Hello, campers —
Since we’ve all been working so hard throughout this series on pitching, I have a treat for you today — or at any rate, I had planned a treat: an interview between Mike Sacks, author of the recently-released AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT and legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe.
I was excited about this, because the book is a good one, full of the kind of serious analysis the craft of comedy writing seldom receives, performed by writers who have spent years honing their craft.
By the time I was halfway through the book, I was even more excited, because quite a lot of the interviews speak very directly to our pet subject of the moment: AND HERE’S THE KICKER contains some amazing anecdotes about the difficulty of pitching comedy to the humorless — or to funny people who are just bad listeners.
Who among us couldn’t use some advice from the pros on that?
To render it even more useful for those of you out there who write comedy, the interviews are bookended with sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing:
Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker
Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea
Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script
You’re starting to feel the excitement now, too, aren’t you?
Seriously, ever since I’ve had the book in the house, I’ve been picking it up every time I start to feel even the vaguest twinge of depression. Nothing cheers me up like learning something new about my art form, you see — and frankly, I’ve been pretty astonished at how much solid information about craft and marketing is crammed into these relatively brief interviews.
We often hear super-serious authors discussing the inspiration and difficulties underlying their craft, but comedy writing is usually treated like magic: all the audience really knows is whether the bit works. How it is done remains a mystery. Here, however, the pros actually do talk about the tricks o’ the trade, sometimes in quite extensive detail.
How much detail, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s always a good sign, I think, when I pick up a book aimed at aspiring writers and exclaim ten pages in, “Wow, why hasn’t someone written this before?”
I have to admit, though, that as a reader, much of what I’ve enjoyed about AND HERE’S THE KICKER has had little to do with insights into craft or illuminating marketing tips. I’ve been getting a big kick out of some of the behind-the-scenes peeks into pitch sessions and writers’ meetings.
Who’d have thought, for instance, that the catchphrase-based humor that took over skits at Saturday Night Live would annoy some former SNL writers as much as it does yours truly? (Catchphrases are antithetical to genuine humor, in my opinion: the laugh comes merely because the line is expected.) Or that an actor/director/writer whose work I’ve always felt was hugely overrated would strike me as similarly full of himself in the context of a serious interview about the far, far more talented artists with whom he’s had the good fortune to work?
Hey, I’m only human; I enjoy having my prejudices confirmed as much as the next person.
In short, I was pretty psyched at the prospect of bringing Mike here to Author! Author! to talk about his book. So, as I always do when I’m considering introducing an author of a new book to you fine people, I tracked down the publisher’s blurb:
Every great joke has a punch line, and every great humor writer has an arsenal of experiences, anecdotes, and obsessions that were the inspiration for that humor. In fact, those who make a career out of entertaining strangers with words are a notoriously intelligent and quirky lot. And boy, do they have some stories.
In this entertaining and inspirational book, you’ll hear from 21 top humor writers as they discuss the comedy-writing process, their influences, their likes and dislikes, and their experiences in the industry. You’ll also learn some less useful but equally amusing things, such as:
* How screenwriter Buck Henry came up with the famous “plastics” line for The Graduate.
* How many times the cops were called on co-writers Sacha Baron Cohen and Dan Mazer during the shooting of Borat.
* What David Sedaris thinks of his critics.
* What creator Paul Feig thinks would have happened to the Freaks & Geeks crew if the show had had another season.
* What Jack Handey considers his favorite “Deep Thoughts.”
* How Todd Hanson and the staff of The Onion managed to face the aftermath of 9/11 with the perfect dose of humor.
* How Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais created the original version of The Office.
* What it’s really like in the writers’ room at SNL.
Funny and informative, And Here’s the Kicker is a must-have resource – whether you’re an aspiring humor writer, a fan of the genre, or someone who just likes to laugh.
And that, my friends, is how a not-very-stirring pitch can undersell a marvelous book. Oh, it drops the relevant names well enough, but does that very mainstream list tell you that this book is filled with insights that will startle you? Or educate you as a comedy writer?
Did it, in short, stir in you excitement to rush out and read this book?
For me, it didn’t, and that’s a real shame — the interviews with Bob Odenkirk and Dick Cavett alone offer more genuine insight into figuring out what is and isn’t going to be funny to an audience than anything else I’ve seen on the subject in years.
Call me zany, but when a reader already in love with a book takes a gander at the blurb and thinks, “Wow, that certainly undersells what’s between the covers,” I suspect that it might not be doing its job as well as it should.
Ditto with a pitch, whether it is given verbally or in a query letter: if it doesn’t make the hearer or reader long to read the manuscript in question, it’s not an effective pitch, by definition. As we’ve just seen, simply listing a book’s attributes — a strategy embraced by many a pitcher — isn’t always the best means of grabbing potential readers.
So eschew the blurb above, which also, I notice from the book at my elbow, happens to be the back jacket copy. I suspect that the interview below will give you greater insight into why AND HERE’S THE KICKER might be the book for you. As would flipping through it in a bookstore — which, contrary to the dire moans we keep hearing from the general direction of the publishing industry, inveterate readers still do on a regular basis.
For those of you who prefer the new-fangled, less-browsable route, AND HERE’S THE KICKER is also available on Amazon, naturally. And for those of you who like to support independent bookstores but don’t happen to live near any, you can always pick it up at Powell’s.
As for me, I’ve depressed myself into a stupor, thinking about all of the great books out there that are languishing, under-pitched. I’m just going to have to read another interview to cheer myself up.
My name is Mike Sacks. I have a new book out this month from Writers Digest Press called “And Here’s the Kicker.” The book contains full-length interviews that I conducted over the past two years with 21 famous humor writers.
One of those writers is the great Merrill Markoe, who was a huge influence not only on me, but on my entire generation. Merrill was the first head-writer for Late Night with David Letterman, and she’s also published a ton of great articles and seven fantastic humor books that every comedy fan should own.
I asked Merrill if she’d be willing to talk with me about my book, exclusively for Author! Author!, and she said yes. Last month, in a private room in the Santa Monica Outback Steakhouse, over a giant onion loaf and two orders of sweet-glazed roast pork tenderloins, we sat down to talk about various subjects, including what it really takes to become a humor writer, beyond merely depression and OCD…
Hope you enjoy…
MERRILL: Mike, did you know I was a vegetarian when I agreed to do this interview with you?
SACKS: Onion loaf is a vegetable, is it not?
MERRILL: Moving on…What did you do at the Washington Post?
SACKS: I worked in the Washington Postsyndicate office. We edited and then sent out the work of various blow-hard columnists, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, EJ Dionne, etc. I’m from the DC area originally, but I don’t miss the bowties, lawyers in suspenders, and self-important vice-presidents of do-nothing associations.
Can you tell I didn’t fit in?
MERRILL: What do you on the editorial staff at Vanity Fair?
SACKS: Mostly what I do is editorial, although I also write for the magazine. Also, and I’m not thrilled about this, I’m in charge of Dominick Dunne’s ever-changing hairdo.
MERRILL: You’ve freelanced for various magazines, such as The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Time, Radar and Vice. Were those freelance pieces that you submitted or did you contact them and pitch?
SACKS: Most of those pieces were the result of me coming up with an idea and sending it to someone on staff, usually someone I knew.
It’s up to you to make a pitch, and (this is important) you should never send your pitch to the editor-in-chief. They just don’t care. Send it to either someone you know or someone further down the editorial ladder, who might have time to read a query and help you through the process.
I’d say that most of the younger editorial staffers prefer email. So, make your pitch very short, no longer than four paragraphs. You can always add details later.
MERRILL: What did you want to be when you grew up?
SACKS: I wanted to be a pilot and then a brain surgeon, but I got dizzy easily and I nearly flunked high school biology. No joke.
Failing that, I really wanted to work in a record store in suburban Maryland, as a clerk making $5.65 an hour . . . and I did so, off and on, for the next ten years! A dream come true!
MERRILL: Where did the idea for doing the KICKER book begin? Were there things you wanted to know about the comedy writing process, or were you just aware that there wasn’t a book like this and you wanted to read one?
SACKS: Both, really. I could never find a contemporary book of interviews with today’s humor writers. The only books I found dealt with shows from the 50s through 70s, such as Your Show of Shows or Saturday Night Live. Those programs are great, but how much can you read about them already?
Another problem with a lot of humor books is that they tend to be written by people who have not made a living in comedy (at least at the highest level). I wanted to ask successful humor writers what to do and (just as importantly) what NOT to do.
For instance, if you want to get a humor piece published in a magazine, don’t try to be funny in the cover letter. It just annoys the editor.
Here’s another bit of advice from the pros: when you apply to become a writer at a late-night show, never include with your submission the funny T-shirt you created, or bumper sticker you printed up, or Rupert Pupkin–style tape you made of yourself telling jokes in your bedroom. I’m sure you can concur. It just doesn’t help your chances.
The book is filled with such advice that will hopefully help younger writers navigate the system to becoming a success.
MERRILL: When you interviewed me, you seemed to have a lot of information about things I’d done. Did you just Google people and read or what?
SACKS: I try to read as much as possible about each of the interviewees. It shows the interview subjects that you’ve done your homework and that you respect them enough to have done the hard work of preparation. Second, and most importantly, the interview will turn out better for it. It will be more comprehensive and, most likely, a lot more interesting.
MERRILL: How long did the book take to write?
SACKS: Two years, every night after work, and on every weekend. My wife just loved it.
MERRILL: Who turned out to be the least like you thought they would be?
SACKS: Truthfully, I did so much research for each interview (up to 30 hours) that I could basically predict how it was going to go. Of course, there are exceptions to that. I conducted a total of 40 interviews and I would say that three or four subjects were either very, very busy or very, very rude.
MERRILL: Did any interview turn out so badly that you didn’t end up using it? Does that happen much with interviews?
SACKS: Yes, sometimes my fault, sometimes theirs. And sometimes you think an interview has gone beautifully, but when you begin to edit the interview and put it together, you realize that it’s kind of weak. You can then perform follow-up interviews, but sometimes you just realize that you’re never going to get what you want no matter how many questions you ask. It might just be a bad fit between you and the interviewee.
MERRILL: A lot of writers like attention because writing is so damn solitary. But were there some who were reluctant? Hard to interview?
SACKS: Sure, there were many who didn’t want to be interviewed, and most of them were (for some strange reason) women. I asked about 15 top female humor writers, and all said no (or never got back to me). I don’t know why this was the case, although I’m guessing two reasons: one, a lack of ego, and two, there are so few top women humor writers that they are constantly being asked to give interviews and are tired of it already.
Do you find this to be the case, Ms. Top Woman Humor Writer?
MERRILL: No. That doesn’t make any sense to me and certainly doesn’t sound like a typical gender trait. Or I’m such an egomaniac that I can’t recognize it. Maybe between work and home life, they were all just too busy . Or maybe their OCD was kicked off by mere proximity to you and they had to wash their hands.
Who was the hardest one to get to agree that he/she would do the interview?
SACKS: No one was really too hard to pin down, but I found that the older generation (Larry Gelbart, Al Jaffee, Irv Brecher) was the easiest to get a hold of. I think it took Larry Gelbart five minutes to get back to me by email (and not from an assistant, mind you). All these senior guys were incredibly classy. I’m sure Al Jaffee had other things to be doing, and yet he could not have been more gracious and more of a sweetheart.
Irv Brecher was 93 when I interviewed him, and he spoke to me for hours. It was one of the last interviews he conducted before he died at the age of 94.
MERRILL: You mentioned a high incidence of OCD among comedy writers. I have never been especially aware of this among writers, although comedians are so insane that I don’t know if there is any mental disabilities that they DONT have. OCD stands for Original Comedian Disorder. But what indications did you have that the people you were interviewing had OCD?
SACKS: Well, for the simple reason that I came right out and asked. And I only asked because I, too, suffer from it. I would say that 70% of those I interviewed said they had it.
I emailed Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, minus the mental illness factor) and asked if there was a connection. He said he wasn’t aware of one. Maybe there isn’t, I don’t know.
I just found it all to be, at the very least, a strange coincidence.
MERRILL: Seventy percent is NO coincidence.
Are you comfortable talking about your OCD in this interview? What are your symptoms and do they keep you from writing or force you to write?
SACKS: I don’t mind talking about it, as long as I can talk about it for exactly three minutes and forty seconds. My symptoms are excessive thoughts, hand washing and the urge to kiss the homeless on the subway.
I would say that the OCD does absolutely help with the writing, if only because I literally think about the writing all day and most of the night. And I feel I have to get it perfect, even though that’s an impossible trick. If I don’t write every day, I get nervous.
MERRILL: Oh my God. I definitely do that. I also do it about going to the gym. Maybe I should give hand-washing a shot and see if it takes.
On an unrelated topic: whither The Freedonian?
SACKS: The Freedonian was a humor website that I ran with some friends in the early 2000s. We published a lot of writers who went on to have great careers, like Neal Pollack and a few writers for The Daily Show.
But we got burned out, and, truthfully, it was too difficult to consistently find good pieces. We were thinking of putting the best pieces out in a book compilation…
MERRILL: When you were Nerve’s Crush of the Week, did you get a lot of interest? Didn’t your wife freak out?
SACKS: My wife couldn’t have cared less, truthfully. She thought it was ridiculous. I did hear from some women, but they mostly wanted to talk about splitting infinitives. Dirty, dirty women writers…
MERRILL: Of the writers you talked to, what advice or approach did you come away thinking about? Did anyone have a method you hadn’t considered before?
SACKS: Larry Gelbart talked about how one’s writing style is formed by what you can’t write. I thought this was really interesting, and I think it’s a good lesson for beginning writers.
In other words, if you want to write comics, write comics. If you want to write short humor pieces, that’s fine, too. You should be content writing whatever works for you and whatever interests you. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t want (or can’t) write short stories like Hemingway. Not everyone has to do that; there are plenty of other niches to fill.
MERRILL: Was there a common denominator among the writers in terms of approach to writing?
SACKS: The common denominator was to just keep working, day after day, even though the writing may not be going well. Just keep at it. Everyone, even the writers at the top of their game, struggle from time to time. The trick is to remain consistent; sit yourexpletive deleted down and keep at it, day after day, week after week, year after year.
MERRILL: Was there any one thing besides OCD that these people all had in common?
SACKS: Just this inability to feel content. All of the writers, no matter how popular or famous, still want to achieve a lot more. They each have a tremendous hunger to keep going and to keep writing and to keep achieving.
MERRILL: Did anyone actually LIKE writing?
SACKS: It seems as if the great writers have no choice BUT to write, even if they don’t necessarily love the day-to-day process. But all seem to love having accomplished something that they’re proud of, even if getting there was brutally difficult.
MERRILL: Do you have a favorite quote? I shouldn’t ask this because you will piss off all the writers you overlook, but…what the hell. You don’t have to see them now, do you?
SACKS: I liked Harold Ramis’ quote: find the smartest person in the room, and if isn’t you, go stand next to them.
I think this is great advice. Find like-minded people with similar goals who are also talented and try to make it together. It’s very important to network and to have support, rather than making a go of it alone. It’s tough enough as it is…
Thank you, Merrill. Now let’s get back to our onion loaf, shall we?
MERRILL: Do you mind if we put a napkin over the dismembered pig carcasses?
SACKS: I do not. Pass the hot sauce.
Mike Sacks has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon. He has worked at The Washington Post, and is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.