Inside the Obsessive Minds of Comedy Writers
Mike Sacks interviews comedy writers, and the results are much more than funny.
Posted Jun 11, 2014
There's never been more interest in comedy than the present, and there isn't anyone providing more interesting information about comedy than Mike Sacks: a humorist whose 2009 book of interviews with comedy writers, And Here's the Kicker, was eagerly devoured by comedy fans and writers alike. (FYI, that book is being re-released with longer versions of the interviews.)
Sacks has followed up that book with Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers, which continues the trend of examining what it's like to write humor: professionally, creatively, and psychologically. Mike was nice enough to let me interview him by email.
Mark Peters: I loved And Here's The Kicker, your first book of interviews with comedy writers and humorists. Why do another one? What does Poking a Dead Frog add?
Mike Sacks: Thanks for the nice words. I never had any idea that Kicker, which came out in 2009, would become so popular. I only wrote it as an excuse to talk with my favorite comedy writers. There was no larger purpose than that. It took years to find a publisher, and was rejected about 25 times before it was finally accepted. Eventually it was bought by a friend of mine, John Warner, who worked at Writers Digest Books. Without John, it never would have seen the light of day.
So it was much easier to get this book published. There are a ton of great comedy writers out there, and I'm obsessive—I want to interview them all. I also wanted to put out a volume that contained advice that was tailored specifically to those wanting to become comedy writers. What's it like to write jokes for, say, the Oscars? What's the difference between writing jokes for TV and writing jokes for the web? Comedy writing is a mysterious world, but it doesn't have to be a total mystery. Anyone can do it. That doesn't mean you'll be a professional, necessarily, or a huge success, but anyone can at least give it a shot.
Another reason I wrote this new volume was to talk to a few older comedy writers who, unfortunately, might not be around for long. In particular, the amazing Peg Lynch, 97 years old and still going strong. She basically invented the first sitcom, called "Ethel and Albert." Very influential for "everyday" comedy, such as Seinfeld, The Office, and other shows. She's not too well known, but I'm hoping this book will change that. She's an amazing person, with an amazing career.
Also, since I wrote Kicker, there have been a lot of young comedy writers who have broken through and I wanted to talk to them about their experience.
MP: You interviewed a wide range of writers. Did you notice any qualities in common, say, between writers greatly separated by age? Besides the fact that these people all write comedy, do they share any traits?
MS: There are certainly common traits shared among a majority of comedy writers: depression, anxiety, and OCD. But I'm not sure that these traits aren't shared among the majority of carpenters, doctors, or electricians. It's maybe it’s just that we tend to hear about these certain traits from comedy writers. In fact, they never shut up about them, if only because they are good fodder for jokes.
There also seems to be an iconoclastic attitude among comedy writers, no matter the age. An "Us vs. Them" mentality, with the "Them" being the rich, the beautiful, and the well-put-together.
The one major difference I noticed between the elders and the youngsters is that comedy can now be studied in college. Comedy writers in the past had to wend their way through the world, almost as if they were carnies. There were no rules back then, no how-to books, no on-line classes, no websites devoted to comedy. I sometimes wonder if this affected the comedy in a different way; if the humor was different. There were certainly fewer pop-culture references back then, and more jokes devoted to life experiences.
MP: Since this interview is for Psychology Today, I should follow up on your point about comedy writers being obsessed with depression, anxiety, and OCD. I agree that such traits are definitely milked for humor, but did anyone mention if comedy had any therapeutic effect? Does crafting a bit about anxiety reduce anxiety? If so, I wonder if the stress of writing and/or performing counteracts the benefits. I don't know about you, but I often think of writing itself as a compulsive disorder.
MS: I think comedy has a therapeutic effect, but I also think that, at times, it has a damaging effect. Maybe "damaging" is the wrong word. I think that writing jokes and then receiving a positive reaction from these jokes produces a high. The problem is that if this high doesn't come along as often as necessary, one can suffer from depression. More and more jokes are needed just to remain stable. It's a very needy process. Dan Guterman, who has written for The Onion, Stephen Colbert, and Community, told me that, "Sometimes I wonder if I write compulsively because it's the most direct way I have of regulating my brain chemistry. It's all about overcoming a deficiency. Medication helps, but that hit of approval from an awesome joke or script can't be beat."
After writing my first book of interviews with comedy writers, And Here's the Kicker, it occurred to me that about 75% of the writers suffered from OCD. This percentage has held steady with the second book of interviews. I knew that there was a connection with depression when it came to comedy, but I had never heard of a connection with OCD. I reached out to Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation) who had never heard of such a thing. Truthfully, the only reason I asked these writers about OCD in the first place is that I, too, suffer from OCD.
Now, one of the things I learned after talking with successful writers of comedy is that they've all trained themselves to harness the energy of OCD into the act of writing. So, instead of being obsessive about licking light poles or making sure the stove has been turned off, they use this compulsiveness to sit down every day and write. And if they don't write, they're uncomfortable. I think that's a very positive way to approach this condition, and something that those who suffer from OCD (especially young sufferers) could perhaps learn from.
MP: After I read your first book of interviews, I checked out 2011’s Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason and was pleased to learn you don't just interview great comedy writers, but you are one. How has picking the brains of so many comedy writers influenced your own humor?
MS: In a few ways:
#1. It's important to experience as much life as possible. This can only help your comedy.
#2. It's okay to not always be completely happy with the writing life. Even the top writers aren't always happy (especially the top writers). So, if someone like Mel Brooks is not always content, it's okay for the rest of us to not be entirely content with our present situation.
#3. Write every day.
#4. Put your head down and just keep moving forward. Success comes from just working, not complaining or talking about writing.
#5. Read as much as possible.
#6. Just be nice. A lot is accomplished by just being a nice person.