In his new book Poking a Dead Frog: Interviews with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, Mike Sacks has done an invaluable service for anyone interested in enjoying and/or creating comedy. Sacks picks the brains of a huge range of comedy writers, including Twitter-launched Megan Amram, Anchorman director Adam McKay, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, The Onion’s Carol Kolb, and plenty more. If you love comedy, you need to buy this book. If you write comedy, you should probably buy two copies.
It seems appropriate to pick a Best Interview Ever for Mr. Sacks, who also interviewed a bevy of comedy writers in And Here’s the Kicker. There are great choices galore, but I can’t ignore his incredible conversation with 97-year-old Peg Lynch, whose radio and TV series Ethel and Albert was a predecessor to detail-obsessed shows such as Seinfeld. This interview isn’t just fascinating—it’s funny as hell in itself.
Like every interview Sacks does, this one includes useful info for comedy writers. While writing for radio and TV, Lynch learned some timeless lessons about how reality can trump jokes: “When I started, I didn’t write well. I tried too hard to be funny. I was trying too hard to write a Grace Allen type of character [the not-so-bright comedic foil to George Burns]. But it hit me eventually that I don’t have to try to be funny, for God’s sake. Life is funny!”
But this interview stands out because it’s full of outstanding anecdotes from an amazing life. Lynch spins tales of British actor Charles Laughton vomiting, a New Yorker cartoonist roaming her building naked, and JFK hitting on her. Apparently, the legendary man-slut-in-chief asked Lynch out to dinner—twice—but she had writing to do. As Sacks responds: “Now that’s a dedicated writer.”
Now go buy Poking a Dead Frog and learn something, for Thor’s sake.
I reckon picking an interview is a little bit of a cop-out for this column, so let me throw in an additional pick: Mike Sacks’ Best Humor Piece ever. In case you didn’t know, this guy is just as great a comedy writer as the folks he interviews, as seen in his collection Your Wildest Dreams… Within Reason.
Nearly every piece in this collection makes me laugh, but I’m particularly jealous I didn’t think of “The Three Laws of Robotics According to Isaac Asimov Plus Twenty-one According to Me.” This piece is full of important amendments such as “A robot must not make self-deprecating jokes with a fake foreign accent regarding its inability to bend over and touch its metallic toes.” Sacks is definitely a robot expert, because “What in the Hell Is That That Thing? FAQ” is an increasingly insane series of questions and answers about a disturbing robo-beast that would fit far better in a lair than a cubicle.
Speaking of cubicles, questions, and answers, all three relate to what I consider Sacks’ Best Humor Piece Ever: “Whoops!” Teddy Wayne discussed this piece in a New York Times column on humor pieces, summing it up as an answer to this question: “What if a corporate underling accidentally exposed the perverse fantasy world he’s created about his co-workers, in which they are his servants and he’s a talking horse, to the rest of his office?” That about sums it up, but it doesn’t do justice to Sacks’ writing.
This insanely ridiculous yet carefully crafted piece consists of a series of emails to coworkers following a typical office faux pas: hitting reply all. Usually, such a goof results in mere annoyance. In this case, the narrator of Sacks’ piece unwittingly unleashed an elaborate “fantasy kingdom” consisting of pictures and text of coworkers. As the emails progress—we never see replies to the narrator, but it’s implied that they are numerous and angry—more and more details come out, with elaborate explanations such as “’Hope Marks’ from the nurse’s office refuses to sleep with ‘Darryl Russell’ from security because Darryl is a centaur (see image #6) and Hope is a unicorn (image #3).” Sacks, through creating a character with a bizarre alternate reality, crafted a comedic alternate reality that is simultaneously on Mars and down to Earth.
Sacks’ interviews would be no less wonderful if the guy weren’t a funny writer himself, but I suspect it’s no coincidence that he is. My dog has fun playing with me, but it’s a pittance of fun compared to the Olympian level of fun he can have with another dog. Likewise, Sacks is able to hold his own with great comedy writers, drawing out insights and anecdotes, because he’s one of their tribe: a rare, wacky, neurotic, JFK-spurning tribe.