become something of a classic to any college stoner with a propensity for naming their pets after Middle-Earth creatures.

Beard has been described as, among other things, “enigmatic,” “reclusive,” and “odd.” He’s also been called a “genius” and “brilliant,” two descriptions difficult to argue with when taking a look at the high quality of his output over the last four decades. Beard is not known for giving many interviews, eschewing the chance to talk about himself or his years at the National Lampoon. Thankfully, he’s made an exception for this interview. READ MORE

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An Extended Interview with Former Colbert Report Head Writer Allison Silverman

In And Here's the Kicker, Mike Sacks talked to some of the biggest names in comedy writing, including Dick Cavett, David Sedaris and Robert Smigel. Here is the complete and uncut version of his interview with former Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Daily Show and Colbert Report writer/producer Allison Silverman, with loads of new answers not found in the book.

It’s difficult to know just how seriously Allison Silverman takes herself, or her place, in the hierarchy of comedy-writing. Having spent time penning jokes for some of the best minds in satire — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien — she’d be justified in some self-aggrandizement.

“Over the course of the week [at Late Night with Conan O’Brien],” she once said, “[my desk] becomes a dumping ground for scripts, daily schedules, weekly schedules, cast lists, revised cast lists, and beat sheets. A beat sheet lists the comedy bits approved by our head writer. A beat sheet is how the wardrobe department finds out that we need a giant Hasidic ant costume by two P.M.” For Silverman, comedy is just another way to pay the bills, albeit a means of employment that occasionally involves dressing up actors as Semitic insects. READ MORE