The list of well-known war correspondents runs long. Those who bravely document our collective violent means—and put their own lives on the line—turn famous in their own right. Hemingway, Herr, Amanpour, et al.
Those who write about comedy? Not so much. Because comedy is not war. Comedy is just … comedy. Those who practice it have long been relegated, if lucky, to “court jester” status of society. And court jesters aren’t worth writing about.
Of course, one might argue that if we shifted our priorities a little, if we paid more attention to what made us laugh—if we spent more time trying to make others laugh and less time trying to kill each other—a lot less people would die horrible deaths.
Just a theory.
So, okay, in that sense, comedy rules. The stuff that makes us laugh displays in us the most delightful and admirable characteristics of our humanity. Also, laughing just feels really good. We can all agree it’s one of the best three feelings in the world.
And sure, we know the Pattons and Napoleons and Joan of Arcs of comedy: C.K., Bruce, Silverman. But why don’t we know about those who write about them? Why aren’t comedy correspondents feted and living in Paris?
The truth is, not many people do write about comedy. Or if they do, they end up in the same position as most of us—failing to accurately comprehend, let alone crystallize, the magic of humor. (Confession: A school assignment once required this reviewer to explain what makes us laugh, and he conjured the idea of a feather locked inside us all, near the heart, tickling us when moved.)
All this is why we should all pay attention to Mike Sacks. If you need proof that the guy knows funny, understand the following: Sacks is one of the few people on this planet to actually get published by both perennially upstart humor site McSweeney’s Internet Tendency as well as The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” (in the actual magazine, the Iron Curtain of publishing). In humor writing, this is like, say, a hole in one. There should be an award.
Sacks also offers help. When not writing funny pieces, or working his day job as a staff writer at Vanity Fair, he dedicates his spare time working as one of our preeminent comedy correspondents. It’s a good thing, too, because many would argue that we have reached a Golden Age of Comedy, what with the Internet and TV and movies and satellite radio, combined with all the terrible things happening around us. In a metaphor stretched much too far, the comedic are storming beaches, and Sacks rides with the first wave, notebook in hand.
Sacks’s first book, And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft and the Industry (Writers Digest), was published in 2009. Bob Odenkirk, Harold Ramis, David Sedaris, George Meyer, Jack Handey, Todd Hanson and many others opened up to Sacks not just on what makes us laugh, but why they do what they do and how they got to where they are today. For “fans of comedy” (aren’t we all?), it was a voyeuristic peek into an insular world—and a statement that comedy, like most artistic pursuits, can be high-minded work, even if it involves poop jokes.
Now comes the follow-up, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers. A continuation of the conversation, an effort to understand what elicits the guffaw, an investigation of the comedic mind and how it works, advice for people who want to break into comedy—the joy in this book occurs when Sacks takes what’s funny seriously. He gives it the attention it deserves. (The title is a reference to an E.B. White quote about dissecting humor.)
As Sacks explains in the introduction, “This book is really an extension of my youthful attempts to contact those in the business whom I admired most. If there is a common trait among those I chose to interview for this book, it’s that each of these writers has always done it his or her own way and no one else’s.”
Poking a Dead Frog spans from radio to social media, from print to podcast, from TV to film. Sacks breaks the book down into feature-length interviews, “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge,” and “Pure, Hard-Core Advice.” He creates an unofficial, still-being-written history of comedy, complete with detailed backstories of each writer—which often start with said writer feeling out of place. We get happy endings. Or, at least, laughter.
Take Carol Kolb. With a self-described miserable childhood in Madison, Wisconsin, she eventually had a day job as a nurse’s aide at a psychiatric home (job requirements: cleaning poop, getting punched). Expression of her offbeat aesthetic, however, rescued her. At her Madison apartment, she created what she called the Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue, a genuine collection of toilet paper from around the world, labeled and everything. When she threw a party attended by Todd Hanson, a writer for the satirical news outlet The Onion, he took note.
Kolb went on to become one of the most influential writers at The Onion, with a flair for capturing the sad ethos of everyday America. Her contribution to the Onion issue published in the immediate wake of 9/11 remains one of the site’s most shared pieces: “Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake.”
Poking a Dead Frog presents inside looks at the creative processes of Saturday Night Live (James Downey) and The Colbert Report (Dan Guterman); SNL alum and rising Hollywood star Bill Hader contributes with his list of 200 movies every comedy writer should watch (200!); Henry Beard, who wrote “Bored of the Rings” back in the ‘60s, talks about co-creating National Lampoon, then burning out; and Roz Chast casts a hilariously gloomy pall over the world of a cartoonist for The New Yorker.
“How extensive is your backlog of unsold cartoons?” Sacks asks.
“Thousands and thousands,” Chast says. “It’s an ocean of rejection.”