Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks

Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers

Books Reviews
Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks

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.

Are they?

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.”

George Saunders, Terry Jones, Amy Poehler, Patton Oswalt, Daniel Clowes, Mike Schur, James L. Brooks, Paul Feig, Daniel Handler—comedy’s bright moonscape shines here, from the literary to the televised to the YouTubed.

But Sacks doesn’t just interview the trending names in comedy. His chat with 96-year-old Peg Lynch, the early- and mid-20th century radio and television writer who influenced the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, delights. At one point, she tries to recall a person she interviewed.

“Who was the baseball player who retired before his time? Gary Cooper played him in a movie.”

“Lou Gehrig?!” Sacks responds.

“Yes, I interviewed Lou Gehrig on the morning he received his results.”

You can’t blame her for not remembering—it was decades ago. And aside from that, Lynch reveals that she wrote more than 20,000 (20,000!) scripts for her radio and TV show, Ethel and Albert. Since then, a lot of water passed under the bridge, including her claims that General Foods attempted to sabotage the show.

“I’ve got stories to tell and I know where the bodies are buried,” she says.

Poking a Dead Frog also surprises as a how-to-get-in-the-business kind of book, a thread that holds valid entertainment value. Reading about how other comedy writers earned their gig is like perusing a horoscope: You find the parts that relate to you (“Hey, I listened to Steve Martin when I was a kid, too!”). By connection, you hope your future holds the same success. It almost seems cruel when Sacks introduces us to Megan Amram, who experienced the modern-day version of being discovered in a soda shop. Her comic tweets landed her a job writing for The Academy Awards, and now she works on the staff of Parks and Recreation.

Then there’s the interview with Peter Mehlman, a one-time freelance magazine writer who knew Larry David. In 1990, Mehlman happened upon the co-creator of Seinfeld while walking down a New York City street. David told Mehlman about his show, and asked if he had any funny pieces to submit. Through this bump-in, Mehlman went on to create some of the most memorable Seinfeld scripts, including those involving “shrinkage,” “yadda yadda yadda,” and “double-dipping.”

Amid these wild successes, we get insights into what is funny, why it is funny, and just how hard it is to write the perfect joke. Even the best of the best spend hours, days, weeks, obsessively and collectively working and reworking single lines. (Perhaps that’s how they get to be the best?)

If you have members of your family who dream of being a comedy writer, give them this book: It will either inspire them or make them walk away from that dream for good.

Sacks also reveals an undercurrent of frustration. These comic fighters scratch and claw for respect every day. They work sweatshop hours for one laugh (and a nice paycheck). They question their own importance. They fight depression and anxiety. They come to comparable conclusions about themselves and their own worth—that they have nothing else in the world that they’re qualified to do. Their lone talent? Making people laugh.

There’s something strangely affirming about this.

It also feels rewarding to find that some waters run deeper than you might imagine. An interview with Adam McKay, Will Ferrell’s writing partner and the director of some of the past decade’s goofiest (and most successful) comedies—Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers—takes an astonishingly intellectual turn when McKay reveals that Burgundy, Ricky Bobby and the buffoons in Step Brothers actually symbolize “the spiritual force that is behind the American decline.”

Of America, McKay says, “When you stop looking at reality, and you just start walking around like you’re the best, you don’t evolve. You’re stuck in amber.”

He goes on to admit that the majority of people who saw his movies never came close to acknowledging this grander theme.

Near the end of Poking a Dead Frog, Sacks talks to Mel Brooks. (By this point, Sacks’ ability to land the big fish feels earned, even if one senses in Sacks a charming nervous energy when chatting with the comic legend.) Many know Brooks as the writer-director of classics like The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Sacks, though, has a curiosity that opens people up to reveal small details of their lives—details they might consider extraneous. But to outsiders? We find it thrilling to read that one of the major influences in Brooks’s life and work is Nikolai Gogol, the 19th-century Russian surrealist writer. At first, one wants to say, “Gogol? Really?” Sacks essentially asks this question, and Brooks explains.

“Gogol had two amazing sides of him. One is simple, human, heartfelt. He had tremendous understanding of the human condition. And the other side is absolute fucking madness. … Gogol is not bound by the rules of reality, and yet he understands how the heart beats, why it beats. What death is. What love is.”

Understanding love, life, and death—that’s comedy.

Those who practice it, like soldiers, brave the inherent dangers. It’s heartening to know that Sacks marches along with them, poking them, and taking detailed notes.

Jamie Allen is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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