What’s so funny about comedy writing? A conversation between novelist Jonathan Selwood and SEX author Mike Sacks


I’m taking a quick break from Synopsispalooza to bring you a treat, campers: a conversation on comedy writing between two of the best out there: Jonathan Selwood, author of one of my all-time favorite comic novels, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, and Mike Sacks’, one of the authors of Random House’s recently-released SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK. Since FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Jonathan has already regaled us with a couple of funny and insightful guest posts on the art of writing dark comedy (links: post 1 and post 2), I asked him to sit down with Mike to talk about being funny in general and being funny about sex in particular.

The result was absolutely hilarious, in a very explicit way, as one might expect from two authors who write about sex. I wish I could share that interview with you, but if I did, every parental Internet blocking program and every public library’s web screener would light up like a Christmas tree.

Which is, in a way, very much to Jonathan and Mike’s credit: they know their respective audiences. But if I shared that particular interview with mine, my teen readers might not be able to read it; I am very committed to keeping this site accessible to them. So I asked the gentlemen concerned to do a nuts-and-bolts interview on comedy writing instead, something in the style of Mike’s guest post last year, a fabulous discussion of the art of being funny with legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe, and they graciously assented.

As some of you may recall from my announcement of Mike’s book release in August, this was not the first time I had run into this problem. If I so much as posted the publisher’s blurb for SEX verbatim, as is my wont with new releases, most Internet filters of the type employed by parents and public libraries would have blocked the post. At the time, we all tittered together at a screening program’s not being bright enough to tell the difference between comedy and {WORD EXPUNGED}, but such is the world in which we live.

So how did I end up handling it? I did in fact post the publisher’s blurb in my publication announcement, but to ascertain that the post would be accessible to as many of my regular readers as possible, though, I placed a few discreet visual barriers in front of the words and concepts that might prove problematic. Here is the result.

Mike Sacks sex cover


The Association for the Betterment of Sex (A.B.S.) presents Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, a radical and invaluable resource for improving your sexual communication—whether you have been in a committed relationship for years, or have just moments ago removed the shrinkwrap from your new {EXPUNGED}.

Here are just a few sensual revelations you’ll find within these pages:

– The precise location of the female {EXPUNGED} (latitude and longitude)

– “Going on tour with Midnight Oil” and more outmoded {EXPUNGED}slang

– Forced perspective and other techniques for visually enhancing the size of {EXPUNGED}

– The Top Five pastry-related euphemisms for {EXPUNGED}

– How to score big at your next {EXPUNGED} party, with our crowd-pleasing ambrosia-salad recipe

– Listings of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” dry-cleaning services, for freshening up your vinyl {EXPUNGED} or adult-sized {EXPUNGED}costume

– Your first {EXPUNGED}, and how the ancient Mayans predicted it wouldn’t go over so hot

Exhaustively researched and fully illustrated, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk is a must-read for you, your sexual partner(s), and anyone who wishes there was more to sex than {EXPUNGED} for a few seconds and begging for forgiveness.

Nor is Jonathan, our interviewer du jour, to be outdone on the subversive comedy on sexuality front. His novel’s frank, hilarious presentations of {EXPUNGED} reconstructive surgery and {EXPUNGED}{EXPUNGED}{EXPUNGED} during an earthquake set the LA ethos on its proverbial ear. Here’s the relatively clean publisher’s blurb for THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:

pinball theory cover selwood

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner. 

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

As I said, these two authors had a lot to talk about, and I genuinely regret that I cannot bring you their original, unexpurgated conversation. But what would have been the fun of your trying to decipher what they had to say between all of those {EXPUNGED} barriers? Here instead, for the benefit of all of you aspiring comedy writers out there, is their second conversation. Enjoy!

Oh, and Synopsispalooza will be starting up again on Saturday evening — I’m taking a couple of days off to celebrate my birthday. Back to the grindstone soon!

pinball theory cover selwoodMike Sacks sex coverpinball theory cover selwoodMike Sacks sex coverpinball theory cover selwoodMike Sacks sex coverpinball theory cover selwood

Jonathan Selwood: First, could you please give a brief (ahem, PG-13) description of your new book, SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK for any of our blog readers who have yet to pick up a copy?

Mike Sacks: Sure. It’s a parody of a sex manual, the type you might have found
next to your parents’ bed when you were growing up. You know the kind:
illustrations of aging hippies, strange words, even stranger
descriptions. The premise of our book is that it was written by an
association in Washington DC called The Association for the Betterment
of Sex. It’s run by five guys (us), all of whom know very little about
sex. We find women very mysterious and sex sort of puzzling. In short,
we’re idiots, not to be trusted.

How did you get into comedy writing? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was growing up, but I read a
lot of books and I always loved comedy. For a time I wanted to be a
pilot and then a surgeon. Alas, my grades were really mediocre, so I
began to write, just for fun. After college I worked in a record store
for a few years until I figured that writing was a more interesting
way to make a living than retail, which is the worst. I began to sell
articles to Cracked magazine, as well as MAD and National Lampoon. And
there began my rise to the middle.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Many “serious” writers (and readers) fail to recognize how hard it is to be truly funny on the page. Are you ever frustrated by the fact that so many people believe funny = easy?

Not really, no. It’s not necessarily a reader’s job to know how
difficult it is to write comedy for the page, but I can tell you that
they quickly learn if they try it for themselves. It does take a
specific set of chops. So even if you’re a good writer, you’re not
necessarily going to be good at writing something that’s funny. And
the page is a whole different beast than writing for TV or the movies
or the stage. But it’s not impossible, of course. It’s like learning
any sort of skill set: playing the piano, cooking a soufflé, or
learning how to sing. The difference with writing, I suppose, is that
you have to teach yourself. People may disagree with this, but I think
you really do have to sit down, day after day, and just write. And
learn from your mistakes.

You worked with four other top tier comedy writers in writing SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK. Do you find that this type of collaboration leads more towards supportive teamwork or cutthroat competition? In other words, are you helping each other along the way, or always trying to one-up each other with your jokes?

No, at a certain level, a writer knows that a group project shouldn’t
be looked at as a competition. If a joke doesn’t work, it doesn’t
work. And if that bothers you, you should probably not write with
others. The end product is what matters. If another writer’s joke is
better than yours, you should go with that. You can always use your
joke in another piece, down the road. I loved working with these guys.
In a sense, it was a lot easier than writing alone. I’m now associated
with jokes that I didn’t write and never could have thought of for
myself. It was a pleasure. But you do have to be willing to be a
little flexible and put aside your ego for the common good.

I often find that once I can nail down the appropriate “tone” in a comedic work, things start to fall into place. How important is finding the right tone in your own work, and how on earth did you manage to keep a consistent tone with so many different writers on SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK?

Well, that is extremely important, especially when you work with
others. We started the project with a general idea of what we wanted
to do, and through trial and error, finally came up with a tone that
we were all happy with. It was pretty easy sticking with that tone
throughout the process of writing the book. We all just sort of fell
into it. And if one of us strayed from it, we would just tweak that
joke to make it more consistent. But, yes, finding that right tone is
a vital part of the process in writing any humor piece.

As a follow-up, do you ever sacrifice a joke to keep the appropriate tone (no matter how funny it is), or does a great joke trump consistency of tone?

There are definitely cases where a joke is not “pitch perfect” with
the rest of the jokes, but as long as they hold true to the
characters, then we kept it in. There was some margin for error–as
it’s not a serious sex book. Also, all of the characters are sort of
moronic and capable of saying anything. So that worked in our favor.
When you have stupid characters, you’re allowed more freedom.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals to put yourself in a comedic mindset? Say, putting on a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers, or chugging a half-gallon of cheap scotch?

No. Just booting up the computer, putting on headphones and wearing my
“DO NOT DISTURB” baseball cap.

And last, now that book is done and bestsellerdom is merely a technicality, what’s next for Mike Sacks? More work with the SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK team? Or do you have solo projects in mind?

I have a third book coming out in March 2011 from Tin House Books.
It’s a collection of 55 published short humor pieces from The New
Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s and other publications. It’s
called “Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reality.” After that, I’m free.
Free for what I don’t know yet, but I’ll be free. In the meantime,
write to me at mikebsacks(at)gmail(dot)com Or just send me a new “DO NOT

selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of the dark comedy THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE. Like all native Oregonians, Selwood was born in California. He enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…

mikesackslogoMike 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.

His first book, And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers About Their Craft, was released in Summer 2009. Some of those interviewed include: George Meyer, Harold Ramis, Al Jaffee, Buck Henry, Bob Odenkirk, Stephen Merchant, David Sedaris, Jack Handey, Robert Smigel, and Daniel Clowes.

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